North Korean Missile Trucks on Parade with BM 25 Musudan Missiles, Pyongyang, 2010 ((Source: The New York Times)

North Korean Missile Trucks on Parade with BM 25 Musudan Missiles, Pyongyang, 2010 (Source: The New York Times)

On Monday, media outlets broke the news on North Korean attempts to build road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles. The news followed a November 17th letter from Michael Turner and other Republican Congressmen of the House Armed Services Committee to Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta. In the letter, the congressmen espouse their worries on the Obama Administration’s continual reduction and abandonment of funds allocated to US homeland missile defense programs, as well as the continued advancement in missile attack technologies by North Korea.

The developments and technologies causing this Congressional stir were likely the following:

  • BM25 Musudan (노동B): believed to be based off Russian R-27 submarine-launched ballistic missiles, or perhaps acquired and modified versions of original R-27 missile systems, currently configured for ground platform launches, road-mobile ballistic missile trucks, and for use in larger, multi-stage ballistic missiles. The BM25 Musudan has a potential range of around 4,000 kilometers. US bases in South Korea, Guam, and Japan would fall under that umbrella. The major fear in regards to these missiles isn’t so much their current range, but the fact that they’ve become road-mobile, and thus easier to hide than fixed platforms.
  • Taep’o-dong-2 (대포동 2호): The Taep’o-dong 2 has appeared in different configurations over the course of it’s design process, but currently seems to be akin to the Unha (은하), an expendable carrier rocket tested in 2009 under the guise of satellite launching. An analysis of that launch tabs the potential of this rocket system as somewhere between 10,000 to 15,000 kilometers, within the rage of hitting the continental United States, something the US Government finds agreement with. Still, the analysis states that these ranges could only currently be reached with extremely reduced payloads. The missile system itself is comprised of a hodgepodge of foreign-designed systems:

The first stage uses a cluster of four Nodong engines housed in a single missile casing and sharing a common fuel tank. The Nodong engine is essentially a scaled-up version of the engine used in the Soviet Scud-B missile. This engine is likely of Russian origin…The second stage appears identical to the single-stage Soviet R-27 sea-launched ballistic missile, called the SS-N-6 in the United States, which the Soviet Union first deployed in 1968…The third stage appears to be very similar, if not identical, to the upper stage of the Iranian Safir-2 launch vehicle (Source: A post-launch examination of the Unha-2)

  • Tongcha’ng-Dong Launch Site (동창동 미사일 발사장): The newest, western North Korea-based, launch site, discovered in 2008 seems capable of hosting a significantly larger system than has been fielded by North Korea to this point, as well as being a site far closer to both North Korean missile and nuclear development sites than the original Musudan-ri (Toknhae, 무수단리) site on North Korea’s east coast. The data and intelligence that has been released provides little insight into what North Korea will be fielding at this site in the near future, but it’s scale has North Korea watchers worried.

While Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee have the right to be worried, it’s worth noting that committee Democrats were not involved in signing the letter to Mr. Panetta. One wonders if this is perhaps a timely election year attempt to create public fears in an Obama administration that has cut costs on many US missile defense programs. It DOES tend to drudge up information that was already widely known as if it was new.

The use of road-mobile missile carriers is an eye opener that warrants US attention, but North Korea continues to use modified 1960s-era missile technology with foreign-purchased designs that are not always easily adaptable. Their longest range missile launch sites are easily visible, take large amounts of time to set up, and are immobile . In addition, many of their missiles appear to see little to no actual testing.

While any advancements by the rogue state of North Korea should be cause for worry, the United States shouldn’t panic just yet.

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Craig was born & raised in the United States, having recently returned there after over five years in Asia. He is currently pursuing further education in the realms of East Asian Studies and Politics. Craig is an avid fan of the political, economic, and military machinations occurring throughout the Asian continent and how those turning gears affect the rest of the world. He's currently covering both North and South Korea for Asia Security Watch, enjoying shedding light on to this far-too-often ignored slice of Asia.
Craig Scanlan has 82 post(s) on Asia Security Watch