Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Old News

From today's Asia-Pacific edition of the International Herald-Tribune comes this (slightly) breathless headline:

Japan says North Korea developing new long-range missile

According to the accompanying AP article--based on information from the Japanese Defense Ministry--Pyongyang is working on a "new" ballistic missile, capable of hitting targets as far away as Guam. The new weapon, dubbed the Musudan, is supposedly more advanced than North Korea's existing inventory of SCUD, No Dong and Tapeodong missiles.

We hate to be the bearers of bad news for the folks at the IHT, but this information is hardly new. In fact, we've been writing about this "new" North Korean missile for more than a year. Musudan is another name for the BM-25, the land-based intermediate range missile developed from Russia's SS-N-6 submarine-launched ballistic missile. Pyongyang has already sold the BM-25 to Iran, giving Tehran the potential to strike targets throughout the Middle East and in portions of the Asian subcontinent and southeastern Europe as well.

As we noted more than 15 months ago, the SS-N-6 represents dated, but proven technology. Both North Korea and Iran have had difficulty in developing indigenously-developed, longer-range missiles; acquisition of the BM-25 gives them a proven airframe that was designed specifically to carry a nuclear warhead. Obtaining the BM-25 will save a lot of time and effort in research and development, particularly in mating early-generation nuclear warheads to a missile airframe.

Interestingly, while both North Korea and Iran have acquired the BM-25, there have been no reports of test launches (to date). Intelligence sources suggest that a Musudan launch vehicle (with a missile or missile simulator onboard) was in the area prior to last July's test of a Tapeodong-2 ICBM. North Korea's decision not to launch the BM-25 at that time suggests that there may be some developmental problems with the MRBM, which were supposedly "de-nuked" before Moscow sold them to Pyongyang.

Previous posts on the BM-25 program:

Building a Nuclear Capability
Iran's New Missiles
Protecting Europe
Kim's Failure
The Limits of Technology
Cover Story
The New Threat to Russia
If At First You Don't Succeed

Additionally, readers will note that the story about the "new" threat came after various Japanese officials stressed the need for the U.S. and Japan to boost missile defenses. And, there's nothing like a "new" threat to bolster your case, even if the threat really isn't new.


El Jefe Maximo said...

The question I've got with all these missile/warhead developments is -- who's driving the bus ? The Dear Leader, or certain other parties ?

Of course, the Dear Leader wants his bomb, and missile to carry it, but he's hardly flush with cash or the ability to fund development costs. Would these programs exist on the scale they do without Iranian cash and interest ? All the interested parties no doubt have their own reasons for paying and playing...but I wonder whose game this is, primarily. Is it the Dear Leader's or is he just providing the Iranians with a test range ?

Unknown said...

Short answer to your question: NK's missile and WMD programs would likely exist without Iranian interest and support, but not on their current scale. It's no accident that an Iranian delegation was reportedly in NK at the time of last year's missile test, and you may recall that Syrian engineers/technicians were apparently killed at that railyard explosion near the DPRK/PRC border a few years ago.

The referenced programs are very much under the control of the North Koreans, but Iranian financing is having a big influence, as evidenced by the rapid export of the BM-25 from Pyongyang to Tehran; Kim Jong-il sold the system to the Iranians before he conducted a single test launch, suggesting that Tehran is paying much of the tab for that program.

Would North Korea sell a finished nuke to Iran? Almost certainly. At this point, I think the only thing preventing that (assuming it hasn't occurred) is (a) Iran's desire to develop their own, indigenous capability, and (b) the failure of last year's DPRK nuke test.