The report, which first appeared in Jane’s Intelligence Review, brings together two highly respected experts on North Korea’s ballistic missile programme, Markus Schiller and Nick Hansen*. It analyses the Hwaseong-15 (also known as ‘Hwasong-15’) intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launched by North Korea in November 2017.
Writing for Jane’s, Schiller and Hansen assess that “it is highly likely that North Korea made use of foreign knowledge, technology or hardware in the development of the Hwaseong-15 ICBM.”
The November launch attracted international media attention, after North Korea’s state news agency claimed that the missile was “capable of striking the whole mainland of the United States.” It capped a year in which North Korea’s ballistic missile programme made a series of unprecedented advances. Most recently, on 8 February, North Korea displayed what appeared to be four Hwaseong-15 missiles during a military parade in Pyongyang.
“Given the limited time and test resource available to North Korea, it is highly unlikely that North Korea could design, develop, engine test and integrate the components into … intercontinental missile systems without external assistance,” the report notes.
Moreover, it is likely that this knowledge, technology or hardware was derived from the Soviet-era ballistic missile programme. According to the report, “the design of the Hwaseong-15 missile is similar in some respects to the Soviet UR-100 family and there is a clear resemblance between the Hwaseong-15 first-stage engine and the Soviet RD-250 engine.”
However, based on the information available in open sources, Jane’s cannot assess with any confidence when this transfer took place. “The UR-100 family of missiles and the RD-250 engine have been in existence for decades,” said Neil Ashdown, deputy editor of Jane’s Intelligence Review.
“North Korea could have acquired information about them from a range of sources, including some available online,” Ashdown said. “Even if North Korea did acquire hardware relating to these systems, we cannot say with any confidence where that would have come from, and more importantly when. That does not mean a transfer did not take place — just that we cannot prove that based on the information we have.”
The report notes that the Hwaseong-15 had not been seen in open sources before it was first launched in November 2017, and that in key respects, it differs from previously observed North Korean missiles. This suggests that North Korea has pursued multiple lines of development in its ballistic missile programme.
Moreover, the successful integration of a higher-energy liquid propellant engine into the Hwaseong-15 with minimal observed testing suggests that North Korea could do the same with another missile. This raises the possibility that there may be further, as yet undisclosed, liquid propellant systems in development, which may emerge over the course of 2018.
*Markus Schiller is a space technology analyst and CEO of ST Analytics.
Nick Hansen is an imagery specialist and an affiliate at Stanford University.
Neil Ashdown is the deputy editor of Jane’s Intelligence Review.