South Korean army soldiers watch a TV news program with file footage about North Korea's rocket launch at Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, on Feb. 7, 2016.

South Korean army soldiers watch a TV news program with file footage about North Korea's rocket launch at Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, on Feb. 7, 2016. AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon

What North Korea’s Latest Missile Test Means for the US and Its Allies

The Unha launch is hardly the basis for panic, but it is time for certain measures to ensure security and stability.

A reporter once asked President Kennedy the difference between the Atlas rocket that launched John Glenn into orbit and another designed to carry nuclear weapons. “Attitude,” Kennedy is said to have quipped in reply. North Korea has now rung in the Lunar New Year with another successful satellite launch under its belt, an event certainly oriented toward rocket capability of the military persuasion.

Coming on the heels of the North’s fourth nuclear detonation, the launch reflects both continued technical advances and their sustained ICBM ambitions. These recent events mean that active measures to counter North Korea’s missile program will likely take on renewed importance. This will include increased regional missile defense capacity for both the U.S. and its allies, improved homeland missile defense capability, and military postures tailored to quickly defeating North Korea’s strategic forces in the event of a crisis and deterrence failure.


The launch did not come as a surprise. Last week, following increased activity at the Sohae launching station near Tongchang-ri and the Chinese border, Pyongyang gave notice of its launch plans to the International Maritime Organization. On Feb. 7 at 9 a.m. local time, North Korea launched an Unha rocket due south. DPRK state television posted video of the launch, set to triumphant military marches.

Initial reports indicated that the missile might have broken apart after launch, but U.S. Strategic Command detected and tracked the missile “into space.” Perhaps the reported failure was a deliberate detonation of the separated first stage, to avoid recovery. South Korea recovered parts of the 2012 missile launch, which led them to estimate that the missile had a range of 10,000 kilometers.

The rocket orbited an “earth observation satellite” called Kwangmyongsong-4 (Lodestar), the same name given to previous satellites, of which only one probably successfully entered orbit: Kwangmyongsang-3 in December 2012. The first attempt, however, was in August 1998 with a Taepodong missile that overflew Japan. Notably, the missile’s flight path was virtually identical to that used on that previous launch.

At first blush, these similarities make the launch look like a mere repeat of the test three years ago. Assessing its full significance and whether North Korea has indeed demonstrated ICBM capability, however, lies in the payload’s weight, velocity, and orbital altitude. If true that the latest satellite weighed 200 kilograms, it would be a significant increase from the 2012 satellite, said to be half that. (By comparison, Sputnik weighed just 83 kg.)

Notwithstanding North Korea’s claims of peaceful intentions and their ostensible interest in meteorology, U.S. officials were quick to state the obvious: that the launch is intimately tied to its military efforts. A STRATCOM press release pointedly noted that they assessed it to be “a missile launch.” The early missile programs of the U.S. and Soviet Union likewise went in tandem with their aspirations for the peaceful exploration of space. In 1957 alone, for instance, the Soviet Union demonstrated its first ICBM and orbited Sputnik, both using an R-7 rocket.

But even if a missile has the thrust to deliver a nuclear weapon, the weapon still has to fit atop it. A report by the Defense Intelligence Agency, the head of U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), and the head of U.S. Northern Command have suggested that North Korea may indeed have the capability to miniaturize a nuclear weapon for delivery on a missile like the KN-08. Whether they have actually done so remains unclear, but miniaturization is at least as much a concern of their continued nuclear testing than marginal improvements in yield.

Besides miniaturizing a nuclear weapon and building a rocket powerful enough to deliver it, North Korea has apparently not yet demonstrated the ability to have such a warhead reenter the atmosphere. On the other hand, reentry technology has been around a long time, there may be sources of foreign assistance, and at any rate North Korea may be willing to accept greater technical risk or less advanced technologies. At an earlier stage of its missile program, for instance, Chinese engineers are said to have used simple slabs of oak wood to ablate heat away from the warhead to survive reentry. North Korea has surprised before, and it may do so again.


