February 07, 2013

The North Korean ICBM Test-Launch of December, 2012

By Bruce E. Bechtol Jr. Ph.D. at Angelo State University.

Dr. Bruce E. Bechtol Jr. is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Angelo State University and the current President of the International Council on Korean Studies.  His latest book, The Last Days of Kim Jong-il: The North Korean Threat in a Changing Era (Washington DC: Potomac Books) is scheduled for publication in April, 2013.

The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Angelo State University or HRNK.

The North Korean ICBM Test-Launch of December, 20121

North Korea has successfully manufactured, tested, deployed, and proliferated SRBM's (Scud B through D and the "Extended Range" Scud), MRBM's (No Dong), and IRBM's (Musudan - which was sold to Iran in 2005 - 18 systems - and reportedly tested in 2006).2   But despite tests of the Taepo Dong 1 in 1998, and Taepo Dong 2 in 2006, 2009, and April of 2012, until very recently, North Korea was unsuccessful in achieving the technology for a three-stage ballistic missile capable of hitting Alaska, Hawaii, or perhaps even the continental United States.  This all changed in December of 2012 - and those with an interest in the region should take note of this important advance in Pyongyang's ballistic missile program.   

By late November, 2012, the North Koreans were again showing signs that they intended to conduct a long-range missile test of the Taepo Dong system from their site at Tongchang-ni.  The first two stages of the missile were imaged sitting near the launch site.  In addition, several vehicles and fuel tanks were noted involved in activity that was assessed (correctly) as preparations for a test-launch.  The Pentagon immediately began activating global missile defenses in close collaboration with South Korea and Japan.3   In early December, North Korean officials announced that a "satellite" launch would occur mid-month, and that issues with the April launch had been analyzed and fixed.  The North Koreans announced later that the launch would occur between 10 and 22 December, and parts from the rocket would not be a danger to countries in the region or elsewhere.4   According to South Korean officials who were quoted in the press, the North Koreans may have used foreign scientists to help resolve some of the problems of previous long-range missile test launches - problems such as weak engine thrust.  North Korea may have used smuggled technology and/or rogue scientists from the Ukraine and other former Soviet republics, to fix problems that had plagued previous test launches of their long-range ballistic missiles.5   

By December 3, 2012, North Korean technicians had placed the first of three stages of the Taepo Dong missile on the rocket pad.  According to data released by North Korean officials, the missile's first stage would fall into the Yellow Sea (West Sea), close to where the first stage was scheduled to fall from the missile during the April, 2012 launch.  It was announced that the second stage of the missile would come down in the ocean about 190 kilometers east of the Philippines.  U.S. and South Korean forces immediately increased their airborne and seaborne surveillance, including Aegis equipped ships and reconnaissance aircraft missions.6  By December 4, 2012, the second of three stages had been placed on the launch pad, and by December 5, all three stages had been placed on the pad.  By December 6, the United States had deployed a floating, sea-based, "X-Band Radar" from Hawaii to the area, in order to track the North Korean test-launch.  The large, sophisticated radar is one of the key components of the U.S. BMD system.7  By December 9, North Korea appeared to be experiencing "difficulties" with preparations for the launch.  The North Koreans may have swapped out components of the missile that were on the launch pad during this time frame - and even announced that the launch might be delayed (which it apparently was not).8

On December 12, 2012, North Korea once again conducted a test-launch of the Taepo Dong 2 missile system.  This time the test-launch of a three-stage ballistic missile appears to have been successful - as the rocket went through all three of its stages and launched a small satellite into space.  Despite the successful launch, many pundits were skeptical of the North Korean technology.  The success of the satellite was called into question by many (though in my view the satellite means nothing - it is all about the success or failure of a three-stage ballistic missile platform), and some even called into question the "re-entry" capability of North Korea's long-range missiles.  I believe it should be pointed out that North Korea has had "re-entry" technology for its other ballistic missiles for more than 30 years now.  Based on the fact that North Korea has "re-entry" technology for all of its other missiles, it is my assessment that Pyongyang likely also has this technology developed for the Taepo Dong platforms.  At a press conference soon after the successful test-launch, White House spokesperson Jay Carney indicated that the North Koreans could still not hit the continental United States with a ballistic missile - though of course he did not mention Alaska or Hawaii.9 

In an interesting - though completely predictable development - several press sources revealed that an Iranian team arrived in North Korea several weeks before launch preparations began. The Iranians have observed all of the Taepo Dong test launches the North Koreans have conducted, and were almost certainly there to observe the launch to see if Tehran would purchase technology and/or actual missiles.  Iran did not (at the time) have three-stage ballistic missile technology (None of Iran's missiles or satellite platforms at the time had three-stage capability).  Thus, any reports that Iran was there to "assist" North Korea with their launch can only be described as being written by those who had not done their research.  When it comes to ballistic missiles, North Korea is the seller, and Iran is the buyer.  There is no evidence to indicate any other possible assessment.  In fact, according to press reports, Iran was not even informed of the launch until October of 2012.10 

There is much that can be learned from North Korea's first successful test-launch of a three-stage ballistic missile.  North Korea has now proven that it has the technology and the will to launch a three-stage missile capable of hitting targets in Alaska and Hawaii - and perhaps even the continental United States (depending on what one's assessment is based on the data from the launch).  North Korea has also shown that it is more than willing to proliferate this technology (and perhaps the actual missiles as well) by inviting a team of Iranians to observe the launch.  There is no doubt that Tehran will pay a great deal of money for three-stage ballistic missile technology.  

