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North Korea's New Missiles

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by Richard Fisher, Jr.
Published on September 20th, 2004

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)--that is, North Korea--is now producing a second-generation long-range ballistic missile based on Russian technologies that poses a significantly increased threat to the United States and Japan. Armed with nuclear or chemical warheads, the missile can be hidden in silo bases and launched from merchant ships or even submarines. It is reportedly being tested in Iran. It is not unreasonable to expect that Pyongyang might well sell it and its technologies to other rogue states, possibly even to terrorist groups.

An artist's depiction shows how North Korea might configure shipping containers to conceal launchers for their new Russian R-27 based intermediate range missiles. Such a configuration would also ease covert land transport for these missiles.
Certainly the weapon makes a mockery of former President Clinton’s attempts to bribe Pyongyang from developing missiles and underscores the unreality of basing American security on any future North Korean promises. It emphasizes the need for the United States to press ahead with missile defense and counterproliferation efforts, especially North Korean. The missile also raises significant concerns about Russian nonproliferation commitments.

Prior to 2003 it was assumed, given the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, that significant Russian missile assistance to North Korea had ended. Since the late 1970s Pyongyang had developed its missile industry from early Soviet SCUD missile technology, which it had obtained primarily from third countries such as Egypt, and then progressively refined the industry with technical input from China and its growing network of “rogue” allies. Its goal, like Iran’s and Pakistan’s, was clearly a nuclear and missile arsenal. In the mid-1990s reports circulated that in December 1992 Russian police had detained a group of 20 to 36 scientists from the Russian Makeyev missile design bureau on their way to North Korea.[1] Ostensibly recruited to work on a North Korean “space launch” missile, they were allowed to travel. Other, similar groups were subsequently allowed to go North Korea as well.[2] A former North Korean missile scientist has noted that during the 1990s he had met newly unemployed Russian missile and nuclear engineers in North Korea, hired by North Korean leader Kim Chong-il.[3] But until late 2003 there was little open reporting or public warning from U.S. intelligence that North Korea was working on more advanced missiles based on newly obtained Russian technology.

Enter the R-27

In early September 2003 the first news leaks from South Korea and the United States told of a new North Korean ballistic missile that was to appear in a military parade marking North Korea’s 55th Anniversary.[4] A reported 10 missiles and five transporter-erector-launchers (TELs) were sent to Mirim Airbase near Pyongyang.[5] When alarms in the West began sounding Pyongyang decided not to display the new missile in the parade, though not before U.S. surveillance satellites had taken notice. According to some sources it was Beijing that cautioned Pyongyang against any provocative display.

U.S. sources were reported to have concluded, based on its size and the distinctive baby-bottle shape of its nose, that the new missile was based on the Soviet-era Makeyev R-27, NATO code named SS-N-6, a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). Makayev began work on the R-27 in 1962 and the missile entered Soviet Naval service in 1968, deployed on the Yankee-1 nuclear powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN). It marked a significant advance for Soviet missiles, was their first SLBM to use new “stable,” or “storable” rocket fuels.

Such fuels remain in their tanks for extended periods, thus negating the need for lengthy and dangerous open fueling before launch, as all SCUD-technology based North Korean missiles require. The R-27 was an intermediate range missile, with the base-line R-27 able to reach 2,000 kilometers, and the R-27K with its lighter warhead able to reach 3,600. The R-27 family included two other features. The R-27U introduced in 1973 was the first Soviet SLBM with multiple warheads, either two or three. The R-27K was modified with a maneuvering capability so that it could be used as a long-range nuclear weapon to attack NATO ships.[6]


North Korea’s Modified R-27 Missiles

By mid-2004 new revelations about how Pyongyang had used this technology led veteran North Korean missile watcher Joseph Bermudez to conclude that “over the past 10 years, DPRK missile design bureaux have integrated R-27 technologies with those developed indigenously and acquired elsewhere (possibly from Russia, Eastern Europe or China), to produce longer-range land-based road-mobile and SLBMs or ship-mounted versions.”[7] His report also notes that the North Korean versions of the R-27 are somewhat different than the Soviet version. The land-based North Korean version is 12 meters long to the standard Soviet 9 meters, and reportedly lighter as well, 12,000 North Korean kilograms to more than 14,000 Soviet kilograms. The North Korean range is estimated at between 2,500 and 4,000 kilometers.[8] At longer range this missile, fired from North Korean territory, could reach Okinawa and Guam. Although the R-27 was not accurate, with a circular error probability (CEP) of about one mile, it is accurate enough for North Korea, which needs only to threaten a large American military base or city, like Honolulu or Los Angeles.

A second artist's depcition shows missile containers ready for launch. After launch the containers could then be dropped overboard to help conceal the ship's identity.
This missile technology is about 40 years old, but it offers North Korea decided advantages. The R-27 engine was designed by the Isayev Bureau, which also designed the SCUD engines, which North Korea successfully modified for its larger Nodong missiles—with Chinese help.[9] In addition, the North Koreans were dealing with proven technology likely very familiar to the Russian advisors, thus reducing the need for missile tests that might have scared the United States away from a negotiating table at which China wanted them seated.

