How missiles reach their target

North Korea's missiles and their ranges at a glance

The missile tests of recent years show: North Korea can not only target targets in East Asia, America is now within range of its latest missiles. An overview.

the essentials in brief

  • North Korea has invested a great deal of energy in the further development of its missile arsenal in recent years and has made rapid progress in the process.
  • After a 17-month break, North Korea has been regularly testing short-range missiles again since mid-May 2019.
  • After two missile tests in the second half of 2017, experts agree that North Korea can hit the American mainland with ICBMs.
  • For years, the regime has also been working on downsizing a nuclear warhead so that it can be transported with an ICBM. In August 2017, both American military intelligence and the Japanese State Department concluded that North Korea was capable of doing this.

New developments

  • On October 2, North Korea - a few days before the planned resumption of talks with the US about its nuclear weapons program - carried out another missile test. It is the 11th test since May of this year. According to North Korean information, the medium-range ballistic missile was fired from a submarine off the coast for the first time - experts assume, however, that the test was carried out from an underwater platform. Such missiles are more difficult to detect and destroy by the enemy than those launched from mobile launchers or fixed silos on land. The missile reached Japanese waters, according to the Japanese government.
  • At the Korean summit on April 27, 2018, the two heads of state Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae announced a peace treaty and committed themselves to “complete denuclearization”. They jointly declared that "a new era of peace" is to begin on the Korean peninsula.
  • On November 28, 2017, North Korea tested a Hwasong-15 missile for the first time, which experts estimate is larger and more sophisticated than its predecessor models. Their maximum range is 13,000 kilometers. It seems to be able to hit any point in the USA with an optimal trajectory and without great load.
  • On September 3, 2017, North Korea tested a hydrogen bomb whose explosive power, according to experts, exceeded previous tests many times over. For comparison: the atomic bomb that the Americans dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 had an explosive force of 15 kilotons, the latest tested by North Korea reached 100 to 140 kilotons.

The missile program in detail

Launch and test area

North Korea has several missile launch sites. Musudan Ri is to the east and Tongchang Ri to the west. Several missile tests have also been reported from Kusong. The Hwasong-14 ICBM was apparently detonated in Panghyon. North Korea is testing the atomic bombs underground in Punggye Ri. Some types of missiles are launched from mobile launchers.

The arsenal

North Korea has different types of missiles that can be used for different purposes. However, in most of the tests it remains unclear what load the rockets were loaded with - this has a significant influence on their ranges.

Short-range missiles - target: South Korea
  • North Korea has several models of short-range missiles; Three types are currently considered ready for use: KN-02, Hwasong-5 and Hwasong-6.
  • Short-range missiles have a range of up to 150 kilometers, which is why they are primarily aimed at South Korean facilities near the border.

The KN-02, also called Toksa, has been considered operational since 2006. Since the first failed test in 2004, more than 20 have been successful. The regime has an estimated 100 to 200 pieces.

The most common short-range missiles are Hwasong-5 and Hwasong-6. They have a range of 300 to 500 kilometers and could theoretically hit any location in South Korea. According to estimates, North Korea has 500 copies. They are primarily equipped with conventional warheads with a dead weight of 500 to 1000 kilograms. In theory, however, they could also carry biological, chemical, and nuclear warheads. Both the Hwasong-5 and the Hwasong-6 were successfully tested. However, they have poor targeting accuracy: According to experts, their dispersion is at least 1000 meters.

Medium-range missiles - targets: Japan and Guam
  • Medium-range missiles are missiles with a range between 800 and 5500km.
  • North Korea successfully tested four types that are still in use today: Rodong-1, Musudan, Taepodong-1 and Hwasong-12.

In the Rodong-1 (South Korean Nodong-1) is a single-stage medium-range missile. It was developed and built in the eighties and nineties. The Rodong-1 has already been tested several times: 2006, 2009 and 2014; their range is up to 1500 kilometers. It is based on the design of the Scud missile, but is 50 percent larger and has a more powerful engine. This makes it suitable for use against Japan or American military bases on mainland Japan. The Rodong-1 is not considered to be particularly accurate: According to estimates, it has a spread of two to four kilometers. That doesn't make them any less dangerous. A targeted attack on a military base would likely result in many civilian casualties due to its inaccuracy. North Korea is said to have around 100 to 200 rodongs.

