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The Peninsula

Understanding North Korea’s Missile Motivations

Published December 12, 2012
Category: North Korea

By Chad O’Carroll

With North Korea having conducted two long range rocket launches in a year, many analysts have been speculating as to why Pyongyang was so keen to try another launch just months after the last one ended in catastrophic failure. One straightforward theory suggests Pyongyang wants an inter-continental ballistic missile capability and that today’s launch was motivated to get North Korea one step closer to that goal. Another theory suggests the launch was symbolic, designed primarily to mark the 100 year anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth and recent departure of Kim Jong Il. Yet other theories suggest the launch may even have been an attempt to influence South Korean elections or to simply remind leaders that Pyongyang still exists.

While the world has gotten used to an increasing frequency of long-range North Korean missile testing, it is true that the more the country launches, the closer they come to acquiring an inter-continental ballistic missile capability. Wed to Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, this capability could one day present a security risk to the United States and one that policy makers in Washington DC will be keen avoid. But following decades of investment in ballistic missile technology, it seems North Korea’s missile motivations are deep and as time passes, becoming increasingly difficult to override. If hopes to one-day reverse North Korea’s missile motivations remain, it is important that policy makers address what have now become a multitude of drivers.


Motivations for North Korea’s missile program began in the early 1960s, a period of time that saw insecurity mounting for Pyongyang due to deteriorating Soviet-DPRK relations and increasing friction between traditional allies Moscow and Beijing. Responding to a seemingly more dangerous threat environment and wanting to free the country from Soviet and Chinese dependence, Kim Il Sung in 1965 commented, “If a war breaks out, the U.S and Japan will be involved [and] in order to prevent their involvement, we have to be able to produce rockets which fly as far as Japan.”

Whilst insecurity was undoubtedly the underlying factor behind Kim Il-Sung’s 1965 decision to pursue missiles, it has nonetheless continued to prevail as an important motivation for the program’s continuation and development.  As such, militarily impulses can be seen as contributing towards the thinking that necessitated the DPRK’s initial requirement of possessing a short, medium and long-range missile arsenal.  The early short-range low-technology missile acquisitions of the late 1960s and early 1970s, combined with the North’s then goal of conquering the South using military means, suggested that Kim Il Sung certainly regarded these missiles as primarily offensive weapons.  Consequently, North Korea’s 1980s work to develop 600km range missiles be seen then as a way of assuring a pan-ROK strike capacity.

While Pyongyang was able to roughly match ROK military expenditure up until the early 1970s with relatively equivalent technology, as economic decline became more and more apparent, the DPRK’s potential to force reunification dwindled.  But although the Korean People’s Army (KPA) represented (and still does) a quantitatively superior force compared to that of the South, the North’s economic problems have kept its technology and equipment frozen in time.  As a result it is likely the security motivation behind North Korea’s pursuit of medium and long-range (‘No-Dong’ and ‘Taepodong’ class respectively) missiles in the late 1980s and 1990s changed.  Indeed, the No-Dong 1,500km SCUD variant was designed to reach Japan whilst the 8000km range Taepodong series was likely designed with the aim of reaching continental USA. It’s this Taepodong rocket that evolved to the Unha-3 class used most recently.

Rather than ready such missiles for offensive use like North Korea had done in the 1970s and early 1980s, it is likely that the increased ranges of these two variants represent a changed defensive posture.  In combination with nascent chemical, biological and nuclear programs, North Korea was able to use its medium and longer-range missile delivery system as a strategic deterrent, capable of leveling the playing field vis-à-vis its traditional and militarily advanced enemies. Evidently then, in either offensive or defensive lights, this missile program can thus be partially as an outgrowth of North Korean strategic thinking that has been largely driven by a sense of insecurity.


As already alluded to, North Korea’s economy was by the early 1980s in a downward and seemingly irreversible spiral.  Given that during the early 1980s DPRK Hwasong missiles cost between $1.5 and $2 million each, one might initially assume the financial burden of the program to have ended further research and development at this time.  Paradoxically, North Korea regarded the high cost of its missiles as way of raising much-needed foreign exchange and as a possible trading chip that could secure the acquisition of important resources.

Missile exports can be traced back to the mid-1980s when nearly 100 Hwasongs were sold to Iran for use in her war with Iraq.  Deals such as this, and largely with states shunned by traditional arms suppliers partaking in non-proliferation initiatives, have since continued in varying degrees with the additional benefit of creating numerous missile production employment opportunities in North Korea. Estimates suggest that between 1987 and 1992 missile exports totaled $580 million, whilst in 1993 exports were used to secure $120 million worth of Iranian crude oil.  By 2001 North Korea’s GDP was valued at $15.7 billion, being made up of $650 million of legitimate exports and some $560 million of clandestine missile sales.

Whilst the Kim dynasty denied the existence of the missile cash cow for many years, the motivation to engage in missile production for financial reasons was made clear when Pyongyang declared, “our missile export is aimed at obtaining foreign money which we need at present”. It is therefore evident that the cumulative effects of North Korea’s shrinking economy, the need for foreign exchange and natural resources, and the existence of a buoyant export market all contributed towards motivating North Korea to continue missile production for much of the 1980 and early 1990s. Intriguingly, the export market itself likely contributed towards the shaping and facilitating of the strategic policies mentioned in the preceding paragraphs.


