Current Nuclear Capabilities of the DPRK

Erik Nolan Analysis Leave a Comment

After the deliberate timing of North Korea’s July 4th test of its likely ICBM candidate, the Hwasong-14 (HS-14), international observers were subject to another period of political posturing that hallmarked previous cycles of barb-trading with North Korea in the long development of its nuclear capability. The United States, sporting an untested yet boisterous chief diplomat in the form of Donald Trump, tussled with the DPRK’s supposition of being able to target the US mainland and iterated a response which seemed to impress even Kim Jong Un. Meanwhile, tensions slowly eased with the predictable arrival of China and Russia on the international scene. However, in light of recent missile tests from the reclusive country and subsequent responses by the international community, analysts are left somewhat underwhelmed by the North Korean’s nascent ICBM.

In the initial analysis of the HS-14’s launch was a serious consideration of its ability to satisfy the criteria of a true Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. Reaching an apogee of around 3,800 km (seven to nine times the altitude of the International Space Station), the HS-14’s range, when translated into a ballistic trajectory, did technically bring a large swath of the continental United States in range. Notably, however, projections of the HS-14’s potential range did not include D.C. or the continental east coast of the United States.  A strategic application the HS-14 would duly satisfy the criteria of an IRBM, and technically pass the 5,500 km threshold of an ICBM, but would fail to achieve the core element of North Korea’s nuclear strategy in lacking the ability to launch a decapitating strike on the United States and deliver any sizeable payload.

Analysts have also taken issue with several design aspects of the HS-14 which may vastly exaggerate North Korea’s nuclear abilities. At just an estimated 18 meters, the HS-14 does not measure up to traditional ICBMs such as the American Titan II (at 31.4 meters). Additionally, KCNA media shows the deployment of the missile from a TEL vehicle in its maiden launch, and a subsequent test of the HS-14 later that month takes place at night (no TEL visible). Both launches do not show any indication of support vehicles or fueling apparatuses. This would belie a level of sophistication in rocket design that is quite atypical of North Korean missile technology—the main hurdle being that liquid fueled rockets travelling on a TEL would be very vulnerable to damage from road conditions and terrain; launch footage and photographs of the HS-14’s exhaust confirm that it is in fact liquid fueled.

This potential damage to the body of the missile makes the prospect of a road-mobile, liquid fueled ICBM unappealing to most nuclear powers and has not comprised any significant part of a missile system in either the US or Russia (solid fuel is a different story). The necessary hours to transport, erect, fuel, and fire the HS-14 suggests that the North Korean media is showcasing too much sophistication to be credible and is engaging once again in propaganda.

Perhaps the most important design aspect of the HS-14 is the first stage engine of the missile. Immediate speculation and subsequent analysis by missile experts has indicated a very high likelihood of the HS-14’s boosting engine being a Soviet RD-250 imported from the Ukraine or Russia. Launch patterns of previous missiles demonstrate a gap of knowledge in the transition from an indigenous engine, such as the one used in the Musudan, to that of the HS-14’s. The probability is high that North Korean acquisition of such a well performing engine was facilitated through illicit channels and the government’s ties with the criminal underworld- on which it has relied for procuring nearly all of its strategic and technical developments in light of international sanctions. As Pyongyang pursues further testing with the HS-14, questions abound about the North Korean’s potential to acquire foreign-built engines vital to reaching satisfactory ranges pursuant to an effective deterrence. International sanctions responding to increased testing by North Korea almost guarantee that strides toward a proprietary engine or clone LPE will be taken by the regime going forward.

The HS-14 also underwhelms the potential for North Korean nuclear capability because any nuclear warhead attached on an HS-14 reentry vehicle would be very small in yield, underperforming, limiting the missiles current range, and generally outside the realm of practical application for a serious nuclear arsenal given the missiles ballistic capabilities.

More likely is an effort by the DPRK to produce an ICBM that is contained in a silo instead of the road-mobile HS-14. This would be keeping more in line with most histories of a nation’s nuclear development and subject to less scrutiny. North Korea’s Unha Space Launch Vehicle currently satisfies many of the criteria in their ICBM development and would be an excellent springboard from which to base an ICBM. The first stage uses a cluster of proprietary (Nodong) boost engines and steering (Vernier) engines, has demonstrated success in lifting heavy masses into orbit, and could have relative ease in switching from Kerosene fuel and IFRNA oxidizer to the more reliable UDMH and N2O4 seen in the recent Hwasong-14 tests. This suggests that any ICBM deployed by North Korea would rely heavily on its SLV for the boost stage, and from this reasoning a crossover between the HS-14 and Unha SLV produces an ICBM which could satisfy Pyongyang’s nuclear deterrence goals.

North Korean nuclear capability is still severely limited in several key aspects, mainly having to do with miniaturization and survivability of its nuclear warheads. If launched from available purpose-built missile platforms, any hypothetical RV would suffer from mediocre heat shielding, as current knowledge on North Korean RVs shows a blunt surface RV with ablation characteristics similar to early space-race command modules. These would be terribly inaccurate even at sub-ICBM ranges, with minimum CEP of one km to a maximum of over 30 km at extended ranges. SCUD-based guidance systems, the current repository of knowledge from which the DPRK has to expand, is woefully inadequate to be translated into a reliable ICBM that can accurately strike a target. Because of this, North Korean rocket scientists will likely once again look outwards to more reliable guidance systems rather than develop their own.

As it stands, the DPRK is still sufficiently underdeveloped enough in its nuclear program that they possess no deterrence to the United States or her allies. However, the continued history of threats and brinksmanship is a strategy from which only North Korea can benefit. If world leaders do not wish to see North Korea field a nuclear ICBM, then future policies will unfortunately have to incorporate more than mere words and economic sanctions from the UNSC (though this dynamic is fundamentally important to preserve).

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