All we know about North Korean Ballistic Missiles and Nuclear weapons

Since 1984, the North Korea has conducted approximately 204 missile tests involving up to 30 distinct missile types. North Korea's demand for ballistic missiles, including nuclear-armed missiles, is not a mystery. Pyongyang has experienced what happens to countries that refuse to conform to the 'New World Order' established by George H.W. Bush after the end of the Cold War.

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Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P. Chacko is the publisher of Frontier India. He holds an M.B.A in International Business. Books: Author: Foxtrot to Arihant: The Story of Indian Navy's Submarine Arm; Co Author : Warring Navies - India and Pakistan. *views are Personal

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has recently substantially increased its missile testing. On Friday, it launched an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of hitting anywhere in the continental United States. What is the purpose of these tests? The short response is deterrence and constant US provocations to ensure their effectiveness.

When Did North Korea Acquire Ballistic Missiles?

Since 1984, North Korea has experimented with rocket science, and according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, the government has conducted approximately 204 missile tests involving up to 30 distinct missile types.

The DPRK stepped up its missile testing in 2006 when it successfully detonated its first nuclear weapon. Pyongyang began developing nuclear weapons in the late 1980s when it became apparent that the Soviet Union, its primary Cold War ally, was seeking peace with the West. The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 sparked increased efforts toward growth.

Due to these activities, the United Nations Security Council imposed severe economic sanctions on Pyongyang. These sanctions were imposed as a result of the missile and nuclear testing activities. North Korea’s missile and nuclear testing activities intensified after US President George W. Bush designated the country as a part of the “Axis of Evil” along with Iraq (which he subsequently invaded) and Iran. 

Why does North Korea test ballistic missiles?

The simple response is to ensure that they continue to function properly. North Korea’s missile testing was relatively limited between the years 1984 and the middle of the 2010s. It involved the launch of reconfigured Soviet-designed Scud B and Scud C tactical and short-range missile systems or their domestic variations, including the Rodong-1 (with a range of up to 1,500 km), the Unha-3, a scaled-up Scud missile used as space launcher, and the KN-02 Toksa Hwasong-11, which was a reverse-engineered Scud. These missiles had an operational range of 1,000-1,500 km (range up to 220 km).

Since 2015, when the Pukguksong-1, a two-stage submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), was launched three times from the Sinpo Shipyard off the east coast, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has been able to be classified as an independent missile power. After a year, the missile used a solid fuel motor allowing safer carrying and faster launches. In addition to the missile, a ground-based version called the Pukguksong-2 was created. According to reports, the missile can travel a distance of up to 2,500 kilometres while it is actively engaged in combat.

North Korea tests a hypersonic gliding warhead
North Korea tests a missile with a hypersonic gliding warhead

In the years that followed, North Korea conducted over a dozen tests of new ballistic and cruise missiles, ranging from the Hwasong-10 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which was tested in 2016, and has a range of 4,000 kilometres to the Hwasong-17 two-stage intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which was displayed in October 2020 and tested in March 2022. The test was shown in a music video depicting Kim Jong-un walking out of a missile hangar and checking the time. It is assumed that the Hwasong-17, which is the same missile that was tested by Pyongyang on November 3 and once more on Friday, has a guesstimated operational range of up to 15,000 kilometres, which is sufficient to reach practically any region in Asia, Australia, North America, or Europe. This belief is based on the fact that the missile was tested by Pyongyang on both November 3 and Friday.

What need does North Korea have for ballistic missiles?

North Korea tested at least 27 missiles in 2022, and up to 12 different missile types have been launched. These missiles include the mega Hwasong-12 and Hwasong-17, tactical KN-25 ballistic missiles (with a range of up to 380 km), a railway bogie mounted KN-23 tactical missile, and the Hwasong-8, which is a hypersonic glide vehicle believed to be mounted on a Hwasong-14, another long-range ICBM.

The intensification of testing in 2022 can be linked to the more antagonistic policies of the United States, Japan, and South Korea, as well as the failure of regional peace discussions under President Joe Biden and President Yoon Suk Yeol. North Korea has previously criticised the United States, South Korea, and Japan for a series of “provocations,” including large-scale military exercises conducted near its borders.

North Korea hypersonic missile Hwasong-8
North Korea hypersonic missile Hwasong-8. Image: KCNA

North Korea’s demand for ballistic missiles, including nuclear-armed missiles, is not a mystery. Pyongyang has experienced what happens to countries that refuse to conform to the ‘New World Order’ established by President George H.W. Bush in 1991 throughout the period following the end of the Cold War. 

Pyongyang publicly announced its standing as a nuclear weapons power in September. At the same time, it made public the phrasing of its nuclear doctrine, which stated that the weapons could be used in retaliation for a nuclear attack by an adversary, a large-scale conventional strike, or a failed attempt to decapitate the country’s leadership. The statement identifies the nation’s strategic deterrent as a “strong means of safeguarding the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and core interests of the state” and deterring regional conflict.

Who Provided Missiles and Nuclear Technology to North Korea?

No nation or organisation has officially acknowledged helping North Korea with the technologies required to create nuclear weapons and sophisticated missiles. In exchange for missile technology, it has been suggested that Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto personally transferred nuclear secrets to Pyongyang in the early to mid-1990s, including CDs holding technical data regarding uranium enrichment.

In 2017, a study by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank, suggested that North Korea’s sudden improvements in its long-range missile capabilities in the mid-to-late-2010s may have been partially attributable to information purchased illegally from Ukraine’s Yuzhmash missile R&D and production enterprise. As a result of the 2014 coup d’état in Ukraine, which forced Russia to cancel a big purchase, the missile design firm fell on hard times and was on the brink of insolvency. As per the experts, the engines of the DPRK’s longest-range missiles are strikingly similar to those of advanced Soviet ICBMs, such as the Yuzhmash-designed R-36. Kyiv has dismissed all reports that it transmitted data to North Korea and blamed the Russian intelligence services for creating such suspicions.

How many nuclear tests has North Korea carried out?

The DPRK conducted six nuclear tests between 2006 and 2017, and Washington and Seoul are concerned that Korea may be planning for further tests in light of the most recent escalation in tensions. The Asian nation is believed to possess more than a thousand ballistic missiles of various classes, ranging from short-range to long-range Hwasong missiles.

How many ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons does North Korea possess?

It is difficult to obtain precise information about the number of nuclear warheads in a nation’s arsenal. However, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the government has approximately 20 warheads and enough fissile material to produce 45-55 more.


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