North Korea Missile Update – 1998

On August 31, 1998, North Korea launched what was initially believed to be a two-stage Taepodong 1 (TD1) missile eastward over Japan. The first stage of the missile fell into international waters roughly 400 miles east of the launch site, and the second stage flew over Japanese territory, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean approximately 930 miles from the launch site.

North Korea soon announced that it had tested a three-stage space launcher which included the release of a satellite that the DPRK claimed orbited the Earth over 100 times. Subsequent analysis confirmed that the launch did indeed feature three stages, but the third stage was not successful and did not result in the launch of a satellite.

The launch of a two-stage TD1 missile had been anticipated by U.S. intelligence, which has been tracking North Korea’s progress toward an ICBM capability since the early 1990s. The TD1 is liquid fueled, reported to be roughly 25 meters tall, and has an estimated warhead capability of 3000 pounds. The two-stage missile is a significant step forward for North Korea’s missile program, which had not previously moved beyond single-stage rockets.

The Taepo-dong program, encompassing both the TD1 and the untested TD2 ballistic missile, was initiated in the early 1990s. Its intent was to improve the range of North Korea’s existing rockets, primarily the Scud C missile, and the Nodong, both of which are single-stage missiles. The TD1 appears to be constructed of a Nodong as a first stage and a Scud C as a second stage, whereas the TD2 is expected to couple a newly designed first stage with a Nodong as a second stage.

Evaluated as a test of a two-stage rocket, the August 31 launch appears to have been successful – both stages ignited and successfully separated. The range of the first stage could be greater than the splash-down point of the missile used in the test, with the North Koreans presumably restricting the distance the rocket flew in that instance to assure that it did not land in Japan. The second stage landed roughly 930 miles from the launch site. The missile’s total range is estimated to be 1500 km to 2000 km. The Nodong missile class which preceded the TD missiles had a range of approximately 1000 km.

While the third stage of the TD1 missile launched on August 31 failed, the attempt to launch a satellite into orbit is a substantial leap forward for North Korea’s missile program not anticipated by American intelligence analysts. The ability to launch a satellite into orbit brings a country close to ICBM capability. Should North Korea succeed in developing the TD2, it would have the ability to fly 4000-6000 km, which would make strikes at mainland Alaska and the Hawaiian isles a possibility. Intelligence sources estimate North Korea could flight-test the missile in 1998 and deploy it in a few years.

The launch of a three-stage North Korean rocket demonstrates two significant developments. First is the ability to implement stage separation procedures. North Korea had not previously tested two-stage rockets. American intelligence sources did not expect the North Koreans to attempt a test of a three-stage missile. Second was the use of solid fuel in the third stage, a technology North Korea was not known to possess. The appearance of solid fuel raises the question whether it was imported, and from whom.

New missile developments in North Korea are likely to spread elsewhere. The DPRK is a known missile and missile technology exporter to Iran, Syria and Pakistan. The Scud and Nodong programs have been partially funded by Iran in exchange for the delivery of missiles and the infrastructure to produce them. Iran tested a missile derived from North Korean technology in July. Pakistan, too, has been a recipient of North Korean exports, with North Korean technology and material having played a crucial role in the development of the Ghauri medium-range missile, a development of special concern in light of Pakistan’s recent nuclear weapon tests. Pakistan is also believed to have received production technology for the Ghauri. North Korea bluntly announced in June that it would continue to export its missiles, so any improvement in the DPRK’s missile technology is likely to filter into other weapons programs worldwide.