What Can North Korea’s Missiles Reach?

, former co-director | April 4, 2013, 11:37 pm EST
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Since North Korea’s missiles are in the news and seem to be generating confusion, I’m giving here my understanding of where these various systems stand, based in part of my modeling of their capabilities.

Fig. 1: Distances from North Korea-click to enlarge (Source: D Wright in Google Earth)

Scud missile (called Hwasong in North Korea):  tested, operational

Several variants of this missile exist with ranges of 300 to 500 kilometers (km) when carrying a 700 to 1000-kilogram (kg) warhead. That range would allow them to reach most of South Korea (see Figure 1). The size and mass of a North Korean nuclear weapon is not known, but it may be small enough to be carried by such a missile. Scuds are believed to have an accuracy of 0.5 to 1 km, which is too inaccurate to effectively attack military targets but could be used against a large target like a city. Scuds use liquid propellants and can be transported and launched from large trucks.

Nodong missile:  tested, operational

This missile is believed to be able to carry a 700 to1000 kg warhead to a range of 1,000 to 1,300 km, which would allow it to reach most of Japan (see Figure 1). It uses Scud-level rocket technology, and has an accuracy of several kilometers, again limiting its use to large targets like a city. It can be transported and launched from large trucks. Nodongs use liquid propellants and must be filled with fuel in the field once they have reached their launch position, a process that may take an hour or two. Nodongs have had several successful tests, but not enough to give North Korea a clear idea of how reliable they are.

Musudan missile:  not tested, not operational

North Korea has displayed this missile in parades but there are no known flight tests. While there have been reports that North Korea has put some of these missiles in the field on trucks, since North Korea has not test-launched a Musudan it is difficult to imagine that North Korea considers it operational. Moreover, speculation is that the Musudan uses a generation of missile engines and fuel more advanced than that used in the Nodong, but North Korea has not flight tested a missile using that technology. North Korea seems unlikely to fire one of its few nuclear warheads on an untested missile.

Estimates show that if the Musudan used this advanced technology it could carry a 700 to 1,000 kg warhead to a distance of about 3,000 km, which is too short to target Guam (see Figure 2). If instead it uses Scud-level technology, the range would be significantly less. Like the Nodong, it is carried on a mobile launcher and would be filled with liquid fuel in the field prior to launching. Its accuracy is likely several kilometers.

Taepo-Dong 2:  not tested, not operational

Taepo-Dong -2 is the name given to a missile based on the technology used in the Unha-3 space launcher that put a North Korean satellite in orbit in December 2012. An analysis based on the December launch and rocket parts recovered by South Korea shows that the first two large stages of that rocket use Scud-level technology. If the Unha were modified to carry a 700-1,000 kg warhead rather than a light satellite, the missile could have enough range to reach Alaska and possibly Hawaii, but might not be able to reach the continental U.S. (Figure 2).

A ballistic missile version of the Unha has not been tested. Because of its large size it is unlikely to be mobile, and instead would be assembled and launched from a large pad, as in the December Unha launch. Its accuracy would likely be many kilometers.

Fig. 2: Distances from North Korea–click to enlarge (Source: D Wright in Google Earth)

Posted in: Missiles and Missile Defense Tags: , ,

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  • Ra Hotu

    Nuclear proliferation is a deadly threat that has been allowed to get out of control and is now coming home to roost. The world order is moving toward the Unit-Veto system as predicted by Kaplan 50 years ago. What does that mean for you at home? Well….. everyone on the block will be the proud owner of nuclear WMD including criminal dynasties such as NK. All the furor about ballistic missiles misses the point. Picture an innocuous barge loaded with a Hiroshima size plutonium device cruising up the Potomac or the Hudson (or a river in your town). Picture Cheonan style deniability, anonymity and stealth. Only way to defuse this real and immediate danger is nuclear disarmament and interim ending of proliferation. What are the chances of that happening?

  • Anon2

    What is a KN-08 and how does it fit into this?

    If you had the number of stages of each missile it would be also add detail as to the complexity of the system. I believe that the multistage systems have better long range capacity, all other things being equal.

    • David Wright

      The KN-08 is a another missile that we have only seen in a parade, so we don’t know a lot about it or even if it is real–what was seen in the parade appear to be mock-ups, but there could be a real program behind them. It doesn’t look like it has the range to hit the US. I’m writing something on it that I hope to post over the weekend.

      • Anon2

        Shilling over on Jeffrey Lewis’s blog had some range estimates for KN-08 and for two stage Unha-3 with the third stage being replaced by a 1250 kg nuclear warhead. I think KN-08 is smaller and the mockup or whatever we saw on parade looked three stage. It was sure painted well and the photographer got it exactly under the portrait of Kim Il-Sung — perfect balance. To me it was clearly propaganda.

