CNS Occasional Papers: #2

A History of Ballistic Missile Development in the DPRK


While cancellation of the DF-61 program was a considerable setback, the DPRK did not abandon its pursuit of a ballistic missile capability. Direct paths to this goal, however, were limited: the PRC and the Soviet Union were seemingly the only two countries that could conceivably provide assistance. Cancellation of the DF-61 meant the PRC was not able to export the required missile systems, while the Soviet Union, for political reasons, refused to provide what the DPRK wanted. These circumstances left the DPRK with only one real choice: to produce ballistic missiles indigenously. In 1979 the existing, though incipient, ballistic missile program was reorganized into an ambitious effort to achieve this goal.(37) With this reorganization, both the FROG and HQ-2/SA-2 programs appear to have been refocused. The FROG program began to concentrate solely on maintenance of existing systems, while the HQ-2/SA-2 program focused on production and improvement of the SAM versions of these systems.(38)

Significant obstacles stood in the way of an indigenous capability to design and produce ballistic missiles. Most importantly, the DPRK did not have the skilled manpower or technology to design a ballistic missile from the ground up, as all its relevant expertise was confined to SAM, anti-ship cruise missile, and artillery rocket programs. To overcome these limitations, the DPRK again turned to Egypt, and the two countries concluded a series of new agreements to cooperate in missile development. The central focus of this cooperation was a program to reverse-engineer the Soviet R-17E (the version of the Scud B exported to Egypt) as an interim step towards future production of indigenously designed ballistic missiles with greater ranges and improved accuracies. Part of this agreement called for the exchange of scientists and technicians between the two countries. Egypt had long desired to produce long-range ballistic missiles, and shortly after the October 1973 War, it had initiated several feasibility studies for an improved Scud B.(39) Cairo viewed cooperation with P’yongyang as a means to advance its own ballistic missile ambitions while conserving its resources. In addition to this expanded cooperation with Egypt, the DPRK apparently requested and received PRC assistance in the areas of rocket engine design/production, metallurgy, and airframe technology.

Although ROK ballistic missile developments during this period would strongly influence the overall direction of the DPRK’s ballistic missile program, any effects upon the contemporaneous R-17E and Hwasong 5 programs appear to have been minimal. The primary ROK activity during this period was the development of the Hyonmu (“Black Weapon”) SSM—a follow-on to the Paekkom.(40) Development of the Hyonmu began in 1984, its test-launch phase was successfully completed in 1987, and the system was deployed shortly afterwards. When the United States became aware of the Hyonmu, it applied considerable pressure on the ROK to limit both the range of the system and the number produced. The United States feared that a long-range missile, built in large numbers, would be perceived as a threat to the PRC. The ROK bowed to US pressure and limited the range of the Hyonmu to 180 km (instead of 250 km) and deployed only a single unit (with 12 TELs). In return for these concessions, the United States provided greater military aid and the US Army announced, in November 1986, its decision to return tactical ballistic missiles to the ROK with the redeployment of the B/6–32nd Field Artillery Regiment equipped with the MGM-52 Lance SSM.(41) Although the range of the Lance was only 120 km (i.e., unable to reach P’yongyang), it possessed a CEP of 120 m and was capable of delivering the W70 nuclear warhead.(42)

Against this background the DPRK acquired its first ballistic missile—the R-17E—and subsequently initiated production of its first ballistic missile, the Hwasong 5.(43)

R-17E (a.k.a., Scud B)(44)

The most significant aspect of the DPRK’s new agreements with Egypt was the transfer in 1979 or 1980 to the DPRK of a small number of Soviet R-17E missiles, MAZ-543 TELs, support vehicles, and equipment.(45) The agreements also provided for a limited exchange of engineers, technicians, and military personnel.

With the R-17E in hand, the DPRK began to reverse-engineer the missile. Available evidence suggests that none of the Egyptian-supplied missiles were ever test launched but instead were used as “models” for reverse-engineering and to train a cadre of engineers, technicians, and KPA personnel. In 1981 or 1982 this cadre was used to form a special missile test-and-evaluation unit to conduct flight tests and to prepare for the introduction of ballistic missiles into KPA service. It is unclear whether this unit was established or equipped as a combat unit. Regardless, it provided the DPRK with its first true, albeit contingency, ballistic missile capability.

Concurrent with these efforts, the DPRK began to assemble the industrial infrastructure required to support an indigenous ballistic missile program. This program involved construction or conversion of: the 125 Factory (P’yongyang); a military research-and-development facility at Sanum-dong (25 km north of P’yongyang); the Musudan-ri Launch Facility located on the northeast coast (30 km southeast of Kilchu); and a variety of other related facilities.

Hwasong 5 Prototype (a.k.a., Scud Mod. A)

The reverse-engineered version of the R-17E was assigned the name Hwasong 5.(46) The primary organizations involved in this project—as well as all missile development within the DPRK—were the Guided Missile Division of the Academy of Defense Sciences and the Fourth Machine Industry Bureau. Both of these organizations were subordinate to the Second Economic Committee.

Work proceeded steadily on Hwasong 5 throughout 1982 and 1983, and by early 1984, DPRK engineers completed the first prototypes. The missile is believed to have been an exact (or near) copy of the R-17E and was built in small numbers. Prototypes represented “proof-of-concept” systems intended to: provide training and experience for those involved in design and manufacture; identify problems in both the design and production processes; and identify areas in which production could be tailored to best suit DPRK manufacturing capabilities. As such, it is probable that none of these missiles was ever intended to be an operational weapon and none was deployed.

