Space Threat 2018: North Korea Assessment

While North Korea’s space and counterspace capabilities are limited, it has made substantial progress developing its missile, jamming, and cyber capabilities. North Korea’s missile technology clearly aligns with its strive to become a nuclear power; its jamming and cyberattack capabilities tend to be more accessible and lower-tech than some counterspace weapons.

The following article is an excerpt from Space Threat Assessment 2018, a report from the CSIS Aerospace Security Project. Download a PDF version of this chapter in the full report here

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 Capabilities

NORTH 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

In parallel with its space program, North Korea has also made significant progress in developing and testing ballistic missiles. Under the Kim Jong- Un regime, it has ramped up its missile test program from 6 ballistic missile launches in 2012 to 25 launches in 2017.6 Its November 2017 test of the Hwasong-15 ICBM followed a lofted trajectory to reach an apogee of 4,475 km and a range of 950 km. If the same vehicle with the same payload were launched on a range-maximizing trajectory, it could reach virtually any location in the United States.7 Based on publicly available information, however, it is not clear whether North Korea has developed the re-entry vehicle technology that would be necessary to deploy a conventional or nuclear warhead on its long-range missiles.

Space Organization and Doctrine

LITTLE IS KNOWN ABOUT NORTH KOREA’S DOCTRINE or operational concepts for the use of space and counterspace capabilities. Most of the country’s military capabilities appear to be focused on ensuring the survival of the regime and deterring foreign aggression, and it maintains “a stridently confrontational posture against the United States.”8 When the regime speaks publicly about space, it is usually in the context of peaceful programs and its right to be a space power. It has been noted that the absence of discussion about counterspace capabilities that could threaten the U.S. military is curious given the aggressive rhetoric used by the regime in touting its nuclear and missile programs.9

Image Source: North Korean Unha-3 rocket on April 8, 2012. PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

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Image Source: Robert Karma / Flickr

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.

North Korea launches multiple ballistic missiles on March 6, 2017. STR/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Image Source: U.S. Air Force

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

North Korean Hwasong-12 missiles on parade on February 8, 2018. KCNA VIA KNS/AFP/Getty Images

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

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Image Source: Jose Gil / Adobe Stock

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

Caroline Amenabar / CSIS

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.

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Image Source: spainter_vfx / Adobe Stock

General Vincent Brooks, commander of United States Forces Korea, noted in congressional testimony that North Korea’s well-organized and advanced cyber forces are perhaps among the best in the world.23 Under the Kim Jong-Un regime, North Korea has exercised these cyber forces frequently, launching attacks on South Korea, the United States, and others. In one of the most widely reported incidents, North Korea launched a cyberattack against Sony Pictures Entertainment in November 2014.24 The following month, in a move that may have been intended to demonstrate the capability to damage physical infrastructure through cyberspace, North Korea conducted a cyberattack on a South Korean nuclear power plant.25 Given its demonstrated cyber capabilities, it is conceivable that North Korea could initiate a cyberattack against U.S. space systems to intercept information, as it did in the Sony attack, or to inject corrupt information that could cause physical damage to U.S. satellites or the forces that depend on them.