North Korea is a critical threat to the United States and our allies in Northeast Asia and is our hardest intelligence collection target.LTG Robert AshleyDirector, Defense Intelligence Agency 1
Overall Space CapabilitiesNORTH KOREA HAS AN ACTIVE SPACE PROGRAM that is closely related to its missile program, which has made significant progress in recent years. Still, many experts doubt that the few satellites launched by North Korea perform all of the functions that the North Korean government claims.2 There is little indication that North Korea is making substantial efforts to build or sustain a space industrial base, but its missile program is growing and many believe that it is aided by technology from China, Iran, and/or Pakistan.3
North Korea successfully orbited its first satellite in December 2012 after three failed attempts in July 2006, April 2009, and April 2012. The successful launch used the Unha-3, a launch vehicle believed to be a variant of the Taepodong-2 ICBM. In its fifth test in February 2016, it successfully placed a second satellite in orbit.4 While the space capabilities provided by these two satellites have little if any military significance, it demonstrates that the nation has the capability of placing an object into orbit. Moreover, North Korea has publicly stated its intent to continue launching remote sensing satellites and to send an unmanned mission to the moon within a decade.5
Kinetic Physical Counterspace WeaponsKinetic Physical
To date North Korea has not tested, or indicated that it is attempting to develop, a direct-ascent or co-orbital ASAT capability. The space launch and ballistic missile technology demonstrated by North Korea could serve as the basis for a kinetic ASAT capability, but many technological hurdles remain. An effective directascent or co-orbital ASAT weapon would require various onboard sensors—optical, infrared, radar, etc.—and a guidance system to steer the warhead into a target satellite. There are no indications that North Korea has or is attempting to acquire the technology needed for this.10Like Iran, it is conceivable that North Korea could field a crude direct-ascent ASAT capability in the near-term by adapting a ballistic missile to launch an unguided warhead to detonate in the vicinity of a target satellite. Such a weapon would be unlikely to directly strike a satellite, but could create a debris field that complicates future operations for the target satellite and any other satellites in a similar orbit.
Non-Kinetic Physical Counterspace WeaponsNon-Kinetic Physical
There is some evidence that North Korea may be developing or has already acquired non-kinetic physical counterspace weapons such as a nuclear EMP device.11 However, the technology necessary for more sophisticated directed-energy weapons, such as lasers that can dazzle or blind the sensors on satellites, requires a level of technology that North Korea is unlikely to possess anytime soon.12 Another country, particularly China or Russia, could provide such capabilities to North Korea, but there is no publicly available evidence to suggest this has occurred.
Given its existing ballistic missile and nuclear capabilities, North Korea could theoretically launch a nuclear weapon into space and detonate it.13 Using a nuclear weapon in this manner does not require re-entry vehicle technology like a nuclear-armed ICBM would. Tests of nuclear weapons in space were banned by the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty, but North Korea is not a signatory to this treaty.14
In a written statement to Congress in 2017, the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack (the EMP Commission) offered evidence that North Korea may be developing an EMP weapon. The EMP Commission notes that in 2004 two Russian generals warned the commission that the design for a Russian EMP warhead was unintentionally transferred to North Korea. South Korean intelligence officials told the press in 2009 that Russian scientists were in North Korea helping to develop an EMP weapon. Moreover, the commission notes that in 2013 a Chinese military commentator indicated that North Korea already has “Super- EMP nuclear weapons.”15
Electronic Counterspace WeaponsElectronic
North Korea has acquired and is actively using electronic forms of attack against U.S. space systems. In 2010, the South Korean Defense Minister, Kim Tae-young, said in a speech to parliament that “North Korea has imported vehicle-mountable devices capable of jamming GPS signals from Russia.”16 These downlink jamming systems reportedly have an effective radius of 50 to 100 km. North Korea began using this jamming equipment against South Korea in August 2010, but South Korean forces could not pinpoint the location of the jammers at that time because the jamming lasted just 10 minutes in each instance.17
In the years since, North Korea has repeatedly used its GPS jamming capabilities against South Korea. More GPS jamming occurred in December 2010 and again in March 2011. The 2011 incident lasted 10 days and coincided with an annual U.S.-Korean military exercise.18 Jamming occurred again in April 2012, disrupting air traffic at Incheon and Gimpo International Airports, and forcing flights to use alternative navigation systems.19 In 2016, South Korea complained to the United Nations Security Council that the North was again jamming GPS signals across the border, with the jamming coming from five areas in North Korea: Pyongyang, Kaesong, Haeju, Yonan county, and Mount Kumgang.20
The South Korean Defense Ministry has said it believes the jamming attacks originate from “a regiment-sized electronic warfare unit near the North Korean capital Pyongyang, and battalion-sized units closer to the inter-Korean border.”21 The jammers are mounted on mobile platforms and are operated intermittently, and they could be difficult to locate and neutralize in a conflict. North Korea appears to be gaining operational experience using these systems in peacetime. To what extent these capabilities are integrated into its overall military operations remains unknown. Since the GPS jammers were acquired from Russia, it is possible that North Korea could also have acquired other types of jamming capabilities that can target different satellite systems, such as uplink jammers that can disrupt military satellite communications. Despite South Korean protests to the United Nations that the North’s GPS jamming is a violation of the 1953 armistice agreement,22 no effective measures have been undertaken to date to curb this activity.