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North Korean Ballistic Missile Program Primer

The North Korean ballistic missile program has been headlining news for some time now - with each successful launch evolving the program some more.

This article has been prepared for the reader to better understand the current situation with North Korea, particularly as it relates to its ongoing missile program and nuclear aspirations.

The modern North Korean tactical ballistic missile program owes its lineage to Soviet-era technology acquired through both direct and in-direct means. The initial basis of the program was the Soviet R-17 'Elbrus' missile (GRAU model number of '9K72'), better known as the 'SCUD', a land-based ballistic battlefield missile weapon introduced into the Soviet inventory in 1964. It found many Soviet-aligned customers across the globe during the Cold War period including Iraq's Saddam Hussein (where it was actively used in the Persian Gulf war of 1991).

The R-17 was in the works from 1956 until 1958 and is attributed to Viktor Makeyev. In its basic form, it stood 37 feet tall, held a diameter of 2.9 feet and weighed nearly 13,000lb. The liquid-rocket booster unit allowed for a range out to 300 kilometers Its outward shape was basic with a tubular body, pointed nosecone and finned aft section. The missile could remain airborne for about 15 minutes and required an hour for prep-to-launch.

The first examples of the missile were delivered to North Korea sometime in the late-1970s, most likely through Soviet customer Egypt, and this is thought to have been in response to material support given by the North Koreans during the Arab war with neighboring Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

From the original SCUD specimen was developed the local 'Hwasong-5' by North Korean engineers. This missile was essentially a re-engineered weapon based in the SCUD R-17E model and was noted for the first time in 1984. That April, the country began undertaking active testing of the new missile, finding the design to be quite limited but offering a treasure trove of information concerning ballistic missile technology nonetheless.

The North Koreans were able to exact several changes to the Hwasong-5 to improve it and this led to a new, better balance of warhead-versus-attainable-range. Beyond this the missile was also outfitted with several varying warhead types to broaden its tactical usefulness - including chemical agents. Serial production of this missile began in 1985 and a stock was sold to ally Iran in a technology transfer which further helped the North Korean program.

North Korean authorities were not content on the Hwasong-5's performance and inherent capabilities so work was ordered to continue and, in 1989, this gave rise to the 'Hwasong-6' series missile. Guidance was improved and the rocket's body lengthened with the warhead lightened to help increase range though, on the whole, it appears that little else on the missile was changed at this point. The weapon stood at 39.3 feet tall and had a diameter of 2.88 feet. The engine was liquid-fueled and the guidance fit of inertial design with an operational range out to 310 miles. Testing on the missile commenced in June of 1990 and serial production began in late-1990/early-1991 along with wheeled launcher vehicles made available for the North Korean Army.

Hwasong-7 / Rodong-1
The Hwasong-7 appeared in 1998 as a successor to the Hwasong-6 series and was also known as the 'Rodong-1'. Development on this missile began in the mid-1980s and continued to evolve the Soviet SCUD missile line. Western eyes first noted the type in May of 1990 during its testing phase.

At its core, the missile was designed as a dimensionally larger offering in the hopes of increasing both payload and range to provide North Korea with a more potent regional weapon against its southern neighbor and possible enemies in Japan and elsewhere. The missile stood at 51.18 feet and diameter measured 4.1 feet while the warhead weighed between 650 and 1,500 kilograms (running the gamut of supported destructive types: conventional and, possibly, nuclear payloads). The propulsion scheme remained liquid-fueled at its core and the guidance fit inertial. Testing revealed a range out to between 650 and 1,500 kilometers depending on warhead type and work on this model continues to this day (December 2017). The Hwasong-7 missile has been exported to allies in Egypt, Libya, Iran, and Pakistan.

Hwasong-9 / Rodong-1M
The Hwasong-9 (also the 'Rodong-1M') was a variant of the Hawsong-7 and most likely continues to carry the major traits of the Hwasong-7 with slight alterations to help improve the design.

The Hwasong-10 is one of the newer entries into the North Korean missile program, debuted (and identified by the West) in a 2010 military parade. They appear to be a lengthened form of the Soviet-era R-27 'Zyb' which served as a submarine-launched intermediate range ballistic missile. As such, the North Korean version retains the form and, possibly, the full function of the foreign weapon and relies on a liquid-based rocket propulsion scheme. Range is thought to reach up to, 4,000 kilometers and an inertial guidance system is used. Accuracy is improved over previous North Korean ballistic missiles and warhead types include conventional and specialty types (including nuclear should the North Koreans attain this). The missile stands at 39 feet and has a diameter of 4.9 feet. Iran is believed to have purchased this missile form North Korea. Testing on the type (by North Korea) has been active from 2016 into 2017 but results have been unspectacular as the missile has had a propensity to fail.