A further (if perhaps unintentional) driver for North Korea’s long running missile program can be seen commencing in Pyongyang’s 1992 attempt to use the technology as a diplomatic bargaining chip in response to Israel’s request to stop Hwasong (a DPRK SCUD clone) exports to Syria and Iran.  Upon Israel’s call that Pyongyang stop exporting missiles to the Middle East, North Korea demanded Israeli economic cooperation worth approximately one billion dollars in compensation and the development of a gold mine in Unsan.  Tellingly North Korea’s reported exports to Iran and Syria at this time totaled well under one billion dollars, far less than the net worth of what Pyongyang was demanding from Israel.

Although the U.S. ultimately forced Israel to back out of this deal, the fact that the Israelis were at all considering the agreement goes to illustrate the diplomatic leverage that missiles could give the DPRK on the world stage. Learning from this episode, in response to North Korea’s 1998 Taepodong-1 test, renewed calls from the U.S to curtail the DPRK’s missile exports were met with comparable demands for economic and scientific compensation from Pyongyang.   Here again, the missile program gave negotiating power to the DPRK that was well beyond what it ‘should’ have realistically possessed as a small, developing nation.

Since the DPRK’s nuclear test of 2006 it is arguable that the value of this bargaining chip has been increased significantly.   For the outside world, developments in North Korean missile technology cannot now be understood as being divorced from their nuclear capability. That’s why North Korea satellite launches in 2012 are viewed with so much suspicion, being regarded by many as progress towards a nuclear ICBM capability.  And should North Korea eventually acquire such a weapon, it will clearly mark a far more valuable possession on any negotiating table in future. This factor may now be playing a significant role in motivating North Korea to further refine or develop a long-range capacity.


Many analysts are regarding North Korea’s latest satellite launch as evidence that Pyongyang is strongly motivated to invest in rocket technology as a way of bolstering domestic support. In a similar fashion to how the regime learnt to use missiles as a bargaining chip, it would appear that this factor was unlikely an initial impetus behind the program but instead a utility whose potential advantage became evident to the regime in more recent years, as technical improvements increased.

Accordingly, the 1998, 2006, 2009 and April 2012 long-range “satellite launches” can be understood domestically as part of the leadership’s efforts to advance the country as a “strong and prosperous” state. In this light the launch can be understood in terms of inward looking national prestige, as a mechanism to galvanize support for the regime and promote unity at a time when economic hardship and food shortage remained. This was made evident by the manner in which North Korean media extracted every last ounce of propaganda value from first three satellite launch attempts, reporting that all launches were a success – despite credible allegations of failure from widespread external sources.

After the first launch in 1998, for months state news pushed the satellite story with extravagant reports suggesting that citizens were expressing great national pride and calling in to describe their sightings of the Kwangmyonsong-1 satellite. The domestic importance assigned to the ostensible ‘space program’ was again illustrated in 2009 as evidenced by the state organized mass rallies celebrating the success of the launch in Pyongyang.  That launch took place just days before Kim was sworn in as chairman of the National Defense Commission, the highest position of authority in the North, suggesting it may have even been used to bolster public support in him.

More recently, the December 2012 launch was timed to coincide with the 100 year anniversary celebrations of Kim Il Sung’s birth, also taking place just days before the anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s death.  As highly symbolic dates in the DPRK calendar, North Korea’s rocket launches can thus be seen as playing a major role in promoting both national solidarity and pride – something crucial for Kim Jong Un in what remains an early period of leadership.


Since the 1950’s the DPRK has evolved in a state of perpetual suspicion, fear and isolation.  While the theme of security can be seen as having played a major role in the initial driving force of the DPRK missile program, it is evident that it still prevails today as an important explanation for their program.   But that the program evolved from a short-range arsenal to the current objective of achieving an intercontinental capability is simply a reflection of the evolving security threats that face the DPRK regime.

Initially, short-range missiles were required to attack the rear of the ROK in a war that was widely expected to rekindle at any moment.  As economic difficulties commenced in the 1970s, longer range missiles helped mitigate the growing differences in North-South military capabilities.  The further the North was economically marginalized through the 1980s, the more valuable its burgeoning missile trade was at securing the regime internally; providing employment opportunities and valuable commodities for the state.  Fast forward to the late 80s and early 90s, and increased missile ranges wed to increasing WMD opportunities bolstered Pyongyang’s diplomatic leverage whilst improving the deterrent value of the arsenal.  Domestic support was further fortified through internal propaganda based on the rapid developments that brought Pyongyang closer and closer to entering space.

In short, it is evident that the ever-changing motivations of the DPRK missile program can be understood primarily through the lens of regime survival, having evolved in accordance with technical developments as and when they happened.  Under current conditions it is arguable that Pyongyang will therefore continue to regard missiles as an essential facet of national security.  Regardless of the success of today’s launch, the evidence suggests the DPRK will continue investing in the missile program regardless.

PHOTO: Some rights reserved by NelC, Flickr Creative Commons

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