New Threats

Land-Based Version. In moving for the first time to storable fuels, North Korea is capable of complicating U.S., Japanese and South Korean defenses in a new way. First, it can now move its basing from the large and vulnerable underground caves SCUD and Nodong missiles required to simple missile silos. To complicate countertargeting it would have the option of building far more silos than it has missiles. The use of storable fuels also makes mobile versions of the missile, either rail- or truck-based TELs, possible, which even further complicates countertargeting.

Sea-Based Versions. Bermudez also notes that North Korea is also developing “submarine or ship mounted” versions of the R-27. In 1993 Japan’s Toen Trading Company arranged for twelve ex-Soviet Foxtrot-class conventional attack submarines and Golf II-class conventionally powered ballistic missile submarines to be scrapped in North Korea. Pyongyang has apparently learned enough, with the probable assistance of Russian engineers, from missile tubes on the Golfs to either refurbish and outfit a Golf submarine with a version of the R-27, or place a newly designed launch tube on a Chinese-built DPRK Navy Whiskey-class conventional submarine. While not inconceivable, this would mean redesigning the Golf missile carrying structure to accommodate the larger 1.5m diameter R-27 missile. These tubes would also need to be capable of forcing out the missile with compressed air, the method used on the Yankee SSBN to launch the R-27. The tubes on the Golf II were capable of underwater missile launch, and thus, would very likely supply the technology needed to tube-launch the R-27. Another possible source of assistance to master these tubes would be China, which operates a single Golf-class submarine to test new SLBMs. North Korea might also follow Russia’s example in placing missiles in tubes outside the hull of Whiskey class subs. Certainly both the Golf and the Whiskey are ancient submarine technology, but North Korea might plan to use them only in a one-way mission.

If North Korea has not mastered SLBM tube launch technology, its simplest option would be to place a hydraulic or electric motor-operated missile erector on one of its merchant ship. The danger of such a low-tech missile threat was noted in 1998 by the Congressionally mandated Rumsfeld Commission, which stated that such a strategy would “enable a country to pose a direct territorial threat to the United States sooner than … by waiting to develop an ICBM for launch from its own territory. Sea launching could also permit it to target a larger area.”[10] This danger has also been examined by Russian weapons expert Steven Zaloga, with reference to a 1960s Soviet program to place ICBMs on merchant ships intended to blend in with commercial traffic.[11]

A more recent warning about possible sea-borne attack from terrorists, and of the missile threat from North Korea, comes from the General Ralph Eberhart, commander of the U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) and the U.S.-Canadian North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). On August 25 Reuters quoted him saying, “I believe it's just a matter of time until the terrorists try to use a ... maritime attack against us,” he said. “I believe that attack could come in terms of bringing a ship into port, whether it's (carrying) high explosives or whether it's weapons of mass destruction.”[12] Eberhart also noted the missile threat from North Korea. North Korea’s new missile also gives Pyongyang new options for seaborne attacks.

Container Launch. The R-27’s storable fuels might allow North Korea to hide missiles in a maritime shipping container. A standard 45-foot container would be large enough to store a missile, in or without a tube, plus the erector system, and the compressed air containers for a tube launch. The power system for such a launcher might have to be put into a second container. If placed on top and at the edge of the stack of containers on a large container-merchant ship, the missile could be triggered by computers programmed to launch when GPS navigation satellite receivers determined the ship had reached a pre-determined location. Containers could easily be routed through a busy port like Hong Kong before “shipment” to the United States on a vessel perhaps unaware of its cargo. According to the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, “each year more than 7,500 commercial vessels make approximately 51,000 port calls, and over six million loaded marine containers enter U.S. ports. Current growth predictions indicate that container cargo will quadruple in the next twenty years.”[13]

Should North Korea adopt this strategy it would have the option of trying to infiltrate and pre-position its missiles in Canada, Central America or even the continental United States. U.S. missile defenses do not currently defend against either launches from the south of or within the contiguous 50 states.

Future Versions. As with SCUD-level technology, North Korea’s absorption of higher Makayev R-27 level technology will very likely spur the development of a larger family of new missiles. This technology may already be critical to North Korea’s long awaited Taepodong-2, expected to be a two-stage 6,700-kilometer range ICBM. Initially thought to incorporate Chinese technology from the DF-3 IRBM, this program might have been revamped to use Makeyev technology. It may also be that North Korea is developing a new family of multistage ICBMs using the R-27 as the boost stage. Chinese and likely Russian assistance would enable the North Koreans to develop three-stage ICBMs that might be carry a small warhead to the east coast of the United States.

Proliferation Concerns

Pyongyang’s mastery of a higher level of ballistic missile technology raises new concerns about missile proliferation. North Korea, Pakistan and Iran have shared missile technology. The expectation that North Korea will sell or share its new R-27 technologies with these regimes is therefore a fair one. Both North Korea and Pakistan remain possible conduits to terrorist groups. North Korea has maintained ties with portions of the Al Qaeda network, and the father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, Abdul Quadeer Khan, is known both as the primary recipient of North Korean missile technology and for his Al Qaeda sympathies.

