North Korea’s March Towards ICBM Capability

May 2017


North Korea has hundreds of medium and short-range ballistic missiles available for use against regional targets. In addition, it is developing submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). North Korea conducted several successful SLBM tests in 2016, already has tested several new missile systems in 2017, and may test an ICBM this year. It also is developing longer-range solid-fueled missiles, which are better suited for military purposes.

North Korea has been able to enhance its missile capabilities and transfer missile technology abroad despite international sanctions against its WMD programs. Such defiance is possible due to a mature domestic missile production establishment, a procurement/proliferation network spread throughout the world, and inadequate sanctions enforcement. This report surveys recent ballistic missile tests by Pyongyang, how these tests affect North Korea’s ability to deliver nuclear weapons, the sanctions that have been imposed in response to missile progress, and North Korea’s ongoing missile-related exports to Iran and Syria.

Missiles and Satellite Launchers

Short-range systems

The nuclear-capable Scud short-range ballistic missile is the oldest in North Korea’s arsenal. It dates back to the early 1980s, when it was acquired from Egypt. Since then, Pyongyang has produced its own versions of the Scud B and Scud C systems. The Scud B has an estimated range of 300 km, while the Scud C has an estimated range of 500 km. North Korea has also developed an extended-range version of the Scud B, designated by U.S. intelligence as the Scud ER. This missile has a range of 700-995 km. The Scud is a liquid-fueled missile, first developed by the Soviet Union.

North Korea’s arsenal also includes a number of shorter range nuclear-capable missiles, such as the KN-02 (Toksa). This road-mobile, solid-fueled missile is more accurate and has quicker deployment time than the liquid-fueled Scuds. The range of the original version of the KN-02 is 120 km. North Korea has an enhanced version of this missile, reportedly designated the KN-10, which can travel distances of up to 220 km.

North Korea also has another short-range system, a 300-mm multiple launch rocket (MLRS), which was tested in March 2016. This system may have been deployed at the end of 2016. It is not clear if MLRS will carry nuclear warheads, although it does resemble Pakistan’s nuclear-capable Nasr (Hatf-IX) rocket system.

At the annual military parade in Pyongyang in April 2017, which marks the birthday of late founder Kim Il Sung, North Korea displayed a new short-range missile, similar to the Scud, on a tracked vehicle. This missile, which is believed to be liquid-fueled, is equipped with fins on the nosecone, which would improve its accuracy. The off road capability of the tracked vehicles also makes the missile easier to conceal from preemptive strikes (although it is not known if this missile is nuclear-capable).

Medium/Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missiles

Currently, North Korea’s longest-range deployed ballistic missile is the medium-range liquid-fueled Nodong, which is based on Scud technology. While estimates of the number of Nodong missiles deployed are not available in open sources, the U.S. Department of Defense assessed in 2013 that North Korea had fewer than 50 launchers deployed for the Nodong. With a range of 1,250-1,300 km, this nuclear-capable, road-mobile missile is capable of reaching all of South Korea and parts of Japan. It is estimated to have a payload capacity of 700-750 kg. North Korea has conducted multiple tests of this missile in recent years, often in salvo mode.

In March 2016, North Korea conducted a ground test of a solid-fueled motor that analysts assess may be for the upper stage of a medium-range ballistic missile. Such a missile could one day replace the Nodong. Solid-fueled missiles are preferable because they are easier to conceal and take less time to prepare for launch than liquid-fueled types such as the Nodong.

The Musudan (Hwasong-10) intermediate-range ballistic missile underwent its first series of tests in 2016, with eight tests conducted that year. However, only one test, which was conducted in June, was successful. The Musudan is a single-stage road-mobile missile equipped with a liquid-fueled engine. It is believed to be derived from the Soviet SS-N-6 SLBM. It has an estimated range of 2,500-4,000 km, bringing U.S. bases in Guam and Okinawa within striking distance, and a payload capacity of 500-1,000 kg. Analysts at 38 North, however, assess that the missile’s range is only about 2,100 km with a nuclear payload. The difficulties Pyongyang has had in testing the Musudan show that more work is needed before it can be deployed.