With the type Musudan - sometimes also referred to as Rodong-B / Nodong-B or Taepodong-X - is a medium-range missile, in the development of which Russian engineers who had emigrated were probably involved. With an estimated range of up to 4,000 kilometers, it could reach destinations much further away. In connection with the Musudan, the American air force base on the Pacific island of Guam is therefore often mentioned. The Musudan was first seen at a military parade in Pyongyang in October 2010, but the first successful test was not successful until June 2016: the missile flew about 400 kilometers. Nevertheless, the Musudan would currently hardly be able to transport a 500 kilogram warhead to Guam. For attacks on Japan or South Korea, the regime would rather fall back on the more reliable Rodong type.

The Taepodong-1 - also known as Paektusan-1 or Rodong-2 - was North Korea's first multi-stage missile. Experts from the Federation of American Scientists have recognized from satellite images that the first stage consists of a Rodong rocket and the second stage a Hwasong-6 rocket. Their range should be up to 2900 kilometers. In August 1998, the Taepodong-1 was tested with a third stage, but camouflaged as a transporter for the Kwangmyongsong satellite. The regime spoke of a success, but no satellite could be found in orbit. Experts therefore suspect that the first two stages work, but the third does not. No further separate tests have been reported so far.

In the spring of 2017, North Korea tested the type for the first time Hwasong-12, and several times. Only the fourth test on May 14th was successful. The rocket, the design of which, according to experts, appears new and probably developed in North Korea, flew 787 kilometers. Depending on the weight the rocket has to carry, it is estimated that it can travel up to 4,500 kilometers. North Korea claims it is possible to use the Hwasong-12 to transport a "large nuclear warhead". According to observers, the Hwasong-12 could be a precursor to a new ICBM.

ICBMs - target: American mainland
  • ICBMs are usually built in several stages and have a range of over 5500 kilometers.
  • North Korea has two types of ICBMs, the Taepodong-2 and the KN-08 and their further development, the Hwasong-14 and the Hwasong-15, respectively. In 2016, a Taepodong-2 launched a North Korean satellite from a launch pad. In July 2017 the Hwasong-14 was successfully tested for the first time; The Hwasong-15 followed in November 2017.
  • North Korea has long claimed that it could reach American territory with its missiles. Experts have been assuming since July 2017 that this is the case: at full capacity and at the correct launch angle, the long-range missile of the type Hwasong-14 could reach the American heartland. The Hwasong-15 tested in November 2017 also has a sufficient range.
  • However, the range depends largely on the load with which the rocket is loaded. The radius shown on the graphic below against only the maximum range of the missiles again.

North Korea tested the first long-range missile in April 2006: the multi-stage ICBM Taepodong-2 or Paektusan-2. It is technically much more advanced than its predecessor and, according to estimates, should be able to achieve a range of more than 10,000 kilometers.

The Taepodong-2 was tested three times: in 2006 it flew only 42 seconds, in 2009 and 2012 it was used unsuccessfully as a satellite transporter. The Taepodong-2 technology was only successfully tested in December 2012, but at that time in a satellite launch vehicle under the name Unha (Korean for galaxy).

When North Korea successfully launched a satellite in February 2016, one served as a carrier Unha-3, a further development of the Taepodong-2.

North Korea achieved a breakthrough in July 2017 with the successful test of a new type of ICBM. The presumably two-stage Hwasong-14, similar in drive to the Hwasong-12 tested recently, and flew around 930 kilometers at a steep take-off angle, which would result in a range of at least 6700 kilometers with a conventional, lower trajectory. This would enable the Hwasong-14 to hit the American mainland in the Alaska area.

Experts assume that the rocket could fly up to 10,000 kilometers with optimal function and with the advantage of the earth's rotation (fired to the east). After the test of the Hwasong-14, the Taepodong-2 moves into a different light: Although its range falls into the group of long-range missiles, it is apparently mainly used for the commissioning of satellites.

