North Korea's missile programme

  • 13 February 2017
  • From the section Asia

North Korea is believed to have more than 1,000 missiles of varying capabilities, including long-range missiles, which could one day strike the US.

Pyongyang's programme has progressed over the last few decades from tactical artillery rockets in the 1960s and 70s, to short­-range and medium-range ballistic missiles in the 1980s and 90s.

Systems capable of even greater ranges are now understood to be under research and development.

Most recently, North Korea has announced it is developing intercontinental-range missiles which could have the capability of hitting targets in the West.

Missile ranges

  • Short range: 1,000km or less
  • Medium range: 1,000-3,000km
  • Intermediate range: 3,000-5,500 km
  • Intercontinental range: Greater than 5,500km

Source: Federation of American Scientists

Short-range missiles

North Korea's modern missile programme began with Scuds, with its first batch reportedly coming via Egypt in 1976.

By 1984, it was building its own versions called Hwasongs.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Hwasong missiles were displayed in a military parade in 2012

It is believed to have a variety of these short-range missiles which could target neighbouring South Korea. Relations between the two Koreas are fraught and they remain, technically, in a state of war.

The Hwasong-5 and Hwasong-6, also known as Scud-B and C, have ranges of 300km and 500km respectively, according to the US Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

These missiles can deliver conventional warheads, but may also have biological, chemical and nuclear capabilities.

Both these missiles have been tested and deployed, and the Hwasong-6 has also been sold to Iran.

Medium-range missiles

North Korea went on to embark on a programme in the late 1980s to build a new medium-range missile, known as the Nodong, with a range of about 1,000km.

The missile is based on the Scud design, but is 50% larger and has a more powerful engine.

In an April 2016 analysis, the International Institute for Strategic Studies said the missiles were a "proven system which can hit all of South Korea and much of Japan".

It added that a variant displayed in October 2010 could possibly reach 1,600km, meaning it could hit US bases in Okinawa.

Nodongs are believed to have been test-fired in 2006, 2009, 2014 and 2016.

Intermediate-range missiles

Image copyright EPA
Image caption The Musudan missile could possibly hit Guam

North Korea has been developing Musudan missiles for several years, and most recently conducted several tests in 2016.

Estimates differ dramatically on its range, with Israeli intelligence putting it at 2,500km and the US Missile Defense Agency estimating about 3,200km. Other sources put its upper limit at 4,000km.

The lower range of the Musudan, also known as the Nodong-B or the Taepodong-X, will enable it to hit the whole of South Korea and Japan.

At its upper range it would be able to target US military bases on Guam. Its payload is unknown, but is estimated at 1.0 to 1.25 tonnes.

Additionally, North Korea says it tested a "surface-to-surface medium-to-long-range ballistic missile", the Pukguksong, in August 2016, fired from a submarine. A second was launched from land in February 2017.

Pyongyang said it used solid fuel, making it faster to deploy and launch. Details of its range are not yet known.

Image copyright (C) British Broadcasting Corporation

Multi-stage missiles

The Taepodong-1 - known as Paektusan-1 in North Korea - was the country's first multi-stage missile, test-flown in 1998 as a space launcher.

Independent think-tank the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) believes the first stage was a Nodong missile and the second stage a Hwasong-6.

It was followed by the Taepodong-2 - or Paektusan-2 - also a two to three-stage ballistic missile, but with significant advances. This has been flight tested several times in the past decade.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The latest Taepodong multi-stage missile has an intermediate range

Its range has been estimated at anything between 5,000 and 15,000km. The Center for Nonproliferation Studies puts the figure at a maximum estimated 6,000km.

North Korea refers to the space launcher version of the Taepodong-2 as Unha - Korean for galaxy - and describes it as a "carrier rocket". It was used successfully in February 2016 to launch a satellite.

Although space launches and missile launches follow slightly different trajectories and the rocket may be optimised for one purpose or the other, the basic technology used is the same. This includes the structure, engines and fuel.

If the Taepodong-2 was successfully launched and it reached its maximum estimated range, its increased power could put Australia and parts of the US, among other countries, within range.

Intercontinental ballistic missiles

North Korea is believed to be developing its longest-range missile, a road-mobile weapon which observers have dubbed the KN-08 or Hwasong-13.

One of the first signs of this development was in September 2016, when the country tested a new rocket engine which some said could power an intercontinental ballistic missile.

The US Pentagon believes North Korea has at least six KN-08s in its possession, which could be capable of reaching much of the United States.

North Korea is believed to have also developed an upgraded version called KN-14. Neither missile has been publicly tested before.

But in January 2017 there were signs of an imminent test, shortly after leader Kim Jong-un claimed that the country was in the "last stages" of developing an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Combined with previous claims that the country has miniaturised nuclear warheads, it has raised the possibility that North Korea is close to developing a long-range nuclear weapon, although experts have cast doubts on this given the lack of evidence.

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