Even more was learned when South Korean experts were able to retrieve and analyze components of the rocket's first stage after it it fell into the ocean during the launch on December 12.  After examining what turned out to be the Taepo Dong 2 first stage in detail, experts reported several interesting facts.  One of the experts reporting to the press after the missile components had been examined stated, "Because it used red fuming nitric acid as an oxidizer, which can be stored for a long time at normal temperature, the team concluded that (the rocket) was intended for testing (the North's) ICBM technology, rather than developing a space launch vehicle." The expert further stated, "It used four Nodong missile engines for the first stage booster, while utilizing one Skud missile engine to make the second stage propellant in a bid to save time and cost."  Perhaps among the most important things revealed during the analysis, was the data produced from a simulation, which showed (based on size and propellant) that the missile was assessed to have a capability of flying 10,000 kilometers carrying a warhead weighing 500 kilograms.11   A senior South Korean military official further confirmed the technology behind North Korea's Taepo Dong program when he stated, "They efficiently developed a three-stage long-range missile by using their existing Rodong and Scud missile technology."12 

North Korea has now proven that it can successfully launch a three-stage ICBM platform - despite using technology to do so that many consider extremely primitive.  This capability should not be discounted.  Those who were cynical of North Korea's long-range ballistic missile capability did not hesitate to address past failures.  Thus, this successful launch of a three-stage platform should be given the same attention.  As North Korea continues to advance in its ballistic missile capabilities, policy makers and analysts would be wise to consider Pyongyang has proven over a period of many years to be willing to proliferate its missile technology to anyone who would buy it.  There is no doubt that Iran falls into this category.  Thus, as we move into 2013, it will be important to consider that the test launch of December 2012 likely advanced the ballistic missile ambitions of not one rogue nation, but two - North Korea and Iran.


1. The following is an excerpt from the author' upcoming book, entitled, The Last Days of Kim Jong-il: The North Korean Threat in a Changing Era (Washington DC: Potomac Books).  Scheduled for publication April, 2013.

2. For more details on North Korea's robust ballistic missile program, See:
Bruce E. Bechtol Jr., Defiant Failed State: The North Korean Threat to International Security (Washington DC: Potomac Books, 2010) 27-39.
For details on the sale of the North Korean Musudan missile to Iran in 2005, See:
Alon Ben-David, “Iran Acquires Ballistic Missiles from DPRK,” Janes Defence Weekly, 29 December 2005, URL: http://articles.janes.com/articles/Janes-Defence-Weekly-2006/Iran-acquires-ballistic-missiles-from-DPRK.html 
For details regarding the testing of the Musudan missile in Iran during 2006, See:
Charles P. Vick, “The Operational Shahab-4/No-dong-B Flight Tested in Iran for Iran & North Korea Confirmed," Global Security.Org, April 10, 2007, URL: http://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/report/2006/cpvick-no-dong-b_2006.htm

“Iran Develops Missile With 4,000-KM Range,” Middle East Newsline, March 2, 2006, URL: http://www.menewsline.com/stories/2006/march/03_02_1.html , also available on URL: http://regimechangeiran.blogspot.com/2006/03/iran-develops-missile-with-4000-km.html  

3. See: "Countdown to Pyongyang's Missile Launch: Unha Rocket Stages at Assembly Building," 38 North,  November 29, 2012, URL: http://38north.org/2012/11/sohae112912/ 
Bill Gertz, "Inside the Ring: North Korean Missile Launch Set," Washington Times, November 28, 2012, URL: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2012/nov/28/inside-the-ring-north-korean-missile-launch-set/?page=all

4. See: Foster Klug, "NKorea Says it Will launch Long-Range Rocket Soon," Associated Press, December 1, 2012, URL: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2012/dec/1/nkorea-says-it-will-launch-long-range-rocket-soon/?page=all 
"N. Korea to Launch "Satellite" Betweern Dec 10 and 22," Yonhap, December 1, 2012, URL: http://english.yonhapnews.co.kr/northkorea/2012/12/01/0401000000AEN20121201002600320.HTML  

5.  For more details regarding North Korea's use of technology from former Soviet Republics,  See:
"N. KoreaTried to Import Foreign Missile Technology," Chosun Ilbo, December 3, 2012, URL: http://english.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2012/12/03/2012120300676.html 

