In November 2017, North Korea conducted the last of many missile tests that year, launching the powerful Hwasong-15 into Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone. US Defense Secretary James Mattis acknowledged that this missile poses a worldwide threat and demonstrates the extent of North Korea’s progress in missile development. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, if Japanese reports on the test missile’s trajectory are correct, they indicate that the Hwasong-15 has sufficient range to hit “any part of the continental United States.” While there is still some debate over whether North Korea has the capability to deploy a nuclear warhead on this missile, reports suggest that, according to American and Japanese intelligence assessments, Pyongyang may be able to miniaturize a warhead fit for deployment.
The Hwasong-15 is considered to be one of the most potent missiles in North Korea’s three-decade-long history of ballistic missile development. The country’s missile program has progressed rapidly since reverse-engineering imported Scud missile systems in the mid-1980s. What has shocked Western leaders even more is North Korea’s ability to sustain such rapid development in both nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles despite several rounds of crippling sanctions. North Korea has already deployed short- and medium-range missile systems that are a serious threat to South Korea and Japan, while also making rapid advancements in intercontinental ballistic missiles. North Korea has a number of ICBMs currently under development, including the mobile-launched KN-08.
Recent developments in North Korea’s ballistic missile program present several challenges for the US administration. Whether or not Pyongyang has the ability to strike the United States, North Korea’s rapid technological advancement has made it clear that it will be a real threat in the near future if the upcoming talks between the United States and North Korea do not set Pyongyang on a new course. It is imperative for the United States to find new ways to denuclearize North Korea and halt its missile program. So far, sanctions and negotiations seem to have had little impact on North Korea’s ambitions. The reason: North Korea gets by with a little help from its friends. Without an agreement to begin denuclearization, or a more concentrated effort to enforce UN sanctions, North Korea’s missile development program will continue flourishing.
North Korea’s network of missile technology transactions. North Korea’s ballistic missile ambitions faced several failures in the late 1970s (owing to a lack of technological prowess). The North Koreans tried to replicate the designs of Russian- and Chinese-made short-range missiles, but did not succeed. This frustration led Pyongyang to take a more direct approach: acquiring ballistic missile capabilities by building a strategic relationship with Egypt. Egypt agreed to sell Soviet-built Scud-B missiles to North Korea at a time when Soviet relations with Pyongyang were cold. Several reports, including ones by the RAND Corporation and the US Army’s Strategic Studies Institute, suggest that North Korean engineers reverse-engineered the initial Scud-B shipments to produce indigenously manufactured replicas. This gave rise to the Hwasong-5, North Korea’s homegrown short-range ballistic missile.
Pyongyang has used missile technology transactions as a means to not only acquire technology, components, and missiles, but also to sell them as a way of supporting an under-developed economy. Pyongyang earns hard cash through missile sales to other countries. According to US government data, roughly 40 percent of the theatre missile systems supplied to the world between 1987 and 2009 were supplied by North Korea. Although Scud missiles are relatively crude, some experts find it astonishing that North Korea achieved these successes without technological help from foreign sources. North Korea has received some foreign support since the United Nations Security Council established wide-ranging sanctions, which could explain Pyongyang’s sustained missile development in recent years.
Pakistani interest in North Korea’s missile program. Pakistan and North Korea have nurtured a symbiotic relationship involving ballistic missiles and uranium enrichment for decades. This relationship began with Pakistan’s interest in the North Korean Nodong missile platform. Analysis of Pakistan’s missile, the Ghauri 1, has revealed striking resemblances between its design and the Nodong missile, making it apparent that most of the Ghauri missile is, in fact, a North Korean Nodong—with certain components changed. Reports also suggest that the early technology trading went both ways, with Pakistan giving technological assistance to Pyongyang for the development of the solid propellant technology for the Taepodong-1. Pakistani scientists were present at its first flight test in 1998.
