Since Kim Jong Un claimed, in his 2017 New Year’s address to the nation, that North Korea would soon test-fire an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), Pyongyang has launched a variety of missiles, some of which were displayed in an April military parade.
In late May in Seoul, NK News sat down with Uzi Rubin, founder and first director of the Israel Missile Defense Organization in the Israeli Ministry of Defense (MOD), to hear his views on how and why North Korea could accelerate and diversify its missiles this year – and the critical question of whether it will test an ICBM in the near future.
The timing was fitting: North Korea had just launched a short-range ballistic missile from Wonsan – its ninth test of the year and its third since the inauguration of South Korea’s new President, Moon Jae-in, on May 10.
But it is “useless” to try to predict when the North will test an ICBM, Rubin said: it could happen anytime from “next week” to “ten years.”
And all Pyongyang needs, he argued, is “enough to make a viable threat, because one hit has terrible consequences.”
Rubin also discussed the role of other countries, namely Iran, Pakistan, Russia and China, in the DPRK’s missile program – and whether North Korea has mastered the all-important re-entry technology needed to hit the mainland United States.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and readability
NK News: North Korea and Iran are known to have exchanged ballistic missile technology before. But, particularly taking into account the North’s recent missile tests, how much do you think Iran’s missile technologies impact the North’s missile development?
Uzi Rubin: I don’t think there is much connection now between Iran and North Korea. The Iranians used to receive North Korean missile technologies. You could see the supply of missiles from North Korea to Iran, but the operation concept was completely different.
Obviously, there was some help in manufacturing not only to the Iranians, much less known is the fact that they were also helping the Syrians and the Assad regime – they established missile factories in Syria. But beyond that, I don’t see much technological cooperation, except in one item: the space program.
There is a very clear similarity between the second generation of the space launchers in Iran and North Korea. There was what was called the Paektusan-1 (Taepodong-1) in 1998. It used the missiles which we now call Nodong or Rodong. The Iranian’s first generation is somewhat similar by using the same Rodong, but they call it the Shahab.
But you can see two different lines, two different teams of engineers thinking differently in the second generation. The big one is called Simorgh (Safir-2) in Iran. But it is not exactly the same, as the North Korean missile with three stages is bigger than the two-stage Iranian one.
“I don’t think there is much connection now between Iran and North Korea”
For the first stage, there are two features which are exactly the same. The diameter (2.4m) – which is like a fingerprint – and the power system are the same. Four Rodong engines tied together both in North Korea’s [Unha SLV] and in Iran’s [Simorgh SLV]. This cannot be a coincidence. In my mind, this is a joint program on propulsion – not a joint program on the missile; the missile is two sets of engineers working separately.
So, this is a limited technological cooperation. The North Koreans are the suppliers and the Iranians are the customers. Obviously, the North Koreans needed the money and I think the Iranian deal gave them a lot of money to go on with their missile business. But Iranians are very independent in their missile technology. At that time, they were more forward than North Korea.
When I was here three or four years ago, I stated that Iran is now more advanced in missile technology than North Korea in my opinion. But now I changed my mind; what I see is amazing – the North Koreans have reached the same level as Iran. Actually, in the case of the submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), it is ahead of Iran.
NK News: Then from your perspective, which country has the most influence on Pyongyang’s missile development: Russia, China, Iran or Pakistan?
Uzi Rubin: You see a lot of Russian inspiration but that is just inspiration, it doesn’t mean that there is Russian help. As for direct help, I don’t think Pakistan is inclined to help. Pakistan has their own industry, which they got from China.
Who is helping the North Koreans – Chinese or Russians? I don’t know. Russians are not prone today to help countries with technology. They are ready to sell as it is not the Soviet Union anymore, they want to make money. Their industries are government-owned but they are not giving things out like the times of Stalin and Khrushchev when it was free or for a nominal cost. Now you pay hard cash. So, I’m not sure whether the Russians are helping them.
“What I see is amazing – the North Koreans have reached the same level as Iran”
It is strange that the North Korean anti-missile system looks very much like the S-300 and 800km ballistic missile that looks very much like the SS-26 (Iskander). But to be honest, the South Koreans are using a space launcher which is Russian, so we wonder what kind of game the Russians are playing here too. So I don’t know who is doing what to whom.
But my bet is that if the North Koreans are getting help, it is from rogue Chinese entities. I don’t know how strongly China can control its own industry, I don’t know how much they want to control it. China is a big place and all those huge vehicles that carried the ICBM shouldn’t have been in Pyongyang and even the Chinese were very unhappy when they saw it.
