How North Korea Missiles Came to Threaten the World in Just Three Decades

Hwasong 14 test
People watch as coverage of an ICBM missile test is displayed on a screen in a public square in Pyongyang on July 29. Kim Won-Jin/AFP/Getty Images

The North Korean regime has more than one reason to celebrate its 69-year-old existence. Not only has the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) proclaimed by Kim Il Sung on September 9, 1948 survived the fall of the Soviet Union that was so crucial to its creation, but it also presents a growing threat to global stability.

The country's missile development program has grown exponentially in recent years. North Korea has circumvented progressively restrictive U.N. sanctions using illicit procurement techniques which, according to a 2017 U.N. report, are "increasing in scale, scope and sophistication."

Some of North Korea's techniques include falsifying documentation and mislabeling cargo, moving money, people and goods, as well as arms and related material, across borders.

But back in 1984, the regime founded by Kim Il Sung simply purchased its first Soviet missiles from Egypt, the Scud B, and reverse-enginnered them to create the Hwasong-5 missile.

The short-range, road-mobile, liquid-propellant ballistic missile was first tested in 1984 and its production began a year later. In less than a decade, North Koreans built an estimated total of 300 Hwasong-5 missiles as well as several mobile launch systems, ending production in 1991 or 1992, as documented by the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Missile Defense Project.

The country's founder conducted 16 missile tests (of which only eight were considered successful) in its 46 years as head of the DPRK, as counted by the U.S.-based think tank Nuclear Threat Initiative.

North Korea missile
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Kim Il Sung's son and heir Kim Jong Il took power in 1994 but only began missile tests four years later. While most of the launches continued to test rockets first developed under his father, Kim Jong Il also tested a Taepodong-1, a liquid-fueled, intermediate-range ballistic missile.

North Korea claimed that was a satellite launch, but the international community dispute that, and the U.S. State Department considered the missile launch a technology demonstrator.

While the first missile tested had a range of 500 miles, under Kim Il Sung North Korea's missile range grew to encompass Japan, parts of China and Southeast Asia with the development of the medium-range Nodong missile, which has an 800-mile range.

While Kim Jong Il began nuclear tests to develop a warhead to fit on the missiles, it was not until his death in 2011 and the accession of youngest son Kim Jong Un to power that the missile and nuclear development program intensified and began to truly threaten the world.

North Korea missile range
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The young dictator has tested more missiles than his father and grandfather combined. In the past six years, the country tested submarine-launched ballistic missiles and conducted the country's most powerful nuclear test to date. It developed rockets like the Musadan, first tested and successfully launched in 2016, which has a 2,500-mile range and could reach India. The Hwasong-12, first successfully tested in May 2017, put the U.S. territory of Guam within its range.

North Korea had long been developing a missile that could be used as an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the Taepodong-2, which was first tested in 2006 and only after repeated failures succeeded, on its fourth test launch in December 2012, to put a satellite into space.

But the real gamechanger was the two July tests of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) Hwasong-14, as experts agree that this North Korean missile could reach the U.S. mainland. Just how far it could reach remains a matter of debate, as this depends on the payload of the warhead fitted on the missile: The smaller the payload, the longer the missile range.

U.S. cities
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"To reach the U.S. East coast the payload will have to be very small, to the point where one has to ask the question whether they can make it that small already. The missile, in its current form, could reach the West Coast but not the East Coast," Michael Elleman, Senior Fellow for Missile Defense at the ‎International Institute for Strategic Studies, told Newsweek after the late July ICBM launch.

"We don't know what kind of payload they put on the test missiles. We can speculate, we can make reconstructions but we end up with different results because of different assumptions," he added.

The 2017 Hwasong-14 is based on the Soviet Rd-250 missiles and it incorporates several elements of its predecessor Hwasong models.

As John Schilling wrote on the website of 38 North, a U.S.-based North Korea monitoring project, the ICBM uses the Hwasong-12's engine, features a similarly-sized upper stage as the Hwasong-13, and probably fits the re-entry vehicle used on another rocket, also named Hwasong-14, which was rolled out in 2015.

The 2017 Hwasong-14 is based on the Soviet Rd-250 missiles and it incorporates several elements of its predecessor Hwasong models. Newsweek Media Group

The July 28 test saw the missile launched at a high-angle trajectory to avoid overflying Japan, flying for about 620 miles for roughly 47 minutes, but it is estimated to be able to cover a distance of 4,350-4,970 miles if launched on a maximum-range trajectory.

We know that North Korea has so far developed two important elements of a missile, propulsion system and a mobile launcher, but the actual threat represented by the rocket remains dependent on North Korea's capability to fit a bomb on the missile, and to make it re-enter the atmosphere without catching fire.

If North Korea wants to keep increasing the accuracy and reliability of its missiles, the world needs to brace itself for more test launches. "They will probably want to do additional flight tests before they are confident their system works. You can only establish reliability by testing repeatedly in different circumstances," Elleman said.