Jump to search Jump to main navigation Jump to main content Jump to footer navigation

Global Security Newswire

Daily News on Nuclear, Biological & Chemical Weapons, Terrorism and Related Issues

Produced by
NationalJournal logo

North Korea Won't Have Operational Mobile ICBM Without Testing: Engineer

By Rachel Oswald

Global Security Newswire

A North Korean KN-08 missile rolls through Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang during an April 2012 parade. Regardless of reports that the Stalinist state is deploying the purported road-mobile ICBM, there is no chance the missile can be considered operational without flight-testing, an aerospace engineer said on Friday (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder). A North Korean KN-08 missile rolls through Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang during an April 2012 parade. Regardless of reports that the Stalinist state is deploying the purported road-mobile ICBM, there is no chance the missile can be considered operational without flight-testing, an aerospace engineer said on Friday (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder).

WASHINGTON – There is no possibility that North Korea’s new mobile ICBM is operationally ready for use given its lack of flight-testing, an aerospace engineer said on Friday amid mounting U.S. expressions of concern about the missile.

It is “totally impossible” for Pyongyang to have attained a reliable military capability for the KN-08 ballistic missile without ever having launched it, North Korean missile forces expert Markus Schiller said in a telephone interview from Munich.

The Stalinist state displayed for the first time six of its road-mobile missiles at a military parade last April. Since that time there has been no other public information about the weapon, which the North has designated as the Hwasong-13. This leaves independent experts to make educated guesses about the status of the missile’s testing, production and deployment schedule and whether it is designed to carry nuclear warheads.

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel a week ago referred to the KN-08 in announcing the decision to deploy to Alaska 14 additional long-range interceptors for homeland missile defense

There was a prolonged buildup to previous flight tests of North Korea’s other strategic ballistic missile -- the stationary Taepodong 2 -- giving ample time for the United States and allied nations to prepare monitoring equipment. Though the KN-08’s mobile capability would probably give it a much shorter launch time frame, its flight trajectory would still light up radars throughout the region as well as military satellites, interviewed experts agreed.

There has been speculation in South Korea about possible recent engine tests for the KN-08. Even at this early stage, though, Pyongyang is apparently taking preliminary measures toward deploying the missile.

“Last April [North Korea] displayed what appears to be a [road-]mobile intercontinental ballistic missile,” U.S. National Intelligence Director James Clapper testified to a Senate panel on March 12. “We believe North Korea has already taken initial steps towards fielding this system, although it remains untested.”

At a March 15 Pentagon briefing, Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman Adm. James Winnefeld signaled the military believes the KN-08 is a real threat regardless of experts’ speculation that the six missiles displayed in the April 2012 parade were fakes.

“We believe the KN-08 probably does have the range to reach the United States,” he said, adding that the intelligence assessment of “where it exists and its lifetime” would remain classified.

Though a modified version of the liquid-fueled Taepodong 2 is the only North Korean missile to ever achieve a successful three-stage separation space launch, the United States is paying close attention to the KN-08. Unlike the Taepodong 2, the KN-08 is believed to be road-mobile and solid-fueled, making it harder to detect and destroy. It might also be more quickly launched if there is no need for the hour required for fueling liquid-fuel missiles.

After examining photographs taken of the KN-08s at the April parade, Schiller and colleague Robert Schmucker concluded the missile has three stages and appears designed for solid-fueling. Those characteristics suggest the missile would be intended to carry a 1-ton warhead approximately 6,200 miles.

However, Schiller and Schmucker detailed in a 2012 paper a number of technical flaws in the photographed KN-08s, including that “the missile shows characteristics of both solid-fueled and liquid-fueled propulsion technology.” Glaring design discrepancies such as these caused the analysts to conclude the displayed missiles were actually fabrications.

“There is no doubt that these missiles were mock-ups,” they wrote. “It remains unknown if they were designed this way to confuse foreign analysts, or if the designers simply did some sloppy work. The question is now if these mock-ups were modeled after a real design that is still hiding behind the curtain, or if the whole presentation was staged just for show.”

Since the KN-08 has not publicly been seen since last April, Schiller said it is impossible to know from open-source information whether North Korea has advanced its development of the missile.

Foreign missile experts and arms control analysts should not be so quick to underestimate the KN-08’s present capabilities, argued Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow on Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation. It is possible the missiles displayed at the parade were not fakes so much as a “working prototype for a precursor to an eventual system,” he said in a Wednesday interview.

“People have sort of dismissed the KN-08 as a threat. That fits into a longstanding pattern where many experts have underestimated North Korean missile capabilities,” Klingner said. Few analysts predicted that the North's December launch of the Unha 3 space rocket, which is a modified version of the Taepodong 2, would be successful, he added.

Klingner also cautioned against making assumptions on the North's capacity to master particular nuclear-weapon technologies even if there is no evidence of KN-08 test launches, he said. The United States developed its first atomic bomb for use in the 1940s after only one test and Israel is widely assumed to have an operational nuclear arsenal even though it is believed to have only carried out one atomic trial blast off the coast of South Africa, the Heritage analyst pointed out.

Former CIA analyst Fred Fleitz said he is skeptical of experts who assume the KN-08 is designed to carry nuclear warheads.  It would be a big “technological leap” for North Korea to acquire the technology for a solid-fueled ICBM warhead, he argued.

“I think whatever [nuclear bomb device] they have is very large and bulky and I don’t think they can put it in a missile right now," said Fleitz, now with the Langley Intelligence Group Network

Schiller said there are two possibilities for why North Korea is presenting the KN-08 as a ready-to-deploy system: “Either they are doing something magic and doing something that no one in the world has achieved” by attaining a military operational capability from a highly complicated weapon without ever having submitted it to full testing, “Or they are just doing a show. These are the two options, there is nothing in-between. And I tend to the second option.”

Note to our Readers

GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

NTI Analysis

  • 3D Missile Model Collection

    Dec. 3, 2014

    The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies has created a series of 3D models of ballistic and cruise missiles for the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

  • North Korean Ballistic Missile Models

    July 30, 2014

    This page contains interactive 3D missile models for North Korea. Users can drag the model by pressing and holding their mouse’s scroll wheel. They can zoom in and out on the model by rolling their scroll wheel up and down, and can orbit the model by clicking and dragging their left mouse button.

Country Profile

Flag of North Korea

North Korea

This article provides an overview of North Korea's historical and current policies relating to nuclear, chemical, biological and missile proliferation.

Learn More →