6.  For details regarding the announced splash-down areas for sections of the Taepo Dong 2 missile and the reactions to the launch preparations by the United States and South Korea, See:
"First Stage Rocket in Position at N. Korea's Launch Pad," Yonhap, December 3, 2012, URL: http://english.yonhapnews.co.kr/northkorea/2012/12/03/0401000000AEN20121203009351315.HTML 
Kim Eun-jung, "S. Korea, U.S. Step up Monitoring ahead of N Korean Launch," Yonhap, December 3, 2012, URL: http://english.yonhapnews.co.kr/national/2012/12/03/8/0301000000AEN20121203001600315F.HTML 
"North Korea Notifies U.N. Maritime Agency of Maritime Coordinates," Yonhap, December 4, 2012, URL: http://english.yonhapnews.co.kr/northkorea/2012/12/04/0401000000AEN20121204003600315.HTML 
David Wright, "North Korea Gives Locatin of Splashdown Zones, Begins Assembling Rocket," All Things Nuclear, December 4, 2012, URL: http://allthingsnuclear.org/north-korea-gives-location-of-splashdown-zones-begins-assembling-rocket/ 
Lee Sang Yong, "North Informs IMO of Launch Plan," DailyNK, December 4, 2012, URL: http://www.dailynk.com/english/read.php?cataId=nk00100&num=10099 

7.  For details regarding the placement of the missile stages on the launch pad, and the deployment of the American "X-Band" radar, See: "North Korea Installing all Three Stages of Rocket into Position: Source," Yonhap, December 4, 2012, URL: http://english.yonhapnews.co.kr/national/2012/12/04/61/0301000000AEN20121204009700315F.HTML 
"N. Korea Completes Installation of Long-Range Rocket on Launch Pad," Yonhap, December 5, 2012, URL: http://english.yonhapnews.co.kr/national/2012/12/05/54/0301000000AEN20121205005852315F.HTML 
"High-Spec U.S. Radar to Monitor N. Korean Rocket," Chosun Ilbo, December 6, 2012, URL:  http://english.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2012/12/06/2012120601027.html 

8.  See: Jack Kim and Ju-min Park, "North Korea Replacing Rocket Stage, Likely to Launch as Planned: Report," Reuters, December 10, 2012, URL: http://in.reuters.com/article/2012/12/10/korea-north-rocket-idINDEE8B900420121210  
Kim Eun-jung, "N. Korea's Rocket Defect Related to Direction Control System: Source," Yonhap, December 11, 2012, URL: http://english.yonhapnews.co.kr/national/2012/12/11/85/0301000000AEN20121211004500315F.HTML 

9.  For information regarding misleading analysis by pundits following the December 12, 2012 test-launch of the Taepo Dong 2, the reports confirming the successful launch of a three-stage ballistic missile platform, and the stated reaction from a White House spokesman, See:
"North Korea Rocket has '10,000 km Range," BBC News, December 23, 2012, URL: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-20830605 
Jack Kim and Mayumi Negishi, "North Korea Rocket Launch Raises Nuclear Stakes," Reuters, December 12, 2012, URL: http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/12/12/us-korea-north-rocket-idUSBRE8BB02K20121212 
Foster Klug and Matthew Pennington, "North Korea Still Years Away from Reliable Missiles," Associated Press, December 14, 2012, URL: http://www.bostonglobe.com/news/world/2012/12/14/nkorea-still-years-away-from-reliable-missiles/umbpW4AgepD4YwOi6IkCaI/story.html 
Park Hyun, "White House Says NK Missiles Still Can't Reach Continental US," The Hankyoreh, December 15, 2012, URL: http://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_northkorea/565535.html 

10.  For more details regarding the Iranian delegation "visit" to North Korea before and during the test-launch on December 12, 2012, See: Yaakov Lappin, "Iran Stations Defense Staff at North Korean Site," Reuters, December 2, 2012, URL: http://www.jpost.com/IranianThreat/News/Article.aspx?id=294244 
"Iranian Experts at N. Korea's Rocket Site: Report," Bangkok Post, December 11, 2012, URL: http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/asia/325432/iranian-experts-at-n-korea-rocket-site-report 
"NHK: N. Korea Informed Iran of Rocket Launch Plan in October," KBS News, December 19, 2012, URL: http://world.kbs.co.kr/english/news/news_In_detail.htm?lang=e&id=In&No=95442&current_page=  

11. For detailed results of the analysis conducted on the Taepo Dong 2 first-stage components recovered by South Korean technicians during December of 2012, See:
Kim Eun-jung, "Rocket Debris Reveals N. Korea's Intention to Test ICBM Technology," Yonhap, December 23, 2012, URL: http://english.yonhapnews.co.kr/national/2012/12/22/99/0301000000AEN20121222002300315F.HTML  

12.  See: Choe Sang-hun, "Evidence Shows Military Purpose in North Korean Rocket, Seoul Says," New York Times, December 23, 2012, URL: http://www.newsits.com/news/world/evidence-shows-military-purpose-in-north-korean-rocket-seoul-says/