Breakthrough: North Korea’s Long Range Missile Launch

In December launch North Korea has proven cynics wrong and shown that it can successfully deploy a three-stage ICBM
February 7th, 2013

By Bruce E. Bechtol Jr. Ph.D. at Angelo State University.

Dr. Bruce E. Bechtol Jr. is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Angelo State University and the current President of the International Council on Korean Studies. His latest book, The Last Days of Kim Jong-il: The North Korean Threat in a Changing Era (Washington DC: Potomac Books) is scheduled for publication in April, 2013.

To date, North Korea has successfully manufactured, tested, deployed, and proliferated short range ballistic missiles (SRBMs – Scud B through D and the “Extended Range” Scud), medium range ballistic missiles (MRBMs – the No Dong series), and intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBMs – the Musudan – which was sold to Iran in 2005 and reportedly tested in 2006). But despite tests of the Taepodong 1 in 1998, and Taepodong 2 in 2006, 2009, and April of 2012, until very recently North Korea was unsuccessful in mastering the technology required for a three-stage ballistic missile capable of hitting Alaska, Hawaii, or perhaps even the continental United States. This all changed in December of 2012 – and those with an interest in the region should take note of this important advance in Pyongyang’s ballistic missile program.

By late November, 2012, the North Koreans were again showing signs that they intended to conduct a long-range missile test of the Taepodong system from their site at Tongchang-ni. The first two stages of the missile were imaged sitting near the launch site. In addition, several vehicles and fuel tanks were noted involved in activity that was assessed (correctly) as preparations for a test-launch. The Pentagon immediately began activating global missile defenses in close collaboration with South Korea and Japan. In early December, North Korean officials announced that a “satellite” launch would occur mid-month, and that issues with the April launch had been analyzed and fixed. The North Koreans announced later that the launch would occur between 10 and 22 December, and parts from the rocket would not be a danger to countries in the region or elsewhere. According to South Korean officials who were quoted in the press, the North Koreans may have used foreign scientists to help resolve some of the problems of previous long-range missile test launches – problems such as weak engine thrust. North Korea may have used smuggled technology and/or rogue scientists from the Ukraine and other former Soviet republics, to fix problems that had plagued previous test launches of their long-range ballistic missiles.

By December 3, 2012, North Korean technicians had placed the first of three stages of the Taepodong missile on the rocket pad. According to data released by North Korean officials, the missile’s first stage would fall into the Yellow Sea (West Sea), close to where the first stage was scheduled to fall from the missile during the April, 2012 launch. It was announced that the second stage of the missile would come down in the ocean about 190 kilometers east of the Philippines. U.S. and South Korean forces immediately increased their airborne and seaborne surveillance, including Aegis equipped ships and reconnaissance aircraft missions. By December 4, 2012, the second of three stages had been placed on the launch pad, and by December 5, all three stages had been placed on the pad. By December 6, the United States had deployed a floating, sea-based, “X-Band Radar” from Hawaii to the area, in order to track the North Korean test-launch. The large, sophisticated radar is one of the key components of the U.S. BMD system. By December 9, North Korea appeared to be experiencing “difficulties” with preparations for the launch. The North Koreans may have swapped out components of the missile that were on the launch pad during this time frame – and even announced that the launch might be delayed (which it apparently was not).

On December 12, 2012, North Korea once again conducted a test-launch of the Taepodong 2 missile system. This time the test-launch of a three-stage ballistic missile appears to have been successful – as the rocket went through all three of its stages and launched a small satellite into space. Despite the successful launch, many pundits were skeptical of the North Korean technology. The success of the satellite was called into question by many (though in my view the satellite means nothing – it is all about the success or failure of a three-stage ballistic missile platform), and some even called into question the “re-entry” capability of North Korea’s long-range missiles. I believe it should be pointed out that North Korea has had “re-entry” technology for its other ballistic missiles for more than 30 years now. Based on the fact that North Korea has “re-entry” technology for all of its other missiles, it is my assessment that Pyongyang likely also has this technology developed for the Taepodong platforms. At a press conference soon after the successful test-launch, White House spokesperson Jay Carney indicated that the North Koreans could still not hit the continental United States with a ballistic missile – though of course he did not mention Alaska or Hawaii.

In an interesting – though completely predictable development – several press sources revealed that an Iranian team arrived in North Korea several weeks before launch preparations began. The Iranians have observed all of the Taepodong test launches the North Koreans have conducted, and were almost certainly there to observe the launch to see if Tehran would purchase technology and/or actual missiles. Iran did not (at the time) have three-stage ballistic missile technology (None of Iran’s missiles or satellite platforms at the time had three-stage capability). Thus, any reports that Iran was there to “assist” North Korea with their launch can only be described as being written by those who had not done their research. When it comes to ballistic missiles, North Korea is the seller, and Iran is the buyer. There is no evidence to indicate any other possible assessment. In fact, according to press reports, Iran was not even informed of the launch until October of 2012.

There is much that can be learned from North Korea’s first successful test-launch of a three-stage ballistic missile. North Korea has now proven that it has the technology and the will to launch a three-stage missile capable of hitting targets in Alaska and Hawaii – and perhaps even the continental United States (depending on what one’s assessment is based on the data from the launch). North Korea has also shown that it is more than willing to proliferate this technology (and perhaps the actual missiles as well) by inviting a team of Iranians to observe the launch. There is no doubt that Tehran will pay a great deal of money for three-stage ballistic missile technology.

Even more was learned when South Korean experts were able to retrieve and analyze components of the rocket’s first stage after it it fell into the ocean during the launch on December 12. After examining what turned out to be the Taepodong 2 first stage in detail, experts reported several interesting facts. One of the experts reporting to the press after the missile components had been examined stated, “Because it used red fuming nitric acid as an oxidizer, which can be stored for a long time at normal temperature, the team concluded that (the rocket) was intended for testing (the North’s) ICBM technology, rather than developing a space launch vehicle.” The expert further stated, “It used four Nodong missile engines for the first stage booster, while utilizing one Skud missile engine to make the second stage propellant in a bid to save time and cost.” Perhaps among the most important things revealed during the analysis, was the data produced from a simulation, which showed (based on size and propellant) that the missile was assessed to have a capability of flying 10,000 kilometers carrying a warhead weighing 500 kilograms. A senior South Korean military official further confirmed the technology behind North Korea’s Taepodong program when he stated, “They efficiently developed a three-stage long-range missile by using their existing Rodong and Scud missile technology.”

North Korea has now proven that it can successfully launch a three-stage ICBM platform – despite using technology to do so that many consider extremely primitive. This capability should not be discounted. Those who were cynical of North Korea’s long-range ballistic missile capability did not hesitate to address past failures. Thus, this successful launch of a three-stage platform should be given the same attention. As North Korea continues to advance in its ballistic missile capabilities, policy makers and analysts would be wise to consider Pyongyang has proven over a period of many years to be willing to proliferate its missile technology to anyone who would buy it. There is no doubt that Iran falls into this category. Thus, as we move into 2013, it will be important to consider that the test launch of December 2012 likely advanced the ballistic missile ambitions of not one rogue nation, but two – North Korea and Iran.


This article originally appeared on the HRNK Blog on February 7, 2013.

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About the Author

Chad O'Carroll

Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.