Having employed Makayev engineers since the early 1990s, North Korea has very likely already learned about successive Makeyev designs, or hopes to do so. For example, Makeyev designed the 4-warhead, 8,300-kilometer range SS-N-23 for the Delta-4 SSBN and the solid-fueled, 10-warhead armed, 8,300-kilometer range SS-N-20 for the Typhoon-class SSBN. In the mid-1990s the Clinton administration, with apparent success, stopped Russia from selling advanced ballistic missile technology to Iran. It stands to reason, however, that the Russians ultimately controlling North Korea’s access to Makeyev talent will also profit from the eventual sale of this missile technology to Iran. Given that the missile is now in North Korea’s arsenal, reviewing Russia’s motives and the extent of North Korean-Russian missile cooperation seems overdue.


According to multiple reports, some from September 2003 based on leaked intelligence information and others from August 2004, North Korea has succeeded in developing a new family of more modern ballistic missiles. The model is the Russian R-27 SLBM. Assistance came from Russian Makeyev Bureau engineering talent. The key technical advance this missile incorporates--storable rocket fuels--enables North Korea to contemplate novel basing or deployment schemes for an intermediate range missile. This increases Pyongyang’s ability to threaten Japan and U.S. forces based in Japan, or even Hawaii and the western United States. Possible submarine- or ship-launch platforms for this new missile pose a new and dangerous level of threat.

As Joseph Bermudez noted, North Korea has spent the last decade developing new missiles based on Russian Makeyev technologies. During the final days of his second term, President Clinton embarked on a scheme that would have ultimately led Washington to pay Pyongyang untold millions of dollars to stop its ballistic missile development. To attempt to broker this deal, former Secretary of State Madeline Albright made her now infamous October 2000 trip to North Korea, a trip Kim Chong-il used to great propaganda advantage.[14] During this period the Clinton administration made no mention of North Korea’s R-27-based missile program, and may not have been aware of it. Pyongyang was ready to take U.S. money but had no intention of halting its missile build-up, just as it had proven its willingness to take U.S. aid in exchange for false promises given to the Clinton Administration to halt its nuclear weapons program.

The real and growing threat this missile poses to America is more proof—if any is needed—that North Korean intentions cannot be trusted, that basing the security of the United States on North Korean promises would be foolish. It is imperative that Washington highlight the threat, fully investigate and arrest Russian assistance to it. The U.S. should also rapidly improve sea-based anti-missile defenses which are better able to counter submarine and ship-based missile threats. It is now critical that Washington exercise more vigorous leadership within the Proliferation Security Initiative to ensure greater cooperation in meeting the threat of North Korea’s newest missiles.

[1] Sergey Pluzhnikov, Sergey Sokolov and Mikhail Morozov, “Will Kim Il-song Explode Our Atom Bomb,” Komsomolskaya Pravda, April 22-24, 1994, p.5, in FBIS-SOV-94-079, p. 15.

[2] Joseph S. Bermudez, “North Korea Deploys New Missiles,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, August 4, 2004, p. 6.

[3] Bok Ku Lee, “A Defector’s Story, My Escape From North Korea—And South Korea, The Wall Street Journal, June 5, 2003,

[4] Lee Chul-hee, “New DPRK Missiles Reportedly Modified From Soviet-Era Weapons,” Chungang Ilbo, September 9, 2003, in FBIS KPP20030909000010; “ROKG Official: DPRK Said to Complete Development of New 'Long-Range Missiles,” The Korea Times, September 9, 2003; Carol Giacomo, “N. Korea Has More Capable Missile-U.S. Officials,” Associated Press, September 10, 2003; "North Korea Has New Intermediate-Range Missile: US Source," Agence France Presse, September 11, 2003; Sonni Efron, “N. Korea Working On Missile Accuracy,” Los Angeles Times, September 12, 2003 .

[5] Bermudez, op-cit.

[6] M.A. Sakovich, "A Glorious Decade of Naval Missile-building" Tayfun, May 1, 2000, p. 10-20, in FBIS CEP20000816000287.

[7] Bermudez, op-cit.

[8] Data from Bermudez, op-cit.

[9] Joseph S. Bermudez, Jr., “A History of Ballistic Missile Development in the DPRK,” Occasional Paper No. 2, Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute, November 1999, p. 1.

[10] Executive Summary, Commission To Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat To The United States, July 15, 1998.

[11] Steven J. Zaloga, "Sea Scorpion: A Poor Man's ICBM?" Jane's Intelligence Review, November 1998, p.5.

[12] “Militants Eying Seaborne Attack, U.S. General Says,” Reuters, August 25, 2004.

[13] Press Release, U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Don Young, Chairman, March 11, 2002,

[14] For a fuller description of Albright’s visit and its costs to U.S. credibility, see William C. Triplett II, Rogue State, Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2004, pp. 179-181.

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