North Korean Direct Ascent Anti-Satellite Weapons

This picture taken and released on July 4, 2017 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un inspecting the test-fire of the intercontinental ballistic missile Hwasong-14.

The North Korean ballistic missile program traces its start back to the 1980s with the acquisition of Soviet-era Scud technology. At present, no dedicated ASAT program exists separate from the country’s ballistic missile programs. North Korean systems comprise two primary components: rapidly maturing ground-launched ballistic missile capabilities and the development of some radar systems.

DA-ASAT Technologies

North Korea has multiple ballistic missiles systems, including those in the intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) and ICBM class, which could possibly be used as the basis for future DA-ASAT capabilities. The first is the Pukguksong family of IRBMs, which include the KN- 11 (Pukkuksong-1) and the KN-15 (Pukkuksong-2). The KN-11 is a two-stage solid-fuel SLBM with a purported range of 500-2,500 km, while the KN-15 is the land based variant. North Korea conducted a successful cold launched test of the KN-15 in May 2017.

The Hwasong-10 (Musudan) is an IRBM reportedly modeled off of the Soviet R-27/SS-N-6 missile system. The system is liquid-fueled with a maximum range of 3,500 km. The Musudan has a spotty testing record, but the sixth test of the system reportedly was a success.

The Hwasong-12 (KN-17) is a newer ballistic missile, tested May 14, 2017, August 28, 2017, and September 14, 2017, using liquid propellant and a high-thrust engine and mounted on a TEL. An additional, possibly ICBM-relevant flight test, using a similar engine to the KN-17, was conducted in March. This was possibly just a larger variant of the existing Hwasong-10 IRBM, but the test indicates the ability to comfortably overshoot Guam and reach lower satellite orbital altitudes. The Hwasong-12 is presumed to be a one-stage missile with a range of 3,700-4,500 km.

Kim Jong Un announced in the annual 2017 New Year’s Address that the country was nearly ready to flight- test an ICBM. There have since been two ICBM tests in 2017 of a relatively new system, the Hwasong-14. North Korea tested the Hwasong-14 (KN-20) on July 4, 2017, and July 28, 2017, using a lofted trajectory. Several estimates place the range around 10,000 km, placing American cities and targets in space above LEO potentially at risk. The Hwasong-14 is a two-stage liquid fuel design.

The Hwasong-15 (KN-22) was launched for the first time on November 29, 2017, when this liquid-fueled ICBM flew on a lofted trajectory to an altitude of 4,500 km. If flown on a standard trajectory, it could have a feasible reach of 13,000 km, which, according to David Wright of the Union of Concerned Scientists, “is significantly longer than North Korea’s previous long-range tests.” According to North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), this flight test was of “an intercontinental ballistic rocket tipped with super-large heavy warhead” which could reach “the whole mainland of the U. S.”

North Korea has other presumed ICBM-range systems that have not yet been flight-tested or deployed. The first is the Hwasong-13 (KN-08), a three-stage roadmobile ICBM first seen in the 2012 military parade, and a variant of this missile known as the KN-14, shortened to two stages. These are alleged road-mobile ICBMs displayed in past military parades but have not yet been flight-tested or deployed.

North Korea’s only known operational satellite launch vehicle is the Unha-3. It appears to derive design components from the Taepodong-2, which was originally believed by U. S. intelligence to be a possible ICBM. Although operational, the reliability of the Unha-3 is not assured. The TD-2 failed in several tests throughout the 2000s, raising some questions regarding both its relationship to the Unha-3 and the latter’s reliability. The first attempt to use the Unha-3 to launch the Kwangmyongsong 3 satellite in April 2012 resulted in failure, but in December 2012 the Unha-3 successfully placed the first North Korean satellite (Kwangmyongsong 3-2) in orbit. The Unha-3 was used to put the second satellite (Kwangmyongsong 4) into orbit in 2016. Commercial imagery in March 2019 of North Korea’s Sohae Satellite Launching Station indicated that it may have returned to normal operations.

The Unha-3 is known to be a multi-stage rocket with liquid propellant requiring conventional launch pad and extensive visible preparations. The first stage consists of four Nodong engines, making it too large for mobile use.

Aside from the active ballistic missile and SLV programs, North Korea also has active solid motor and liquid fuel programs and uses both in active missile systems and in development tests. Work is underway on the creation of more advanced rocket engines. This has been evidenced in attempts to create a compact SLBM with two Hwasong-10 engines, similar to that in the Soviet R-27 SLBM, in a single stage, and known now as the March-18 engine after testing at the Sohae Satellite Launch Center. The March-18 engine in particular is intended as a “high-thrust engine [to] help consolidate the scientific and technological foundation to match the world-level satellite delivery capability in the field of outer space development.”

Some have speculated that North Korea could be able to combine a ballistic missile and a nuclear warhead into an EMP weapon, targeted against either U. S. satellites or domestic infrastructure. However, it seems unlikely at this point that North Korea would dedicate one of its limited nuclear warheads to an unproven task. Additionally, it is unknown how large of a yield from a nuclear warhead is necessary to affect the U. S. electrical grid. Although North Korea likely has demonstrated a thermonuclear capability as of March 2018, the country’s nuclear warheads do not approach the megaton range yield that would likely be necessary. Additionally, North Korea’s ICBM force, while growing in technical sophistication and performance, is not currently capable of carrying such a heavy warhead. Historical nuclear tests, such as the U. S. Starfish Prime test in 1962, are known to have generated effects that damaged or destroyed satellites in orbit at the time. However, it would be difficult to predict the ability of creating such effects against military satellites, particularly since many U. S. military satellites are hardened against radiation and EMP effects.