More recently, American analyst Anders Corr observed that North Korea’s Hwasong-14 missile has a unique biconic warhead design—a sphere-cone structure used in re-entry vehicles—that is very similar to ones that Pakistan has used on its missiles. The warhead appears to be identical to one tested by Pakistan on its Ababeel missile in January 2017. Indian intelligence sources allege that China supplied this warhead to Pakistan, which then gave it to North Korea.
Pakistan is widely regarded to be the biggest contributor to the North Korean nuclear program. In a 2005 interview, Pakistan’s then-president Pervez Musharraf admitted that nuclear technology was sold to North Korea by entities within Pakistan. Reports suggest that Pakistan sold both technology and material to enable North Korea to build centrifuges for uranium enrichment. This could have been a form of repayment for the Nodong missile system.
Chinese involvement in North Korea’s missile program. There has been a long history of Chinese participation in the North Korean program, dating back to the joint development of China’s Dongfeng ballistic missile in the 1970s. Several such links have emerged over the years, and in 1999, US intelligence reportedly uncovered information that Chinese entities were selling specialty steel and other vital equipment—such as accelerometers and gyroscopes—intended for use in North Korea’s missile program. Around the same time, reports suggested that American intelligence had discovered deals through which Chinese companies were buying such technology from Russia with the purpose of selling it to Pyongyang. Intelligence reports from the US National Security Agency and the Director of Central Intelligence also suggested that Chinese entities were being used to route missile weapons technology, purchased from foreign entities, to North Korea from the late 1990s until mid-2002.
These suspicions of Chinese involvement resurfaced in 2012 during a military parade in Pyongyang, when a KN-08 ICBM was displayed atop a transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) that appeared to be manufactured in China. A 2013 report from a UN Panel of Experts found that the North Korean TEL matched the exact design of one sold by a Chinese state-run corporation, despite Security Council resolutions that expressly banned the transfer of TELs to North Korea.
Another indication of Chinese help was the launch of North Korea’s Kwangmyongsong-4 satellite by the Unha-3 rocket in February 2016. The South Korean Navy recovered rocket parts that landed in the Yellow Sea, and used them to gather intelligence on the advancement of North Korea’s missile program. A UN Panel of Experts report released in 2017 confirmed that several components of the rocket were foreign-made and were acquired through a route involving multiple Chinese entities that also had dual-use technology for ballistic missiles. This case was similar to the investigation into the 2012 launch of the Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite, which found that several electronic components inside the Unha-3 rocket launcher were made abroad and brought into North Korea via Chinese entities.
In another ballistic missile technology proliferation incident, in 2012, South Korea intercepted a ship intended for Syria that was carrying fine-grain graphite—required to create multiple components of ballistic missiles, including heat shields and parts of the thrust mechanism—which North Korea is prohibited from exporting under the sanctions regime. On further investigation, the ship was found to have departed from Tianjin in China, and the arrangements were made by a Chinese shipping company.
While China officially claims that it is fully in support of the United Nations sanctions on North Korea, it is difficult to understand how violations have gone undiscovered by China. When investigated by the UN Panel of Experts and confronted by the US media, China has often taken a defensive stand on the issue. Whether the violations are the result of mere complacency by China, or its tacit support of North Korea’s missile program, it is clear that no success can be achieved in trying to curb North Korea’s program without China enforcing sanctions.
Strengthening sanctions. It is evident that North Korea has benefited from foreign assistance in its missile program. The UN sanctions regime has not slowed down the progress of North Korea’s missile program, despite repeated calls for action by all member nations. Member countries must make a greater effort to ensure that sanctions are enforced, which will include strengthening border patrols and conducting stricter investigation of domestic entities to ensure that no trade of restricted items occurs. Until there is an agreement to dismantle North Korea’s ballistic missile program, or a more concentrated effort by all countries to stifle the program, it will continue to flourish in the hands of a state that has repeatedly shown its unwillingness to cooperate with international standards and commitments.