News

September 2, 1998

 

RE: Taepodong 1 test flight

FR: David Wright

 

North Korea apparently tested a Taepodong 1 (TD-1) missile around noon local time (0300 GMT) on August 31.

The missile is probably a two-stage missile that uses the Nodong as its first stage and modified Scud as the second stage. This combination is the obvious next step in missile development once North Korea had a working Nodong. My modeling of this missile gives a range of 1,500-2,000 km with a one-tonne payload, depending on details like how heavy the missile casing is, what fuel it uses, etc.

The second stage of the missile reportedly overflew Japan, apparently passing over the northern part of the main Japanese island of Honshu. While some news reports are quoting the range as 2,000 km, the actual range was apparently closer to 1,400-1,500 km. Press reports from Japan have given the range as 1380 km. This is also consistent with press statements that the missile landed in the Pacific Ocean a couple hundred miles beyond Japan. I have also been told that the US Pentagon has given a range of 1,500 km for the test.

One source of confusion has been that some press reports state that the missile landed in the Sea of Japan, 400-500 km from North Korea. My calculations show that this is where one would expect the first stage booster to land after it burned out, so these reports are consistent with a two-stage missile that could overfly Japan.

There are also reports that two objects landed in the Pacific Ocean after passing over Japan, which is consistent with the missile having a separable warhead. I would expect that a missile of this range would have a separable warhead, for two reasons. First, this missile would reenter the atmosphere at high enough speeds that it would break up if it were still attached to the warhead, just as the 600-km-range al Husayn missiles did during the 1991 Gulf War. Such a breakup can cause the warhead to spiral erratically. Second, if North Korea had developed the technology required to separate the two missile stages, it could presumably use similar technology to allow the warhead to separate.

Japanese and US intelligence apparently were expecting the test to take place. They were therefore able to have ships and planes in the area to watch the test and presumably got a good look at it.

The TD-1 is still essentially Scud technology. However, the most important aspect of the test is that for the first time North Korea has demonstrated the capability to launch a two-stage missile, and therefore shows that North Korea has developed staging technology. It has thus crossed an important technical hurdle. Multiple stages are necessary for North Korea to develop longer range missiles. To reach longer ranges, North Korea would need to develop a more powerful booster.

It is worth pointing out that while the TD-1 might be a step toward longer-range missiles, the TD-1 in itself does not really increase North Korea's capabilities, e.g., against Japan. These missiles are so inaccurate that they can only be used for terror strikes against cities, which North Korea could already carry out in other ways. A smuggled bomb or a bomb on a ship in a harbor could not only deliver the weapon more accurately, but would not pinpoint the source of the attack.

However, the additional range might be seen as more important by other countries, such as Pakistan. Following the Ghauri missile test in April, there were press reports that Pakistan was interested in acquring a 2,000 km-range missile, which would allow it to target more of India. This might help explain the timing of the TD-1 test. North Korea may have decided to move ahead with testing the missile if it had a willing buyer.

The timing may instead have primarily been driven by domestic North Korean issues, or by an attempt to increase pressure on the US to get more serious about missile negotiations, or more likely by a combination of these three.