We know remarkably little about North Korea’s missiles

A bit of a mystery, really.
A bit of a mystery, really.
Image: Reuters/Korean Central News Agency
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For all the attention North Korea’s first launch of an ICBM is getting this week, you’d think we know every last detail about the actual weapon. In truth, much remains a worrying mystery about the rogue nation’s missiles.

On the morning of July 4, North Korea launched from its soil an intercontinental ballistic missile that traveled a modest distance horizontally—merely plunking into the Sea of Japan—but that took a very high trajectory, flying for about 40 minutes. With a lower trajectory, experts reckon, the missile could have reached Alaska, though not the mainland US.

The news produced global jitters—and an emergency session of the UN Security Council—just ahead of a two-day G20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany (July 7-8), and as Americans celebrated their Independence Day. (North Korea now routinely tests missiles around the time of important meetings.)

There are, of course, intelligence programs, and plenty of skilled and knowledgeable North Korea experts who scrutinize satellite photos to produce valuable nuggets of hard-to-glean information. But the nation is highly secretive. So what do and don’t we know?

Sending a missile halfway around the world is no small feat, and only a small group of nations have developed the technology: the US, the Soviet Union/Russia, China, France, Israel, India, and now North Korea.

But one point of an ICBM is that it can carry a heavy payload—namely, a nuclear warhead. It makes little sense to put conventional explosives atop an ICBM, because the destructive power of such a load wouldn’t be very high, making for an inefficient way to wage war. We simply don’t know how much weight the North Korean missile launched this week was carrying.

Not only should an ICBM be able to carry a heavy nuclear warhead, but that warhead should be able to survive reentry from space and still work. At this point, we don’t know if North Korea has the ability to miniaturize a nuclear warhead, fit it atop an ICBM, and have it come back from space still operational. The country has claimed (paywall) to have the ability to miniaturize a nuclear warhead, but doubts remain. We do know that North Korea has conducted a handful of stationary nuclear tests over the years. South Korea’s defense minister told lawmakers yesterday (July 5) that a sixth might be imminent. The world would be in for a new shock if North Korea’s next test involved a nuclear bomb attached to an ICBM.

The border situation for North Koreans.
Plenty of crossing points to the north.
Image: Quartz

“We’re tempting [North Korean leader] Kim Jong-un to put a nuclear warhead on a missile and launch it out over the Sea of Japan and detonate it,” Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, told Wired. “Do we really want that to happen? Because if he does that he’s proven they’ve miniaturized. People are going to recognize North Korea as a nuclear power.” 

Another issue is guidance—sending a missile precisely where you want it to go.

“Nobody really knows if they’ve managed to miniaturize the weapons to put on top of the missiles,” said Robert Kelly, an associate professor of international relations at Pusan National University in South Korea, told Quartz. He continued:

“It depends on miniaturization and guidance. The communist countries have traditionally not been good at guidance. That’s why the Soviets built gigantic missiles, because they didn’t know where they were going to land… My guess is that the North Koreans are not good at guidance. My guess is that when they start launching, a lot of them are just going to fall in the water.”

By contrast, the US and South Korea made a point of demonstrating their precision capabilities during drills conducted in response to the North’s latest test.

Satellites are among the ways missiles are guided to their targets. But we don’t know much about North Korea’s use of satellite navigation systems for its missiles. There’s been speculation that it taps into China’s GPS rival, called BeiDou, or even Russia’s Glonass system, since it doesn’t have its own such network. But we simply don’t know.

North Korea doesn’t even disclose the names and types of its missiles, so in some cases outside analysts have simply used the names of nearby villages to give missiles names.

Complicating matters, North Korea has been known to display fake missiles during military parades. Experts decided that what looked like ICBMs paraded in 2012 were not real, for instance. But US military experts confirmed that this week’s test was indeed an ICBM.

The Pentagon described the missile as a new type that “we’ve not seen before.”