The Hwasong-12 was first identified after a successful test on May 14th, 2017. It is another intermediate-range ballistic missile offering weighing an estimated 25 tons. It stands at a height of 54 feet with a diameter of 4.9 feet. Again the missile has a liquid-based propellant and may carry conventional or nuclear payloads. Range can reach an estimated 6,000 kilometers which marks the missile as a notable stepping stone for the North Korean program - capable of reaching out as far as India in the west, the Arctic circle to the north, northern Australia to the south and just outside the Hawaiian Islands chain in the east.

The Hwasong-12 is in active testing as of December 2017. A first launch was confirmed as early as April 4th, 2017 but is thought to have failed. Two more failures followed on April 15th and April 28th, respectively until the initial success of May 2017. Since then, the missile has been fired on August 29th and September 15th, both successes.

The arrival of the Hwasong-12 marks a new phase in the stand-off between North Korea and the United States. It now provides the Hermit Kingdom with a viable bargaining chip, one that it has sought for decades, against any unfavorable advancements made by the United States or other outside invading force.

Hwasong-13 / Rodong-C
The Hwasong-13 (also Rodong-C) is a mobile intercontinental ballistic missile recognized in 2012. Its development is believed to have been abandoned in favor of the Hwasong-12, Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15 missile families. It failed several test launches during October 2016.

The Hwasong-14 was first (successfully) tested on July 4th, 2017 and is believed to be based (as a two-stage version) on the earlier Hwasong-12. The intent with this design is to provide North Korean fighting forces with a mobile intercontinental ballistic missile of improved range. A liquid-fueled engine is used and the overall propulsion system is believed to be Soviet-era in origin - though modernized for the new requirement. Its range may be able to reach out to 10,000 kilometers and possibly threaten the continental United States. Weight is 33.8 tons and the missile stands at 63 feet with a diameter of 5.5 feet. Two successful tests have been had to date, the first on July 4th, 2017 and the second later that month on July 28th.

The Hwasong-15 first appeared on Western radars during a first-flight had on November 28th, 2017. The missile is believed to have a range out to 13,000 kilometers which would surely threaten the U.S. mainland - either through conventional or nuclear payloads. Weight is estimated to be up to 72 tons with a standing height of 73.8 feet and a diameter of 7.8 feet. While the launch proved successful, the re-entry process saw the missile break up in flight (confirmed by Japan).

If the type (Hwasong-12) is able to one day accept a nuclear payload (the North Koreans are actively working on miniaturizing technology for this purpose), this decidedly changes the state of the game on the Korean Peninsula - and makes a direct land invasion of the North highly unlikely due to the high probability of loss-of-life to be expected. The Hwasong-12 is the longest-ranging missile available in the North Korean arsenal to date and can directly threaten American allies (and stationed forces as well as accompanying families) in South Korean and Japan.

The arrival of an advanced ballistic missile is of note for North Korea does not possess a 'first-rate' military in terms of technology, training and experience. Its air force is stocked with Soviet-era aircraft of decidedly lower quality than Western contemporaries and its naval force is lacking in key areas (surface vessels and submarines). The land component of the military is where North Korea has some staying power - it fields a massive collection of projectile- and rocket-based artillery with most pointed at central, highly-populated - areas of South Korea, essentially holding the people of South Korea at 'gunpoint'. Beyond this there is the 'Million Man Army' but quality (health, training, equipment) remains suspect and can vary considerably from company-to-company, infantryman-to-infantryman. The armored corps are of note but remain a mix of old and relatively new with modernizations having been attempted on some Soviet-era tank designs. Many remain untested in a true war setting.

The impasse between the United States (and the West) and North Korea continues to dominate the news and tensions have been high since active missile testing (some flying over Japanese airspace) occurred during September of 2017. There have been steps-to-war taken but the reins have eased some, only to be pulled back once more after a new, more daring action by the North. One thing is for certain, a second war is not an inevitability on the Korean Peninsula but highly probable with the current direction and global atmosphere. North Korea is certainly not going to give up its missile program, nor its nuclear aspirations, with its current leadership and it might take very high-level political wrangling (through China, Russia or the United Nations) or direct military intervention to bring the situation to an absolute end. Regional powers like South Korea and Japan have already begun to take steps to improve their defensive standing against missile attacks from the North - and possible Total War.

Other missiles of note of North Korean origin include the Pukkuksong-1, a submarine-launched ballistic missile successfully tested in 2016.