North Korea’s Nuclear-Capable Missiles

As the Risk Report went to press in early November, U.S. officials worried that North Korea was preparing to test-fire its newest missile, the Nodong-I, over the Sea of Japan. Once operational, the Nodong could deliver chemical or nuclear warheads to most Japanese cities. Pyongyang has already produced several hundred Scud-type missiles, some of which bring all of South Korea within reach.

“North Korean missiles are not real sophisticated, but their range is what makes them more compelling,” a U.S. official tells the Risk Report. “Pyongyang may have very little money,” the official adds, “but it clearly has the political will to build longer and longer-range missiles to project its power.” Asked whether the North Koreans have made nuclear warheads ready for missile delivery, the official responds: “I don’t know for sure, but you’d be a fool not to assume the worst–the Koreans are very good at hiding their programs.”

Today, Pyongyang controls one of the five largest armed forces in the world, with over one million ground soldiers supported by an air force of over 800 fighter jets and a navy with 675 vessels. During the past twenty-five years, North Korea has mounted an ambitious effort to develop nuclear-capable surface-to-surface missiles. In addition to producing its own version of the Soviet Scud-B missile, which can deliver nuclear and chemical warheads up to 300 kilometers, North Korea has produced a more advanced, extended-range Scud that flies more than 500 kilometers. And Pyongyang now plans to develop even larger missiles–the Taepo Dong-I and -II–with ranges exceeding 1,500 and 4,000 kilometers respectively. North Korea actively markets all of its missiles to customers in the Middle East, including Iran, Libya, Syria and Egypt. (See related story: North Korea’s Missile Exports.)

Program history

Since the 1960s, North Korea has pursued self-reliance in all of its military programs, including missile production. Korean scientists and technicians have learned to reverse-engineer and build every missile North Korea has imported. North Korea bought its first surface-to-surface missiles in 1969 and 1970, when it took delivery of FROG-5 and FROG-7A missiles from the Soviet Union. In one of its early steps toward self-reliance, North Korea learned to produce its own version of the FROG missile together with a chemical warhead to fit it.

A few years later, North Korea turned to Egypt for help. In return for the military aid North Korea provided to Egypt during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Cairo shipped at least two of its Soviet-supplied Scud-B missiles to North Korea in 1976. In return for the missiles, Pyongyang agreed to help Cairo build Scuds on its own. North Korea first reverse-engineered the missiles and then improved them by incorporating Chinese know-how, particularly in rocket engine design, production and metallurgy. After successful producing its own version of the Scud, North Korea passed along its technical documents and drawings to Egypt.

Like its Soviet predecessor, the North Korean Scud-B is a liquid-fueled, single-stage rocket guided by a low accuracy inertial system. Its range is approximately 300 kilometers when carrying its standard 770- to 860-kilogram warhead. This range puts most of South Korea’s active airfields within striking distance.

Missile development in the 1980s

It was in the 1980s that North Korea’s drive for missiles began to pick up speed. In the early years, the Scud-B development effort had progressed slowly due to financial and technical constraints. But the effort got a giant boost in 1985 from the war in the Gulf. Iran, under missile attack from Iraq, was quickly depleting its small supply of Soviet-made Scuds purchased from Libya. In search of a new supplier, Iran turned to North Korea. Tehran agreed to help finance Pyongyang’s missile effort in exchange for technology transfer and an option to buy North Korean missiles once they became available.

Iran s financial help was indispensable. By January 1987, the Koreans were able complete and test-fire their new Scud missile at a site north of Wonsan. The successful test was followed in June 1987 by a $500 million arms deal that included the sale of approximately 100 missiles to Tehran. Pyongyang shipped the first Scud-Bs in July 1987, and also helped Iran set up a Scud production and assembly factory. Iranian financing was so important that Iran received the first Scuds North Korea produced, even before they were deployed in Korea itself. The first 90-100 missiles had been delivered by February 1988. By late 1990, Tehran also had agreed to buy North Korea s production of extended-range Scud-C missiles, which could fly 500 kilometers. Press reports in 1991 claimed that Iran had ordered an additional 200 Scud-B and Scud-Cs.

To fill Iran’s orders and to equip its own forces, Pyongyang was churning out an estimated 8-10 Scuds per month by the late 1980s. At that rate, North Korea could now have over 800 of these missiles operationally deployed or available for export. More recent estimates put North Korea’s production rate at as high as 15 missiles per month, and a September 1996 New York Times story reported that North Korea now had 1,700 Scud missiles in its inventory.


While producing the Scud-B, North Korea began work on a longer-range, “enhanced” Scud known as the Scud-C. (Some reports refer to it as “Scud-PIP” to distinguish it from the Soviet-made Scud-C.) With an estimated range of 500 to 600 kilometers, the Scud-C can reach all of South Korea and can be fired from fixed or mobile launchers.

