Five Republican members of Congress raised concerns in November that North Korea is developing a road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), a capability that might allow it to protect its long-range missiles from being destroyed before they are used. However, some nongovernmental experts said such a system was very likely beyond North Korea’s current technical reach.
In a Nov. 17 letter to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, the lawmakers expressed “concern about new intelligence concerning foreign developments in long-range ballistic missile development, specifically ballistic missiles capable of attacking the United States.” Rep. Michael Turner (Ohio), who chairs the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, and four other members of the panel—Reps. Trent Franks (Ariz.), Doug Lamborn (Colo.), Mike Rogers (Ala.), and Mac Thornberry (Texas)—wrote the letter after their subcommittee received an intelligence briefing that week.
The legislators argued that the United States must increase missile defense spending against threats to the homeland, rather than focusing on regional missile threats.
The letter includes a June 4 quote from then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who told an audience in Singapore that, “with the continued development of long-range missiles and potentially a road-mobile [ICBM]…North Korea is in the process of becoming a direct threat to the United States.” Gates later said even more definitively in a Newsweek interview published June 21 that Pyongyang was developing such a capability, commenting, “I never would have dreamed [North Korea] would go road-mobile before testing a static ICBM.”
ICBMs have a range of more than 5,500 kilometers. Only two countries, China and Russia, currently field road-mobile ICBMs. Three others—France, the United Kingdom, and the United States—have an ICBM capability, but do not use road-mobile systems. North Korea has unsuccessfully tested ICBMs twice, launching them from large, static platforms.
Previously, publicly available U.S. intelligence assessments have noted North Korea’s ICBM development, but have not referenced a road-mobile ICBM. An annual CIA report to Congress last February on the proliferation of unconventional weapons said that North Korea was continuing to develop a mobile intermediate-range ballistic missile. The omission of any assessment of road-mobile ICBM development suggests that any related intelligence would be more recent.
Some experts on missile technology are skeptical of the potential for North Korea to develop a road-mobile ICBM with its current state of technology. Theodore Postol, former scientific adviser to the U.S. chief of naval operations, said in a Dec. 8 e-mail that “the possibility that the North Koreans could deploy a ‘realistically’ mobile ICBM is extremely remote.”
Postol said his assessment was based on two key technology limitations seen in North Korean missiles. The first is North Korea’s reliance on clustering its medium-range Nodong ballistic missile rocket motors, which “are unable to efficiently lift heavy payloads to high speed,” he said. The other factor he cited was the heaviness of the airframes that North Korea manufactures, which makes it more difficult to carry heavy payloads, such as nuclear weapons, long distances.
Most of North Korea’s missile program is based on decades-old Soviet SCUD missile technology, which has proven difficult for countries to scale up to longer-range systems. In 2009, however, North Korea unsuccessfully tested a three-stage rocket called the Taepo Dong-2, whose second stage is believed to be based on the Soviet SS-N-6 submarine-launched ballistic missile. The SS-N-6 is far more sophisticated than the SCUD-based design North Korea used for the rocket’s first stage.
Postol said that based on the technology North Korea is known to possess, the only way it could reduce the size and weight of an ICBM to fit on a road-mobile platform would be to cluster four SS-N-6 rocket motors for the missile’s first stage. “This task would be absolutely gigantic relative to anything else that we have observed being done by either Iran or North Korea,” taking several years and using up potentially limited SS-N-6 rocket motors during the development process, he said.
According to a December 2009 Department of State cable obtained by WikiLeaks and published by The Guardian newspaper, the United States concluded that North Korea could pursue three paths to an ICBM capability: using the Taepo Dong-2, developing a missile larger than the Taepo Dong-2 using a new launch facility North Korea has been building, or further developing its intermediate-range ballistic missile. That missile, which the United States calls the Musudan, is believed to be based on the SS-N-6.
Missiles understood to be the Musudan first publicly appeared in an October 2010 military parade in Pyongyang, but experts believe those missiles to have been mock-ups. North Korea has not tested the Musudan.
Reactor and Enrichment Progress
North Korea also appears to have made progress constructing an experimental light-water nuclear reactor first revealed last year, according to expert satellite imagery analysis and a North Korean Foreign Ministry statement. A Nov. 14 analysis by former International Atomic Energy Agency inspector Robert Kelley and Mehdi Sarram on the U.S.-Korea Institute Web site 38 North said that “significant progress has been made in building the reactor over the past year.” The assessment concluded, however, that operations were unlikely to begin for another two to three years.
The satellite imagery analysis appeared to offer some evidence for a Nov. 30 North Korean Foreign Ministry statement quoted by the official Korean Central News Agency as saying that the light-water reactor (LWR) construction and Pyongyang’s uranium-enrichment program are “progressing apace.”
South Korea and the United States have demanded that North Korea suspend both activities prior to the resumption of multilateral talks to demonstrate its commitment to denuclearization. Pyongyang has insisted that the talks begin first.
North Korea first publicly revealed that it was constructing an LWR, ostensibly to produce electricity, in November 2010. According its Nov. 30 Foreign Ministry statement, Pyongyang decided to build such a reactor because it had not received one as “promised” by other countries.
As part of a 1994 U.S.-North Korean denuclearization deal, Pyongyang was to receive two LWRs, but that agreement fell apart before much progress was made building them. Pyongyang has frequently raised the issue of receiving such reactors as part of negotiations on its nuclear weapons program.
Unlike North Korea’s five-megawatt research reactor, the LWR is not well suited to producing plutonium for nuclear weapons. However, the process used to produce fuel for the reactor, which involves enriching uranium, can be used to produce highly enriched uranium for weapons.
For several years, Pyongyang denied U.S. accusations that it was pursuing a uranium-enrichment program, first admitting that it had done so after abandoning multilateral nuclear talks in April 2009. It revealed an enrichment facility at its Yongbyon nuclear complex at the same time that it disclosed its LWR construction, but it is widely believed to have other enrichment plants elsewhere.
North Korean Leader Kim Jong Il Dies
After holding power for 17 years, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il died Dec. 17 “from a great mental and physical strain,” North Korean state media reported Dec. 19. He is to be succeeded by his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, who is believed to be about 28 years old. Preparations for the succession process appeared to begin in 2008 when the elder Kim suffered a stroke. The North Korean media highlighted the successor role that his son now is to play, with a Dec. 20 Korean Central News Agency report stating that “the Korean people now pledge themselves to remain true to the leadership of General Kim Jong Un.” Both North and South Korea raised their military alert level following news of Kim’s death.—PETER CRAIL