Hwasong-12, May 2017 (Courtesy: Rodung Sinmun)

In May 2017, North Korea conducted the first test of the nuclear-capable Hwasong-12, which was first displayed one month earlier at an annual military parade. A single-stage, liquid-fueled intermediate-range ballistic missile, the Hwasong-12 flew 787 km during the test, reaching a maximum altitude of over 2,000 km over a flight time of approximately 30 minutes, before landing in the Sea of Japan. Because it was launched in a highly lofted trajectory, the range achieved during the test was likely much lower than the potential range of this missile over a standard trajectory, which could exceed 4,000 km.  Pictures released by state media prior to the launch showed the missile on a wheeled transporter, although it is not clear if it was fired from that vehicle. Analysts assess that the Hwasong-12 could be capable of targeting Alaska, in addition to U.S. bases in Guam and Okinawa. This missile will enhance North Korea’s ability to hit regional targets, and brings it a step closer to being able to target the U.S. mainland.

Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles and Land-Based Variant

Pyongyang has made progress in recent years in developing the KN-11 (Pukkuksong-1) SLBM, which is a two-stage missile. While range estimates vary, analysts reportedly set a range of nearly 450 km with a 1.5 ton payload, and over 600 km (enough to cover all of South Korea) with a 1 ton payload.

According to the U.N. Panel of Experts, North Korea began work on an SLBM as early as 2012. In May 2015, it conducted a missile ejection test from a submerged platform. Since then, Pyongyang has conducted a series of SLBM test launches.

The initial design of the KN-11, which is believed to have been based on the Soviet SS-N-6/R-27 SLBM, used liquid fuel. North Korea later redesigned the missile. The liquid-fueled engine was replaced with one using solid fuel, which is better suited for deployment on a submarine, while maintaining an exterior similar to the original. The first sea-based test of the KN-11 using solid fuel, which was conducted in April 2016, flew approximately 30 km. During a test of the solid-fueled KN-11 conducted in August of that year the missile flew 500 km before landing in the Sea of Japan, reportedly within Japan’s air defense identification zone.

North Korea is also building ballistic missile submarines at Sinpo shipyard. Sinpo houses North Korea’s only complete ballistic missile submarine, referred to as Gorae-class.

North Korea’s relative success with the KN-11 may have led to its decision to prioritize the development of a land-based variant. This new missile, known as the KN-15 (Pukkuksong-2), was tested for the first time in February 2017 and for the second time in May 2017. The KN-15 is a medium-range road-mobile, solid-fueled missile. In the February test, the missile flew approximately 500 km before landing in the Sea of Japan. Analysts assess that the missile has a range of roughly 1,250 km, although that range could be much shorter with a nuclear payload. After its most recent test, Pyongyang announced that the missile is ready for deployment and serial production.

Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles

North Korea displayed a new road-mobile ICBM (likely a mockup) during the annual military parade in April 2012. The missile is designated as KN-08 (Hwasong-13). It is a three-stage, liquid-fueled missile with a range of 11,500 km with a 500 kg warhead, theoretically capable of reaching most of the United States mainland.

In October 2015, North Korea displayed four modified KN-08 missiles during a military parade. This version has a reconfigured nosecone and is shorter in length when compared to the original. This modified version is referred to alternately as the KN-14 or the KN-08 Mod 2. It is a liquid-fueled missile assessed to be two stages and to have a 10,000 km range with a 500 kg warhead.

North Korea has made strides over the past several years in ICBM development. It is believed to have conducted a series of engine tests for the KN-08 in 2014. Then in April 2016, Pyongyang tested a “new type of high power engine” for the first stage of an ICBM. Analysts assess that the unit was a pair of liquid engines intended for the KN-08 or KN-14.

At the April 2017 parade, North Korea displayed two new canistered ICBM designs. They were rolled out on transporter erector launchers (TELs) capable of traveling on unpaved roads. The first design resembles Soviet and Chinese ICBMs, and is believed to be a variant of the KN-14. The second is believed to be another variant of the KN-11 SLBM, known as the Pukkuksong-3, a solid-fueled missile that uses cold launch technology. It is not clear how far along Pyongyang is in the development of these new technologies. But once deployed, the incorporation of canisters and cold launch systems will improve the survivability of North Korea’s ICBMs and shorten response time.

Recent statements by North Korean officials, including leader Kim Jong Un, indicate that the regime may test an ICBM sometime in 2017. However, North Korea must still master reentry vehicle technology, which is a critical component of a reliable ICBM.

Satellite Launch Vehicles

North Korea is progressing steadily in its development of satellite launchers. In December 2012, it successfully placed a satellite into orbit for the first time. The satellite was launched aboard the Taepodong-2 (Unha-3) rocket. Pyongyang successfully placed a second satellite into space in February 2016, reportedly using a rocket with an even longer range. The Taepodong-2 (TD-2) is liquid-fueled, using Scud and Nodong engines, and can be equipped with either two or three stages. North Korea tested a new, large rocket engine in September 2016, and another in March 2017. Analysts assess that these engines also use liquid fuel, and that the engine tested in September will likely be used for satellite launchers. U.S. officials told CNN, however, that the March test was part of a series of tests of engines that could eventually be used in an ICBM. The engine from the March test was also reportedly used in the Hwasong-12 launch in May 2017.