Co-Orbital ASAT Technologies

North Korea currently possess a very rudimentary satellite development and command and control capability, but they have not demonstrated any of the rendezvous and proximity operations or active guidance capabilities necessary for a co-orbital satellite capability.

There are currently six objects in orbit as a result of two North Korean space launches. Two of these objects are satellites. The first successful launch of a satellite into orbit occurred in December 2012 from the Sohae Satellite Launching Station. Initial reports at the time suggested that the satellite, along with a third-stage rocket body and two small pieces of associated debris, were placed into orbit, but that the satellite was “spinning out of control” and there were no ultra-high frequency (UHF) radio signals detected from the satellite. This suggest the satellite was either not under any stabilization or was not functional after deployment. However, the satellite was still following a relatively predictable orbital trajectory and did not pose a collision threat to other space objects.

North Korea launched a second satellite in February 2016, named Kwangmyongsong-4. Both the rocket body and the satellite (pictured below) entered into a stable orbit. As with the 2012 satellite, this satellite was purported to be for earth observation purposes. The 2016 version reportedly weighed almost twice as much as the 2012 satellite, at around 200 kg. The satellites and associated objects are in a normal and predictable orbit and do not pose a significant collision threat to other space objects.

Neither of the two Kwangmyongsong satellites is considered to be operational. Both are thought to have failed soon after launch. This is evidenced by the lack of detected signals and instability of the platforms. Kwangmyongsong 3-2 was reported to be tumbling on December 17, 2012, five days after launch, and Kwangmyongsong 4 was reported to be tumbling as early as February 9, 2016, only three days after launch. The satellites can be determined to be tumbling by space tracking radars systems, or even by amateur astronomers observing periodic variations of the intensity of the light reflected from the sun as the objects pass over observers near local dawn and dusk.

Although both satellites were announced as remote sensing systems, it is doubtful if they conducted much sensor activity due to their early failures. The North Korean satellite expertise is considered to be rudimentary, with the payloads likely being capable of only producing low resolution imagery at best, and it is doubtful if either of the two satellites would have been militarily useful, even had they not failed prematurely.

There is no indication that the Kwangmyongsong series of satellites had any counterspace capability nor that there is any indication of intent, on the part of North Korea, to attempt to develop such a capability. Neither of the satellites conducted orbital maneuvers. Any serious attempt at orbital counterspace would require a sophistication that is far beyond the capacity of North Korea for the foreseeable future.

Electronic Warfare

On numerous occasions, North Korea has demonstrated the capability to interfere with civilian GPS navigation used by passenger aircraft, automobile, and ship systems in the vicinity of the South-North border and nearby coastal areas. This type of interference (downlink jamming) targets GPS receivers within range of the source of the jamming signal but has no impact on the GPS satellites themselves nor the service provided to users outside the range of the jammers. The area affected will depend on the power emitted by the jammer and the local topography. In the case of the reported North Korean incidents, the range was estimated to be several tens of km.

According to unnamed U. S. officials, this type of jamming would not affect U. S. military members who use the military GPS signals. The GPS interference incidents along the South-North border appear to have been deliberately targeting civilian receivers, presumably as part of a North Korean political strategy or tactic. Some events have coincided with joint South Korea – U. S. military exercises. North Korea could also be developing jammers that are effective against the military GPS signals, but to date there is no public evidence of such development, testing, or use.

There is no public information indicating North Korea has the ability to jam satellite communications. North Korea does routinely jam terrestrial broadcasts from foreign sources, such as the BBC, Voice of America, Radio Free Asia and South Korea’s KBS, to prevent their citizens from listening, but there is no public information on the DPRK’s capabilities to jam satellite broadcasts. It is assessed that uplink jamming of communication satellites have not, or rarely, occurred since that would likely have been reported by the targeted satellite operators. Downlink jamming, which affects only the receivers in a local area, may be occurring within North Korea, but there is no information available on that.

Space Situational Awareness

There is little publicly available information about North Korea’s SSA capabilities. North Korea does have a General Satellite Control Building, which is its headquarters for its National Aerospace Development Administration (NADA), and the facility from which it tracks and monitors its own satellite launches. Since May 2017, imagery has detected construction on an adjacent facility (which most likely is intended to be a space environment test center and most likely does not have SSA capabilities). North Korea has been reported to have Iranian phased array radars as part of its air defense network; their capabilities are unknown.

Counterspace Policy, Doctrine, and Organization

As of yet, there is no clear doctrine for counterspace weapons in the DPRK. In fact, there is a curious absence of discussion on counterspace weapons in the DPRK state media. Surveying the archives since 2010 does not reveal a single mention of ASAT or counterspace. Satellites and space are only mentioned in the context of peaceful programs in the DPRK parlance.

Potential Military Utility

North Korea likely possess very limited military counterspace capabilities. Its lack of Space Situational Awareness (SSA) capabilities, Hit-to-Kill (HTK), and rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO) capabilities and very limited space launch capabilities very likely limits it to broad area attacks, such as space-based Nuclear Detonation (NUDET) Detection Systems in low earth orbit (LEO) that could damage large numbers of satellites over long periods of time. Such an attack would have very limited military utility in a conflict.