But this isn’t something you can smuggle through the airport, this is an operation and some government has to close their eyes for this to cross the border. So maybe the Chinese are not controlling their defense industry that tightly. And maybe the North Koreans are very good at finding their way into those rogue entities and getting whatever they need, like installation materials.
So, it is mostly likely that they get it from China, not from Russia. Russia is much more tightly controlled. Today, nothing goes out of Russia without Putin saying so.
“If the North Koreans are getting help, it is from rogue Chinese entities”
NK News: When North Korean leader Kim Jong Un supervised the Hwasong-12 missile launch in mid-May, he said the missiles had been designed in a “North Korean-style,” calling it a “Juche weapon.” Do you think the claim to have self-manufactured the missile munitions is convincing?
Uzi Rubin: Yes, the North Koreans do everything by themselves. They are adamant about being completely independent. Their missile industry started from copying two missiles. It copied the Scud B (Soviet R17) imported from Egypt in the 90s, according to literature.
But when the Egyptians lost the support of the Soviet Union for maintaining those Scud missiles and needed spare parts, they sent one or two Scuds to the North so that they could disassemble, emulate and copy. So, the North produced the Hwasong-5 ballistic missile, and then they sold the Hwasong-5 to Iran because of the war with Iraq.
And then for the same reason, the Syrians sent them a Tochka (SS-21 Scarab), a short-range missile with a range of 120 km, because again they had lost the Soviet’s support and therefore needed someone to make the spare parts for them. So, the North Koreans copied it and that was the beginning of the solid-propellant line.
Now it is called the Toksa (KN-02, Viper) in North Korea. Toksa, with a range of 120 km, is a less advanced precision system than the KN-17. The KN-17 is more up to date from the technology point of view. So, they started with copying and then emulated on their own.
“The North Koreans do everything by themselves. They are adamant about being completely independent”
NK News: Is there any special reason why Pyongyang has sped up the development of the missile program and pursued diversification this year?
Uzi Rubin: The North Koreans had a lot of failures with the program. The program was not run well and, apparently, they had a shortage of technologies, materials, maybe manpower, and for years it went on slowly. And perhaps in order to assure against failures, they made many parallels, alternative designs for the same purpose. Sometimes it is done.
For instance, when the U.S. went into ICBM, they made the first-generation ICBM two times – Titan and Atlas. Why? Backup. If one fails, the other succeeds. So, in a situation where you have uncertainty in your capability, there is a tendency to go into backup programs. But when both of them are successful, you do a lot of testing on both systems. If it is only one system, there will be less testing. In this sense, maybe we are seeing the effect of a lot of backup programs maturing together now that the program has more capable manpower.
I also suspect, and I have no proof of this, that Kim Jong Un instituted a more liberal policy towards his scientific establishment. In the time of the Soviet-style Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, there was punishment for making mistakes like in the Soviet Union. Nothing can go wrong by itself, there is always sabotage.
I think that Kim Jong Un is accepting mistakes. Engineers can make mistakes, have failures and their head is not cut off – they are allowed to go on and on. Look at the Musudan, which is very unreliable but they tested it again and again, probably more than eight times, until it worked. I think in the old system, after two or three failures they would cut the head of the program manager and stop the program altogether.
Under Kim Jong Un, he allowed it to go on and on until they succeeded, which gives the engineers a lot of boost because they learn from their mistakes. If you cut their head off, and there comes a new guy, he can’t learn from the mistakes of the other one. If you make errors, you learn from them and you become a better engineer because you know what not to do.
So, I think he’s instituted a more liberal attitude towards his scientists and he is getting the benefits. He is now building more systems with more successes. I think the contribution of Kim Jong Un’s personality also could be decisive.
“I think that Kim Jong Un is accepting mistakes”
NK News: Kim Jong Un said in his New Year’s speech that the ICBM technology development is in its last stages. Under the current situation, do you believe that they will eventually succeed in developing the ICBM technology?
Uzi Rubin: They will eventually. But I have no idea when and I don’t want to go into when he will test it. It is useless. It could be next week, next month, next year or next ten years.
In a conventional deterrence game, you don’t have a weapon unless you have a reliable weapons system. But it is completely different in the nuclear game. It is not important what the reliability is. If there is a prospect that he can throw a nuclear bomb across the ocean, even at a reliability of one hundredth, it is enough to make a viable threat because one hit has terrible consequences.
It can create devastation in an American city so it is unacceptable damage. And when you are facing unacceptable damage, the question of how reliable the missile [is] is not important. It is not your problem, it is his problem. Therefore, once the North shows an ICBM which works, even if the reliability is terrible, the U.S. should start worrying.
