Senior Research Associate, The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies
Understanding North Korea’s Missile Tests
Since 2014, North Korea has dramatically altered its missile testing patterns, launching missiles much more frequently and from a variety of new locations. Recognizing the importance of understanding the proliferation implications of these patterns, the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) has created a database of every known North Korean missile launch.
The CNS database reveals more subtle changes than simply an increase in the number of missiles that North Korea has launched. The data reveals:
Taken together, these trends make the clear and disturbing point that North Korea has been conducting launch exercises, consistent with the regime’s probable intent to deploy nuclear weapons to missile units throughout the country.
North Korea’s totalitarian regime releases propaganda rather than facts about its missile capabilities. Analysts at CNS estimate the evolution of the regime’s true capabilities by locating every test site and examining open source evidence about the tests, from regime propaganda to satellite imagery.1 This information helps to determine the purpose of each launch, and how well developed each missile system is. For example, if North Korea only tests a missile at a site from which it conducts developmental tests, it is highly likely the missile remains purely under development. Tests elsewhere suggest North Korea is trying to achieve some other goal than seeing whether the missile works.
North Korea established the Tonghae Satellite Launching Ground, near Musudan-ri, as its first missile testing site in 1984. Tonghae was North Korea’s primary developmental test site for its first generation of ballistic missiles. Because North Korea doesn’t disclose the names and types of its missiles, outside analysts named them after nearby locations – the villages of No-dong, Taepo-dong, and Musudan. Of the fifteen known missile launches carried out under Kim Il Sung, all but one was conducted at Tonghae. At least one-third of these developmental tests, in which North Korea experimented with different designs and attempted to perfect its reverse-engineered missile technology, ended in catastrophic failure.2
Developmental testing of new missiles paused for four years after Kim Jong Il succeeded his father in 1994. Kim Jong Il restarted missile testing with an attempted Taepodong launch in 1998. The missile made it off the ground and over Japan before exploding spectacularly and splashing down into the Pacific. The immediate international outcry prompted talks between the United States and North Korea, which resulted in a ballistic missile testing moratorium.3
After abandoning the moratorium in 2006, North Korea resumed missile testing. By then, it had converted the Tonghae facility entirely into a space launch facility, which the regime used for two more space launch attempts in 2006 and 2009 (both of which failed). North Korea moved developmental testing of new missiles to a new site near the city of Wonsan, usually called Kittaeryong. Of the 16 rockets that North Korea launched during Kim Jong Il’s rule, only 3 were launched from Tonghae and all of these were space launches – in 1998, 2006 and 2009. All other launches during this period occurred from the Wonsan area. This shift in behavior can clearly be seen in the interactive below, which displays the test locations used by Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Un.
View as a PDF file.
North Korea subsequently moved space launches to a new launch center on North Korea’s west coast called Sohae. There are many reasons why North Korea might have shifted space launches from Tonghae to Sohae. Space launches from Tonghae flew over Japanese territory, which the Japanese public found provocative. The new location at Sohae enables North Korea to launch SLVs southward without raising serious overflight issues.
It is less clear why North Korea moved developmental testing of new missiles. Wonsan is far closer to North Korea’s capital, and the Kim family maintains a large residential compound there. While there has been construction at Tonghae over the past few years, the site has been dormant since 2009.
Today, most developmental testing still occurs in Wonsan – although this has begun to shift in recent months. Newer missiles such as the KN-11 (North Korea’s submarine-launched ballistic missile, or SLBM) were tested near the shipyard at Sinpo where North Korea constructs its ballistic missile submarines. A land-based version of this missile was also tested at Kusong, near the factory that makes its transporter erector launcher (TEL). The KN-11, being an SLBM, is probably tested at the submarine yard as a matter of convenience, while the land-based version was likely tested right after it rolled out of the nearby factory where it was constructed.
The CNS database makes it clear that even more significant changes to North Korea’s testing patterns under Kim Jong Un are occurring, as launches are now conducted all over North Korea rather than exclusively at conventional test sites. The strategic importance of this shift is immense.
Abandoning Tonghae in favor of sites near Sohae and Wonsan is one thing, but the vastly increased number of tests and test locations tells an important story. Why would Kim Jong Un drag his entourage all over the country to a wide array of different sites to watch tests when they could just go out to Wonsan for a few days, spend some time at Kim Jong Un’s pleasure palace, have a barbecue, and shoot off some missiles? The answer is that North Korea is training its missile units for nuclear war.
As North Korea has dramatically increased its missile tests, it has simultaneously ramped up its efforts to build an effective nuclear deterrent, conducting five nuclear tests to date. North Korea has claimed that the most recent test was to validate the design for the nuclear warhead that will arm the country’s ballistic missiles.4 The next step would be deploying the nuclear warheads on missiles, and that requires training the units responsible for launching them in a war.
North Korea’s most reliable missiles are short and medium range systems, its Nodongs and Scuds. 5 Since Kim Jong Un took power, North Korea has conducted 33 known launches of these missiles, of which only 2 launches are known to have failed (failure being defined as exploding during flight). These are the missiles that North Korea has been testing in the largest variety of locations, and such geographic diversity is completely unique to Scuds and Nodongs. The interactive below shows the difference in reliability between North Korea’s older and more reliable missiles and its newer missiles still under development.
View as a PDF file.
Although North Korea’s most reliable missiles can’t hit Washington, DC, they can hit all of South Korea and most of Japan, both of which house critical U.S. military bases and tens of thousands of U.S. troops. North Korea has repeatedly released statements and maps that make clear that these launches are exercises targeting U.S. forces in South Korea and Japan.
North Korea’s newer missiles, such as its Musudans, all work much less reliably than its Scuds and Nodongs and seem to have their own dedicated testing locations. Furthermore, North Korea tests newer missiles one at a time, even if multiple tests might occur in a single day as occurred with the Musudan on April 28 and June 22, 2016. In stark contrast, North Korea’s older and more reliable Scuds and Nodongs are frequently launched simultaneously, to mimic the conditions units would operate under when using the missiles in a war. The map below displays the multitude of locations where North Korea has tested its Scuds and Nodongs. Kim Jong Un often attends these exercises personally.
View as a PDF file.
Since January 1, 2016, North Korea has conducted 6 simultaneous or near simultaneous test launches of Nodongs and Scuds, with 16 missiles launched in total. This is not consistent with developmental testing behavior. Even North Korea is transparent about the point of these tests. Following a test on March 6, 2017, North Korea stated that the test involved a unit in the “Hwasong artillery units of the Korean People’s Army Strategic Rocket Force tasked to strike the bases of the U.S. imperialist aggressor forces in Japan.”6 North Korea even released pictures depicting Kim Jong Un examining a map showing the U.S. base the unit was tasked with striking. While North Korea is infamous for its outrageous propaganda, in this instance its actions line up fairly well with what it says it is doing.
The changes in North Korea’s testing behavior are consistent with an increasingly capable and dangerous long-range ballistic missile program. Although North Korea’s missile program originated with a few, often disparaged tests in an isolated corner of the country, it has evolved into an arsenal of delivery systems capable of deploying a credible nuclear threat. As North Korea’s most reliable missile units train for nuclear war, rapidly improving longer-range missiles remain under development.
This article is based on data found in the CNS North Korea Missile Test Database. Click here for an interactive version that enables users to examine and manipulate the data and trends.
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