According to a Washington Times report in June 1990, U.S. intelligence agencies photographed a Scud-C at a military facility north of Pyongyang. The Scud-C is longer and wider than the Scud-B, suggesting that the North Koreans may have lengthened the fuel tanks to increase the amount of propellant the missile can carry. This would be similar to the modifications Iraq made to increase the range of its Scud-B derivatives, the Al-Husayn and Al-Abbas. Japan’s Kyodo news service reported in 1991 that the Scud-C had greater precision than the Al-Husayn because of integrated circuits smuggled out of Japan.

North Korea successfully flight-tested the Scud-C in May 1991 at Qom in Iran and in July 1991 off North Korea’s eastern coast from mobile launchers at a base in Kangwon Province. A Jane’s Intelligence report estimated in 1994 that Pyongyang was able to build up to eight Scud-C missiles per month.


North Korea is now developing a third missile called the Nodong-I with a range of over 1,000 kilometers. The Nodong was first tested in May 1993 over the Sea of Japan, but only to a range of about 500 kilometers. The Sea of Japan is too small to accommodate a full-range test of the Nodong, so future testing may take place in Iran, where there is sufficient room. Tehran is also financing the Nodong. U.S. officials tell the Risk Report that the Nodong development program is “very active” and may be near completion. But North Korea has had to postpone or cancel a number of test launches during the past two years, due to financial and technical constraints.

The Nodong is derived from Scud technology, but the missile is more than a simple extension of the one-stage Scud-C. The Nodong is a two-stage, liquid-fueled missile designed to carry a payload of 500-1,000 kilograms to a range of 1,000-1,200 kilometers, putting all of South Korea and parts of Japan, China and the former Soviet Union within reach. According to a 1994 report in Jane’s Defence Weekly, the Nodong uses an unsophisticated three-gyroscope inertial navigation system that is not very accurate. A U.S. official tells the Risk Report that the Nodong and Scud suffer from “no tremendous guidance capability and a poor CEP [circular error probable, a measure of accuracy].” Nuclear payloads, of course, would diminish the need for missile accuracy. In his 1994 annual report, the Director of U.S. Naval Intelligence said that the Nodong “will probably be able to be equipped with a nuclear warhead by 2000…if current negotiations to end Pyongyang’s nuclear weapon program are unsuccessful.”

Taepo Dong-I & -II

Press reports on the Nodong-I development in the early 1990s claimed that North Korea was also developing a successor missile, the Nodong-II, which would have a range of more than 1,500 kilometers. It now appears that those reports may be referring to a new missile series, the Taepo Dong-I (TD-I) and the Taepo Dong-II (TD-II). The TD-I may utilize a Nodong-I as its first stage and a Scud-B or -C as its second stage. It is designed to fly 1,500-2,000 kilometers with a 1,000-kilogram warhead. In 1994, U.S. intelligence reportedly spotted a model of the TD-II at the Sanum Dong R&D facility. The two-stage missile mock-up was said to be 32 meters long and was expected to fly up to 3,500 kilometers, according to Jane’s Defence Weekly.

A U.S. official tells the Risk Report that U.S. intelligence knows “very little” about the Taepo Dong series. One of the reasons, he says, is that “the missile is at a very primitive stage.” He estimates that “without an influx of new technology and expertise, it will take forever to develop.”


To master the technologies necessary to produce the Taepo Dong series, North Korea will need outside help. In May 1994, it was reported that U.S. intelligence believed that North Korea did not have transporter-erector launchers (TELs) large enough to accommodate the Taepo Dong missiles and would have to transport the missiles in sections and assemble them at fixed launch sites. Most of the TELS for Scud or Nodong missiles have been adapted from Soviet MAZ trucks that provide a mobile launching platform. “It’s no secret that North Korea uses these Russian harvester trucks for use as TELs, but such trade is very difficult to control,” says a U.S. official.

In addition to building TELs, North Korea must master the multi-staging and reentry technologies needed for longer-range missiles. To help make the leap from single to multi-stage missiles Pyongyang has tried to recruit help from Russian specialists. So far, Moscow has prevented a number of its scientists from emigrating to North Korea, but it is known that several Russian missile specialists are already working there.

Perhaps the biggest problem North Korea faces is financial–paying for the equipment and technology it needs to develop longer-range missiles. The North Korean economy has contracted every year since 1990, and foreign suppliers are increasingly reluctant to sell to Pyongyang without guaranteed terms of payment. “All these missile programs have slipped in the last few years,” says a U.S. official, “largely due to a lack of hard currency.”