And people that say that this is not a point of the war, that a point of war is when he makes ten tests and gets nine successes. I tell them to look at Sputnik. The Russians managed to put a satellite in space on the second attempt. But the minute that satellite went into space, the Americans didn’t worry about how many ICBMs they had. They knew the Russians had viable ICBM capability and from that point on, Russia became a viable nuclear threat. They didn’t wait for years until they had a reliable launcher. That’s the way it works in nuclear deterrence.
“Once the North shows an ICBM which works, even if the reliability is terrible, the U.S. should start worrying”
NK News: Pyongyang claimed that they had succeeded in re-entry technologies when conducting the test launch of the Hwasong-12 ballistic missile, whereas the South Korean military dismissed the claim. In your opinion, what are the chances that the North has mastered the technology?
Uzi Rubin: Re-entry can be done in a very primitive way. The Chinese, Western countries and Russia are using very sophisticated materials for re-entry. Why? In order to make it light, to save as much weight as possible for the payload because the weight of the thermal protection goes on the count of the payload. The heavier it is, the less payload you can carry. But if you are ready to have a heavy and inefficient re-entry technology, you can do it. The initial Chinese re-entry vehicles for ICBMs were made of wood.
There is no reason why not, wood is an excellent composite material and it is very ablative. When you put 1cm or 1.5cm or 2cm, you can protect your warhead. It is heavy, it is inefficient, but it works. So that shouldn’t stop the North Koreans. As I said, the country can make it using wood or fiberglass. It is a matter of efficiency. Making it from those very sophisticated composite materials is just a matter of optimization, not a matter of essence.
NK News: North Korea also said its submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) reached the final preparation stage for deployment last August. Do you believe that SLBM can be a threat to the U.S. and its allies?
Uzi Rubin: That is a very impressive achievement, technically. North Korea fired two of them already and the country shows that they can repeat the success. But the missile is just one part of a much bigger system. You need submarines, the bases, you need communication with the submarine to give orders to fire, which is dozens of kilometers away from you. This is still a problem.
And you also need a quiet submarine. Because if you have a noisy submarine, you can be detected as soon as you go out of the harbor and your submarine can be sunk very easily. So, unless you have a very quiet submarine that can evade tracking, you have nothing. The SLBM is useless unless it has the right submarine to carry it. So, the center of gravity of that program now is not the missile but the submarine. But I don’t know whether the North has a quiet submarine.
The submarine must be quite sizable because one missile can have trouble and is useless. You need at least two, but usually more than two missiles in order to make some impression. So, the North needs a big long-range submarine, they need to be 1500km away from the shore of your target. So the North needs a long range quiet submarine with more missiles.
“An SLBM is useless unless it has the right submarine to carry it”
The value of a submarine is coming around and firing from a different direction. Therefore, it is created against the South Korean allies, not against Seoul. It is Guam, Japan, and mainly the U.S. What I said about the ICBM doesn’t go for the SLBM. For the ICBM, Pyongyang needs one good firing missile that is survivable, for the SLBM the North has to show not just a missile and a viable submarine as well. If we don’t see a viable submarine, the North has no SLBM.
NK News: Then what is the North’s greatest achievement in developing the missiles so far?
Uzi Rubin: There are several breakthroughs. Launching a missile from underwater by itself to make the missile go out, breaches the surface of the water and ignite the engine is an achievement. It’s [a] very complicated process. And I also count solid-propellant and the KN-17 as a breakthrough.
Especially KN-17, a pin-point precision missile, is a military threat now with that kind of guidance. Classic ballistic missiles like the V-2 rocket in the Second World War or the Scud are all guided only during the boost phase. And afterward, they fly like stones. So, any mistake they make during the boost phase, it would also lead to a mistake in choosing a direction. And the mistake goes on and the missile would hit the other side instead of the target. But when you get pinpoint precision, you can hit not just a city like Seoul, as well as a power station or an airfield. The Iranians did it first. They showed a similar missile called Emad (Pillar) about two years ago. Precision missiles are all over the world including the U.S. Everybody makes and sells them. But here it was a breakthrough, they did it on their own.
The other breakthrough is the composite materials. The North showed the pictures of the PK-1 (Pukguksong-1) which has the composite material casing. This is also a big deal because it is making the casing much lighter, so it is advanced technology.
But there are still some areas where the North is still behind, but they are closing all the gaps and covering all the territories and bases from short range missiles. And in terms of the accuracy, they now have not only missiles but rockets with guidance systems. They showed it (Kwangmyongsong-4 Satellite) two years ago, but people didn’t pay attention to them because it is a small stuff.
But from short-range stuff to medium stuff to IRBM, to SLBM, to ICBM to space launch. It’s regular for a country like China, but it’s amazing for a country like North Korea. It is out of size. They are working on the scale of China with a population that is less than one percent of China – that is amazing.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: US Air Force
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