The Next North Korean Threat: Killer Missiles for All

In this op-ed, featured in The Wall Street Journal, NPEC's Executive Director and Zachary Keck examine the security implications of North Korea's recent test of a 300-1,000 kilometer range Scud missile with a maneuvering reentry vehicle. The piece analyzes how the further spread of this missile technology to hostile nations and terror groups threatens the security of the United States and its allies and what the U.S. should do about it. 

Jul 31, 2017
AUTHOR: Henry Sokolski & Zachary Keck

Kim Jong Un is Going Ballistic in More Ways Than One 

North Korea has developed advanced short-range weapons and is almost certain to export them.

By Henry Sokolski and Zachary Keck

Among the many types of missiles North Korea is perfecting is a short-range system that Kim Jong Un is almost certain to export. Although not as worrisome as the intercontinental ballistic missile Pyongyang tested last Friday, this weapon has a highly accurate front end optimized to knock out overseas U.S. and allied bases, Persian Gulf oil fields, key Israeli assets and eventually even commercial shipping and warships. The good news is there’s still time to halt the system’s proliferation, but only if we act quickly.

The missile in question is an advanced version of a Scud, a 185- to 620-mile-range missile that has been in use world-wide for decades. What makes the version North Korea just tested so different is that it has a maneuvering re-entry vehicle, or MaRV, which allows the missile’s warhead to maneuver late in flight both to evade missile defenses and achieve pinpoint accuracy. China, Russia, the U.S. and South Korea have all tested MaRVs but decided, so far, not to export them. Iran has also tested a MaRV, raising questions about Tehran’s possible cooperation with Pyongyang.

The worry now is how far and quickly this technology might spread. Pyongyang has already sold ballistic missiles to seven countries, including Iran, Syria and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. These sales generate precious hard currency for the Kim regime, which is otherwise difficult to come by as Washington continues to ratchet up sanctions.

Pyongyang will have no trouble finding customers. While only Iran or Pakistan might consider purchasing a North Korean ICBM, 15 countries besides North Korea already possess older Scud missile systems they might want to upgrade. Getting a MaRV version would be an affordable way to threaten targets that previously could have been knocked out only by a nuclear warhead or scores of missiles.

If Syria—which previously purchased Scuds from North Korea—were to acquire this missile, it would need only a handful to wipe out the bases the U.S. uses to launch airstrikes within its borders. Rebels in Yemen have repeatedly fired Scuds at Saudi air bases. Most have either missed their targets or been shot down by Saudi forces. A MaRV would ensure a successful strike. If Hezbollah, a North Korean arms customer, got its hands on the new system, it could make good on its threats to take out Israeli chemical plants and the Dimona nuclear reactor. Eventually, if paired with capable surveillance systems, MaRV Scuds could even be used against moving targets such as warships or oil tankers.

If these missiles spread, hostile nations and terror groups won’t need nuclear weapons to threaten America or its allies. They will be able to upgrade their threat level by merely trading up the Scuds they already have.

What should the Trump administration do about this? First, start talking more candidly about the threat. The U.S. Navy has been clear that it’s now vulnerable to China’s highly precise conventional MaRV missiles. Our government now needs to spotlight the threat North Korea’s MaRV Scuds will pose if these systems proliferate globally.

Second, along with developing defenses to cope with this threat, the U.S. needs to double down on blocking illicit missile exports. In 1987 Ronald Reagan worked with the Group of Seven nations to create the international Missile Technology Control Regime, which today urges missile suppliers (including Russia and China) not to export missiles capable of lifting 1,100 pounds for distances over 185 miles—precisely the type that North Korea might sell. The MTCR also serves as the basis for the 105-nation Proliferation Security Initiative, which allows countries to search ships and airplanes carrying proscribed missile technology. These tools for stifling the illegal trade of missiles have already been developed. It’s time to hone and use them.

Finally, America must get serious about restricting missile sales more generally. President Reagan wanted to eliminate what he called “nuclear missiles.” His efforts to do so—the MTCR and the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, which banned an entire class of ground-based nuclear-capable missiles—suggest he was focused on eliminating missiles ideally suited for surprise first strikes. Given that today’s missiles are accurate enough to destroy their intended targets with conventional warheads, it’s time to update our thinking in this area.

Persuading the world’s major powers to sign on to new missile-trade restrictions will be no simple feat. Russia, for one, has already violated the existing INF Treaty. Yet before this violation, Moscow proposed expanding the INF to include other countries, especially China, the world’s largest land-based missile power. Bringing all parties to the table in good faith will be a long-term proposition. But given the missile threats that are already emerging, the time to begin is now.