Although a long-range rocket might be in some ways be less of an immediate concern to its neighbors within range of shorter ones, the Feb. 7 launch will likely directly affect regional missile defense efforts. North Korea’s short- and medium-range systems include a host of artillery and short-range rockets, its legacy No-Dongs, Taepo-Dongs, and a newer mobile solid-fueled SS-21 variant called KN-02. News reports this week have continued to highlight reports of mobile missiles, apart from the missile perched on the Sohae launchpad.

The most profound significance of the satellite launch will likely be political, however, for what it will do to U.S.-ROK relations, missile defense cooperation in the Asia Pacific, and the prioritization of military capability against a wide range of North Korean threats. A neighbor with ambitions for a nuclear-armed ICBM is a neighbor that cannot be trusted.

One may expect ROK and Japan to continue to improve their Patriot anti-missile systems. Japan will continue to upgrade their sea-based missile-defense ships, and South Korea may consider making their Aegis ships to be missile-defense-capable. Japan is likely to move forward on either Aegis Ashore (with a potential mix of Standard Missile interceptors), or possibly THAAD. For its part, the South Korea government may be increasingly unlikely to accept vulnerability to the missile attack, and may move forward decisively to hosting a medium-tier system like THAAD. Japan is expected to continue improvements to both land-based Patriot defenses and sea-based Aegis, but in recent months have also discussed THAAD. ROK also currently has shorter-range Patriots, but has expressed the need for some kind of a medium-tier system by 2020.

U.S. Regional Defenses

The U.S. continues to evaluate its missile defense force structure in the Asia-Pacific, including for Hawaii and Guam. The U.S. is in the process of making the THAAD deployment on Guam permanent, a necessary but insufficient step given the range and number of missile threats to an island so highly important for U.S. power projection in the Asia Pacific. This week’s test makes ROK hosting of a U.S. THAAD battery on the peninsula increasingly likely.

 On Sunday, the ROK and the U.S. issued a joint statement indicating that they would begin formal talks for the deployment of THAAD at the “earliest possible date.” Although THAAD would contribute significantly to the defense of the peninsula from some of the more demonstrated medium tier threats from the North, no weapon system is a silver bullet. Other offensive strike and other active defenses are still needed to contend with lower tier air and missile threats along the entire kill chain, both before and after launch.

In June 2014, USFK’s General Scaparrotti recommended THAAD as appropriate to defend the South, but prospects for deployment there have been highly contentious and delayed for political reasons, including pressure from China. Such a deployment would represent a significant advance for missile defenses on the peninsula. In the longer term, however, a single THAAD battery is inadequate to defend the entire area; two or even three might be probably be necessary given both geography and the quantity of DPRK missiles.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Army does not have extra THAAD batteries lying around. Despite the Army’s formal requirement of nine batteries, only three are currently operational, plus one activated battery in training. One of the three operational is already forward-deployed at Guam. The future year defense plan currently includes plans to complete only seven batteries by 2019, leaving unclear the status of the eighth and ninth. The Army has identified an extended-range THAAD interceptor as important for Asia-Pacific needs by 2025, but its development is still not underway.

The U.S. Navy likewise falls short of even its own missile defense requirements. Combatant commanders have requested an increase from 44 to 77 missile-defense-capable Aegis ships by 2016, but until recently the Navy considered removing missile defense capability from its cruisers. And despite the Navy’s stated requirement of 40 ships with ability to simultaneously conduct air and missile-defense missions, today only three ships today have the Baseline 9 software necessary to do so.

At least in relation to homeland missile defenses, regional missile defenses have been prioritized in recent years, but much more remains to be done even to meet current requirements.

Homeland Defense

Since 1993, North Korean missiles have been at the center of U.S. and allied discussions of both missile defense and preemption. The 1998 launch of a Taepodong missile over Japan helped galvanize U.S. reconsideration of the ABM Treaty and the need for homeland missile defense. The 2016 Unha launch will likewise affect U.S. homeland missile defense considerations.

