Here's Why North Korea's Missile Program is Far More Advanced Than You Think

© AP Photo / Ahn Young-joonPeople watch a TV news channel airing an image of North Korea's ballistic missile launch published in North Korea's Rodong Sinmun newspaper at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul. (File)
People watch a TV news channel airing an image of North Korea's ballistic missile launch published in North Korea's Rodong Sinmun newspaper at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul. (File) - Sputnik International
Some might be tempted to dismiss the North Korean missile program as something that lacks substance, but Russian defense analyst Vladimir Khrustalev wrote in a detailed analysis for that Pyongyang has in fact made major progress and is close to building its own intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

Publicly available information shows that North Korea has almost all the components needed to produce a three-stage ICBM and a multistage launch system to deliver heavy payloads into space, he said.

"Pyongyang is on the verge of becoming a major aerospace power, physically capable of reaching its adversaries on another continent and deploying its own orbit group. If the speed acquired in recent years remains the same, this will happen in the next five years," the analyst warned.

Until 2012, there were virtually no signs that North Korea was close to developing a ballistic missile capable of travelling thousands of kilometers. On April 15, 2012, Pyongyang unveiled six three-stage missiles designated as Hwaseong-13 at home and KN-08 in the West. Three years later the North showcased another version of Hwaseong-13 which foreign analysts dubbed KN-14.

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The KN-14 was shorter and its warhead had a different shape, Khrustalev said, adding that the missile on display most likely had two stages instead of three.

In March 2016, the world managed to take a sneak peek of North Korea's missile program when Pyongyang published several photos of Kim Jong-un meeting with experts on nuclear weapons and their methods of delivery. The images showed a mockup of a nuclear weapon, the dissembled KN-08 and KN-14, as well as elements of their engine systems.

Later that month, Pyongyang reported that it successfully tested heat insulation for the warhead of an ICBM under development. This, according to Khrustalev, is one of the key issues when it comes to building battle-ready long-range missiles. In April, the North announced that it successfully tested the engine for the new ICBM.

"Combined with successful tests of the single stage Hwaseong-10, which is technologically quite similar to the Soviet R-27 Zyb (structural materials, fuel, engines), this indicates that North Korea is developing a multistage ICBM using same technologies," the analyst said.

Khrustalev noted that although no information is available on the exact composition of the KN-08 and KN-14, experts agree that Pyongyang is capable of developing a multistage ICBM on these platforms using Hwaseong-10's technological base.

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"The most conservative estimates place its maximum theoretical range with a nuclear payload at 5,500-6,500 kilometers, with some saying that it could travel as far as 12,000," he said, with the majority of researchers saying that its range could be somewhere between 7,500 and 9,000 kilometers. In other word the missile will in theory be capable of reaching US soil.

The North Korean missile program goes beyond military tasks.

"There is a rather ambitious space program," Khrustalev said. "Analysts have often dismissed it as a fantasy, but reality begs to differ."

On September 20, 2016, Pyongyang unveiled a new large rocket engine that reportedly had a thrust of 80 tons. The news prompted the analyst to say that North Korea has a "powerful construction set to build different booster vehicles." If so, Pyongyang will be able to deliver low orbit heavy satellites.

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