Capabilities Update II: The Center for Nonproliferation Studies Missile Data Set
Last week, I reviewed the most recent update from the “good ISIS” (the Institute for Science and International Security) on North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. There is high uncertainty on all estimates, and the uncertainty rises as you move from fissile material, to the number of weapons this inventory might imply, to the number of weapons the North Koreans actually have, and with respect to what delivery systems.
On the missile side, however, we now have a major innovation thanks to the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Monterey: the North Korea Missile Test Database. I am an unabashed fan of this kind of data-driven analysis of North Korea. The database, which allows you to download a useful Excel spreadsheet, records the flight tests of all missiles launched by North Korea capable of delivering a payload of at least 500 kilograms (1102.31 pounds) a distance of at least 300 kilometers (186.4 miles). The map of launch sites is a little awkward to use, but the figures contained on the home page are incredibly useful; two examples are shown below.
There is also terrific analysis by Shea Cotton, and none of the findings are good. The diversification of the missile portfolio includes the introduction of new solid-state intermediate missiles into the mix, with their greater mobility and shorter launch times. This diversification can be seen in the first figure, which also shows clearly the strong uptick in testing under Kim Jong-un. Cotton’s analysis shows that North Korea is moving away from developmental testing at sites such as Sohae (now for satellites) and Wonson to operational testing at the unit level. Nor should we take any comfort in recent failures (shown in the second figure above). The willingness to test at a rapid rate means learning is going on (Jeffrey Lewis throws cold water on "left-of-launch" speculation—that the US is causing these failures—at Foreign Affairs). Shea’s conclusion: “taken together, these trends make the clear and disturbing point that North Korea has been conducting launch exercises, consistent with the regime’s probable intent to deploy nuclear weapons to missile units throughout the country.” Whatever you think of the Trump administration’s strategy—takes on Tillerson’s strategy can be found here and here—the Kim Jong-un regime is clearly moving. Whether these tests fundamentally change the stability of the peninsula is a subject for longer debate; it is not as obvious as it may appear. But the US and ROK militaries cannot like the task of providing a credible deterrent in the face of survivable missile forces, even if they are only conventional.