In response to North Korean and other developments, the Clinton administration in the mid-1990s crafted a three-phase architecture for homeland defense, which included up to nine X-band radars (including one in South Korea), and 100 to 250 Ground Based Interceptors (GBIs) at two sites—a notional architecture significantly more expansive than that deployed today. President Clinton deferred the decision about deployment in late 2000, but the following year the Bush administration moved to both withdraw from the ABM treaty and move towards putting actual interceptors in the ground, using the boosters and kill vehicle from the Clinton-era architecture.

By late 2004, the U.S. had deployed some initial (but quite limited) defensive capability for the homeland, the first since a brief six-month deployment in 1976 of nuclear armed interceptors in North Dakota. Today, the United States has 30 GBIs deployed to defend the homeland, most in Alaska and a few in California. Responding once again to unavoidable signs of North Korean missile advances, the Obama administration in March 2013 restored previous plans for 44 GBIs. Some 37 interceptors will be deployed by the end of 2016, and the remainder by 2017. A successful return to intercept took place in June 2014, and another successful flight test just occurred on January 28.

Two X-band radars are now deployed to Japan to support homeland defense, and an additional long-range discriminating radar will be built in Alaska. Although the Ground Based Midcourse defense system suffered testing setbacks, the Missile Defense Agency is now on a path to substantially improve GMD’s reliability and lethality. Strides have been made to both improving the existing system and laying the basis for a modestly improved Redesigned Kill Vehicle.

Extremely promising work has been made in the area of directed energy, and a small number of laser-carrying UAVs could eventually support boost-phase intercept against North Korea. This capability is not yet here, however, and for the foreseeable future chemically powered rockets remain necessary to kill other rockets.

The Iran Connection

North Korea’s test is also not disconnected from Iran, its frequent partner in missile development. Unless this recent event was unlike most previous long range missile tests, foreign dignitaries and engineers (from Iran and elsewhere) were likely on hand to witness the launch at Sohae, either as potential customers or as a part of a more substantial coproduction arrangement.

Only last month, the U.S. Department of the Treasury identified and sanctioned Iranian people and corporations for contributing to a North Korean 80-ton booster—probably about the size of the rocket launched on Feb. 7. Of particular concern is if Unha’s engines and other ICBM-related technologies could help develop a longer-range Iranian missile, including one sometimes called Simorgh.

While the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) put a number of restrictions on nuclear weapons development within Iran, it does not touch its missile program, and even paves the way to eliminate international ballistic missile-related sanctions after eight years. In recent months, the Obama administration has rebuked Iran for conducting several ballistic missile tests in direct violation of UNSCR 1929 and its successor, UNSCR 2231.

Transnational cooperation is, of course, nothing new to the world of proliferation. Indeed, besides missiles, nuclear weapons development and even testing within North Korea could be a basis for future Iranian breakout, while avoiding the appearance of noncompliance with the JCPOA.

For these and other reasons, missile defense efforts under the European Phased Adaptive Approach continue to remain important. The Obama administration and its NATO allies have therefore prudently retained the EPAA implementation despite the nuclear deal with Iran.


The Unha launch is hardly the basis for panic, but neither is there is any reason to think that the North Korean missile threat is diminishing. With little evidence that China will act to constrain their neighbor’s advances, and even less that Kim Jung Un has self-restraint on his own accord, and a total lack of faith in anything like stable deterrence, active measures will remain necessary to provide security and stability.

Ballistic missiles have many times been fired in anger and, in particular, to hold back or deter superior conventional forces—witness, for instance, the Iran-Iraq war, the Gulf War, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and recent reports of a dozen missiles of North Korean origin fired by Yemeni Houthis since last July alone. Deterrence fails, and missiles are used in conflict. None of these countries, however, had anything like the weapons available to North Korea.

If and when the Kim regime one day collapses, we may perhaps eventually learn more about the untold horrors the Korean people have undergone in order to support and produce its missile program, more about the foreign assistance the missile program has received (and given) over the past decades, and the true extent of their capabilities. In the meantime, the black-box nature of the regime and prospects for uncertainty mean that we must actively hedge against deterrence failure, not merely for the U.S. homeland but also for forces and allies in the region.

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