        The question is have the NKs flight tested enough of the KN-08 TEL transportable missile either in secret or using Unha-3 to know it would work. We are starting to go into the realm of probability where 10% might be right, and another 15% that they might have a working 1250 kg warhead, i.e. no one knows on our side without classified intel access (and even then). The probabilities are unfortunately >0% and hence the layered ABM response by the U.S.

        I’m looking forward to your KN-08 writeup. I guess I am a concerned scientist too.

  • @Ra Hotu “Only way to defuse this real and immediate danger is nuclear disarmament and interim ending of proliferation”

    Even if we ALL – good buys and bad guys – stopped proliferating nuclear arms right this second, there would be a massive amount of weaponry on the streets. To think that any or all world governments, terrorist organizations and rogue nations will or would take the weapons from their arsenal is complete fantasy.

    The weapons are a fact of life. Of that there can be no denial. We now live with this fact and the threat to mankind it brings. This is no different than the even greater threat of Transhumanism that is lurking in the shadows and ready to come into the light very soon.

    We must accept those things we can change and those we cannot and live our lives as free men dedicated to the preservation of our Liberty.

    I wish you luck @Ra Hotu and pray for our troops in the South of Korea – may God keep them and bless them and I thank them for their gallant service.

  • Mark G

    Here’s my concern with how the current administration is dealing with the NK crisis. These guys have deadly weapons pointed at all our allies in that part of Asia, their crazy leader has given the NK military orders or permission to fire the weapons, NK has moved the weapons and has them ready to fire. What are we waiting for? Please know I realize that it’s much more complicated to carry out a pre-emptive strike but all the bowling pins are up to hit. My main concern is what if Iran decides to posture themselves toward Israel the same way NK is toward our allies in that region. Is the current administration going to fly a couple of empty B52’s and stealth bombers over Tehran? No Israel would have already taken out Iran’s ability. These are the situations where Reagan, Bush and Bush type leadership would already brought some action to the table. I believe Obama has done some good in regards to Bin Laden and others but those raids and drone strikes were pretty calculated and for sure’s. We are losing the Worlds credibility by not acting in a more decisive way.

  • @Mark G says: Well there is a novel thought, because NK say’s they have the WMD to lob one way or the other, let’s go ahead and bomb the little punks back to the stone age.

    How about China and Russia step to the plate and tell their little Brat Pack ally to quit the finger pointing and attempted bullying before someone actually presses a button that wipes NK off the face of the earth with pinpoint precision. You can only run your mouth for so long before someone takes you up on your threats and punches you in the face, giving you a black eye.

  • Dano

    The real concern should be for thoughts of escalating into a world war. If South Korea and Japan were attacked the big question is how will China and Russia react? The US does not want to be seen as waging a war of aggression so it is conceivable that the onus of waging war would be upon the North Koreans. If the NK take that leap and decide they want war it is to be expected that South Korea and Japan would respond to an attack. What would the Chinese or Russians have to gain from that? I think, if anything, NK is trying to provoke an attack upon themselves to be portrayed as the victim.

  • Ron

    “North Korea seems unlikely to fire one of its few nuclear warheads on an untested missile.” Which is why they will fire a Chinese missile with plenty of testing that looks amazingly similar to the ‘untested’ NK models.

  • BoogaBooga

    But North Korea is not at war with Japan… NKorea hates the US but it would be suicide to attack Japan because the US would annihilate NKorea if they would even do such of an absurd thing…. and China made it clear that it wants nothing to do with NKorea’s recent retarded actions and shout outs.

  • Mike Vickers

    All of the above assumes a missile would be launched from North Korea.

    It wouldn’t seem too difficult to load a missile and nuclear warhead into cargo containers and onto a cargo ship then launch it from sea perhaps less than 200 miles offshore.

    Suddenly the limited range of their missile delivery systems matters little and the greater portion of the US. is within range.

    Seriously, moving a limited range weapon closer to the target is a fundamental military concept that has been around since the days of the catapult. It would be foolish to imagine North Korea has not considered various low tech. methods to move their weapons closer to us.

    • John Dame

      Mike and David,

      Is it really a stretch to think that an EMP hasn’t been discussed in the war room of the North Korean military?


      2005 hearing on threat of EMP

      John Dame, PharmD
      Omaha, Nebraska

      • Mike Vickers

        Nope, no stretch at all. Detonation 300 miles above Kansas and it’s lights out for years.

        But we once did great as a developing nation. Perhaps we could do it again?

    • j_kies

      While the visions of placing missiles onto vessels and sailing close to US targets prior to launch might be good fiction; we clearly arent getting our tax dollars worth if the US Navy and the intelligence folks aren’t tracking every ship leaving NK ports. Boarding such vessels to assure they meet USCG safety and pollution prevention requirements before they approach within range of the US coasts addresses such threats.