If the TD-2 were to be reconfigured as an ICBM, it could have a range of 10,000-15,000 km with a 500-1,000 kg warhead.

Warhead Miniaturization

Kim Jong Un announced in March 2016 that his country has successfully developed a miniaturized nuclear warhead capable of being mounted on a ballistic missile. Pyongyang also claimed that it confirmed its reentry vehicle capability in the May 2017 launch of the Hwasong-12, although that has not been confirmed. While Washington is skeptical of Pyongyang’s miniaturization claims, in March 2016 the head of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) informed Congress that U.S. forces operate under the assumption that North Korea is capable of miniaturizing a nuclear warhead and mounting it onto an ICBM. He also assessed that North Korea has an ICBM technically capable of reaching the United States and Canada. He acknowledged, however, that if such a warhead were mated with an ICBM, the weapon’s reliability would be very low.

Procurement Network

Despite international sanctions, North Korea continues to procure items for its missile program from abroad. Korea Tangun Trading Corporation, a subsidiary of the Second Academy of Natural Sciences, oversees Pyongyang’s WMD-related procurements. Tangun was sanctioned by the Security Council in 2009.

North Korea uses shell companies all over the world to procure sensitive material for its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. This evasion technique is regularly employed by North Korea’s shipping sector. In 2014, Pyongyang’s Ocean Maritime Management Company (OMM) was sanctioned by the Security Council for its role in an illicit shipment of weapons from Cuba to North Korea. Prior to sanctions, OMM was one of North Korea’s largest shipping companies. Since then, it has transferred control of its fleet to an elaborate network of front companies scattered around the world, and has also renamed most of its vessels in an attempt to circumvent international sanctions. In addition, North Korea is believed to use embedded agents in foreign companies and as diplomatic personnel.

Private Chinese companies in particular are a source of sensitive missile technology. In 2015, a company based in Shenyang reportedly supplied North Korea with milling machines that can be used to manufacture missile components. In addition, North Korea is believed to have converted six lumber transporters supplied to it by a Chinese company in 2011 into TELs for ballistic missiles. Another Chinese company supplied Pyongyang with the truck used to transport the KN-11 SLBM in the annual military parade in April 2017. Also at the parade, one of the new ICBMs was reportedly rolled out on a vehicle jointly developed by a Russian and a North Korean company. The vehicle was later converted into a TEL by Pyongyang.

Components from the former Soviet Union, China, South Korea, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States were found in the debris from the December 2012 and February 2016 launches of the TD-2.  These items, many of which are un-restricted, included transmitters, electric cables, camera electromagnetic interference (EMI) filters, field programmable gate arrays, frequency converters, and a video decoder. These products are often imported via China or Taiwan.

These findings indicate that North Korea is able to build missiles without outside assistance, while it continues to rely on foreign sources for raw materials and technology. North Korean banks support illicit procurements as well, by providing financial services to blacklisted entities and handling money related to WMD programs.


In response to Pyongyang’s refusal to cease its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, the international community has imposed increasingly severe sanctions. In 2006, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1695 (2006), which requires U.N. member states to block the sale to North Korea of materials that could be used in its ballistic missile program. Later that year, after the first nuclear test, the Security Council passed resolution 1718 (2006), imposing a range of sanctions, including prohibitions on the import to or export from North Korea of battle tanks, heavy artillery, combat aircraft systems, warships, items applicable to its nuclear or ballistic programs, and luxury goods. Since then, the Security Council has passed several additional rounds of sanctions.

The latest round of sanctions was imposed in November 2016 in response to the September nuclear test. Resolution 2321 (2016) places additional restrictions on North Korea’s access to the international banking system and dual-use and luxury items. The resolution places a cap on North Korea’s annual coal exports (its largest source of revenue), limits the number of bank accounts North Korean diplomatic/consular facilities and personnel can hold, prohibits North Korea’s export of certain minerals, and requires member states to “seize and dispose” restricted items bound for North Korea. It also places restrictions on North Korea’s shipping sector, requiring the de-registering of North Korean vessels and preventing access to insurance.

The Security Council resolutions additionally impose financial and travel restrictions against organizations and individuals connected to North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. To date, 39 individuals and 42 organizations have been designated by the Security Council since North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006.