In November 2017, North Korea made another step forward. For the first time, the regime is testing a missile of the type Hwasong-15, which, according to the experts' estimates, is larger and more developed than the Hwasong-14. Their maximum range is 13,000 kilometers. While in July there were still doubts as to whether North Korea could reach the American east coast with the help of the Hwasong-14, the Hwasong-15 seems to reach every point in the USA with an optimal flight path and without great load. It is characterized in particular by a much stronger drive; which also suggests that it can maintain the range even with large loads - some experts speak of up to 1000 kilograms. As usual in tests, it was fired from a steep runway and flew 950 kilometers before crashing into the Sea of ​​Japan.

Submarine missiles
  • North Korea has two types of missiles that can be launched from a submarine.
  • The Pukguksong-1 has not yet reached its maximum range of 900 km.
  • The Pukguksong-3 was successfully tested on October 2, 2019. When shot down under water, their full range is estimated at around 2,000 kilometers.

Especially on the two-stage Pukguksong-1 and Pukguksong-3 is that they can be fired from submarines. They pose a greater threat because they are more difficult to spot than missiles from land-based launchers. A missile launched from a submarine gives North Korea a second strike if the country is attacked.

As far as is known, Pyongyang has just a single submarineequipped with a ballistic missile silo. A second appears to be under construction. In order to maintain a constant presence on the high seas, however, four or five functioning submarines are required. Experts estimate that it will be half a dozen years or more before North Korea has a functioning second strike capacity.

Atomic bombs

The regime has recently made significant progress in this area as well. On September 3, 2017, North Korea tested a hydrogen bomb whose explosive power, according to experts, exceeded previous tests many times over. For comparison: the atomic bomb that the Americans dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 had an explosive force of 15 kilotons, the latest tested by North Korea reached 100 to 140 kilotons.

Underground atomic tests

Estimated detonation value in kilotons

Can North Korea Really Hit the US?

In order to hit the United States with a nuclear warhead, several requirements must be met.

1. A missile that can reach mainland America - presumably met

Since the first test of the new Hwasong 14 missile type in July 2017, it can be assumed that this long-range missile can fly as far as the American mainland, namely as far as the east coast, when fully functional. However, the rocket is still in the development stage. The rocket flew nearly 1000 kilometers in each of the two previous tests; but several thousand kilometers up.

2. A bomb small enough to fit in a missile
- probably

North Korea has long claimed to be able to downsize its atomic bombs. This is necessary in order to transport them to a destination using a rocket. In March 2016, Kim Jong Un showed up with a silver, bomb-shaped object that was supposed to prove these capacities. However, the alleged bomb was rated by many experts as a dummy. In the summer of 2017, a report by the American military intelligence service DIA leaked that the Kim regime had produced nuclear weapons that could be transported with missiles. However, it is not clear whether North Korea has already tested the miniaturized bombs. The DIA never commented on the report - the status of the bombs, of which North Korea is said to have up to 60 - remains unclear.

3. A warhead that survives re-entry into the atmosphere - findings unknown

The re-entry into the earth's atmosphere has to be done with great precision so that the rocket is not damaged. Entry angle and speed and thus controllability play a major role. The damage caused by heat and high pressure can be countered if the rocket head is covered with a layer that burns off on contact with the atmosphere, but does not damage the rocket head. So far it has not been possible to monitor North Korean missiles for this capability. This has to do with the fact that the missiles - or their remains - are believed to have fallen into the sea.

4. A missile that hits its target exactly
- Knowledge unknown

The accuracy of the North Korean missiles can hardly be judged. Most go down over the sea and it is not known whether they have reached their destination or not. The accuracy of long-range missiles is also a challenge for states that have a highly developed missile program; the deviation can therefore be more than 100 meters. However, if you want to hit a large city, an accuracy of several kilometers is sufficient.

5. A missile that can break through American defense systems - probably

For decades, the US has been investing in a missile defense system designed to neutralize projectiles from “rogue states”. It now resembles a wide-spun network, the aim of which is to banish the American mainland from the threat of all types of missiles. While the test record for short and medium-range missiles looks relatively good, the success rate of the Ground-base Midcourse Defense (GMD) designed for long-range missiles is only around 50 percent, and that under known test conditions. Of course, the Americans do not say which missiles outsmarted the defense systems. It is therefore possible that a North Korean missile could slip through the mesh - if it has range, is accurate and manages to re-enter the atmosphere.

How and why North Korea became a nuclear power