These measures have targeted some of the main entities in charge of North Korea’s missile program. For example, the Munitions Industry Department, sanctioned by the Security Council in March 2016, develops the KN-08, and oversaw development of the TD-2. This department also oversees other entities involved in the missile program, including the Second Economic Committee and the Second Academy of Natural Sciences. The Second Economic Committee, also sanctioned in March 2016, oversees the production of North Korea’s ballistic missiles. The Second Academy, which was sanctioned by the Security Council in March 2013, oversees missile research and development. The Security Council has also targeted the Korean Committee for Space Technology (aka National Aerospace Development Administration), Pyongyang’s official space agency. This entity oversees the development of satellite launchers and carrier rockets.

Other important entities have yet to be targeted by the Security Council. One example is the Strategic Rocket Force Command. Since its unveiling in 2012, the Command has conducted numerous ballistic missile tests, including tests of Scuds and the Nodong. In addition, Korea Ryonhap (Yonhap) Trading Corporation, a Second Economic Committee subsidiary, has reportedly overseen the acquisition of technology for missile development and continues to trade in missile-related metals.

The following banks and financial institutions have also been sanctioned by the Security Council: Amroggang Development Banking Corporation, Bank of East Land, Daedong Credit Bank, Korea Kwangsong Banking Corporation, Ilsim International Bank, Korea Daesong Bank, Korea United Development Bank, and Tanchon Commercial Bank.

In recent months, Japan, the European Union, South Korea, and the United States have sought to increase pressure on Pyongyang by implementing or expanding autonomous sanctions. These measures further restrict North Korea’s access to foreign goods and currency.

International sanctions have been the main tool used to curtail Pyongyang’s nuclear weapon and ballistic missile efforts, but have had limited impact.  This is due in part to weak enforcement by China, North Korea’s largest trading partner and transit point for most of its WMD-related material. Recent developments suggest that this may be changing. In February 2017, Beijing reportedly announced that it will suspend all imports of coal from North Korea until the end of the year. In addition, it recently released a comprehensive list of dual-use products prohibited from export to North Korea.

Proliferation to Other Countries

North Korea also is a supplier of ballistic missile-related technology, in particular for Iran and Syria. The key organizations involved in this illicit supply network are Tanchon Commerical Bank (mentioned above), Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation (KOMID) (which is directed by the Second Economic Committee), Leader (Hong Kong) International, and Green Pine Associated Corporation. These entities have all been sanctioned by the Security Council. Green Pine, which produces submarines and missile systems, took over many of KOMID’s activities after the latter was sanctioned in 2009. Green Pine is now responsible for approximately half of North Korea’s weapons-related exports. According to the U.N. Panel of Experts, this entity operates a network of front companies based primarily in China.


According to the U.S. State Department, Pyongyang started exporting complete Scud missile systems to Tehran in the late 1980s. Missile-related collaboration has continued ever since. Iran’s Shahab-3 missile, for example, is based on the Nodong. Pyongyang collaborates with Tehran’s key missile-related entities in the development of ballistic missile technology, including the Shahid Hemmat Industrial Group (SHIG). North Korea supplies Iran with ballistic missile-related items, including valves, electronics, measuring equipment for missile tests, and likely jet vanes for ballistic missiles. Missile technicians from SHIG also recently collaborated with North Korea on the development of an 80-ton rocket booster.


Pyongyang has supplied Damascus with Scud missiles and related technology for ranges of 500-700 km. U.S. intelligence believes that Syria achieved its ability to produce missiles domestically in large part due to North Korean assistance. This assistance has come in the form of technical guidance and the supply of missile-related technology and equipment. Shipments intercepted in recent years contained items such as artillery shells, graphite cylinders used in ballistic missiles, and equipment that can be used to produce liquid propellant for Scuds. These shipments were sent primarily to front companies of the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC), which oversees Syria’s missile program.


North Korea signed an agreement with the Burmese government to develop medium-range liquid fueled ballistic missiles in November 2008, and the following year attempted to transfer equipment used for developing long-range ballistic missiles to Burma. North Korea continued to transfer items to Burmese defense entities until at least 2011-2012. North Korean entities also attempted to ship components for a Scud missile to Egypt in 2013.

Pakistan has also been a recipient of North Korean ballistic missile technology. Pakistan’s Ghauri (Hatf-5) medium-range ballistic missile is based on the Nodong, which was supplied by Pyongyang in the 1990s. In Yemen, Scud missiles believed to have been supplied by North Korea were allegedly used in combat by Houthi-backed militias. In 2015, as many as 20 Scud missiles were fired by Houthi militias into Saudi Arabia. North Korea is known to have shipped Scuds to Yemen in 2002.