During this development period, the Iranian government approached the PRC and the DPRK for tactical ballistic missiles and missile technology.(47) In October 1983, Iranian Prime Minister Husayn Musavi and Defense Minister Colonel Mohammad Salimi traveled to P’yongyang. It is believed that the DPRK’s Hwasong 5 program was a major topic of discussion during this trip.(48)

In April and September 1984, the DPRK conducted a minimal flight-test program for Hwasong 5 prototypes with three known successful launches and three failed launches.(49) All flight tests are believed to have been Hwasong 5 prototypes and were conducted from the Musudan-ri Launch Facility, with flight trajectories southeast over the East Sea.(50) It is reasonable to assume that these first prototypes consisted of DPRK-produced airframes and fuel tanks, but utilized engines and guidance systems taken from original R-17Es. An Iranian presence during the flight-test program is also probable. No additional flight tests of the Hwasong 5 are known to have been conducted within the DPRK.(51) The timing of this test-launch program may have been in response to the ROK Hyonmu test program.

Hwasong 5 (a.k.a., Scud Mod. B, Scud B)

The Hwasong 5 was the first ballistic missile to reach true production status within the DPRK. In comparison to the prototypes, it was modified slightly to conform to DPRK production practices and capabilities, and probably included a small number of more modern components. While the external dimensions of the Hwasong 5 are “almost identical” to the R-17E, it has a 10 to 15 percent increase in operational range compared to the original—approximately 320 km versus 280 km with a 1,000-kg warhead.(52) The CEP of the Hwasong 5 is not known with any certainty, but it is believed to be similar to that of the original R-17E (e.g., 500 to 800 m). Over the course of its production, numerous changes were apparently incorporated into the Hwasong 5 design. For example, earlier models were equipped with a copy of the R-17E strap-down guidance system (or original guidance sets covertly obtained from the Soviet Union or, more likely, from other countries with Scud inventories), while later models used an improved indigenous guidance system. It is likely that the DPRK also incorporated minor changes to its copy of the Isayev 9D21 rocket engine. Concurrent with Hwasong 5 production, DPRK engineers worked to develop new warheads for the system, including HE, cluster, chemical, and possibly biological.(53) These changes undoubtedly resulted in various sub-models, but the designations and details of these are not known.

Low-rate series production of the Hwasong 5 is believed to have begun in 1985, followed by full-scale production some time in 1986. The production rate for the Hwasong 5 is believed to have averaged four to five per month during the early years of the program. Given, however, the number of missiles exported and those required for KPA usage, the production rate probably reached eight to ten per month during 1987 to 1988. The Hwasong 5 provided the KPA with the ability to strike targets throughout the northern two-thirds of the ROK. In 1989, Hwasong 5 production was probably phased out in favor of the Hwasong 6.(54)

Details of the establishment of operational Hwasong missile units within the KPA are unclear. It is believed that some time during 1984 or 1985, the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces (MPAF) established a Hwasong missile regiment subordinate to the Artillery Command. Personnel for this new unit were apparently drawn from the special missile test-and-evaluation unit established earlier. It is probable that this regiment was initially deployed near P’yongyang and was later moved south to the area of Chiha-ri (south-southeast of P’yongyang and approximately 50 km north of the Demilitarized Zone [DMZ]). Additional reports of an operational Hwasong unit stationed in the Kilchu–Ch’ongjin area (i.e., Hamgyong-bukto Province) suggest one of several possibilities:(55)

  • the Hwasong missile regiment deployed independent battalions to operating locations in different parts of the country;

  • the initial deployment of Hwasong missile units was by battalion, not regiment; or

  • the special missile test-and-evaluation unit in the Musudan-ri area also served as an operational missile unit.

From March through June 1985, Iran and Iraq engaged in what became known as the first “War of the Cities,” as Iran struck Baghdad with missiles and aircraft while Iraq responded against Tehran with air attacks. In response to this intensified combat, Iran concluded an agreement with the DPRK calling for the bilateral exchange of missile technology, financing for the DPRK’s missile program, and an Iranian option to purchase the Hwasong 5. Part of this agreement may have also included delivery of DPRK SA-2, HQ-1, and HQ-2 SAMs.(56)

In June 1987 the two countries concluded a $500 million arms agreement which included the Iranian purchase of 90 to 100 Hwasong 5s and, apparently, DPRK assistance in establishing a missile assembly facility in Iran. Hwasong 5 deliveries are believed to have begun in July 1987 and continued through early February 1988. Within Iran, the Hwasong 5 is known as the Shehab 1.(57)

These Hwasong 5s played a significant role in the second “War of the Cities” in 1988. Over a 52-day period, the Iranians fired approximately 77 of the DPRK-produced missiles at Iraqi cities. The majority of missile attacks (61) were against Baghdad, while the remainder were aimed at Mosul (nine), Kirkuk (five), Takrit (one), and Kuwait (one).(58) Also during the “War of the Cities” reports emerged concerning Iran’s development of chemical warheads for its missiles. Although the Iranian chemical warfare capability had been developing for several years (with PRC and European assistance), it is believed that the DPRK facilitated the missile-related effort by providing Iran with chemical weapons technology and, possibly, a small number of Hwasong 5 chemical warheads.(59)

In 1989 the DPRK concluded an arms sales agreement with the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The $160 million deal included 25 Hwasong 5 missiles, self-propelled artillery, multiple-rocket launchers, and munitions. The UAE was not pleased with the quality of the Hwasong 5; the systems were never operational in UAE service and were quickly placed in storage. UAE officials view the missiles as a “problem” and are currently discussing how to dispose of them. As of 1998, they were still sitting in storage.(60)

Foreign Assistance and Cooperation(61)

Throughout the Hwasong programs, the DPRK exchanged technical information, documentation (e.g., blueprints, specifications, etc.), and personnel with Egypt. This missile relationship was somewhat of a paradox in light of Egypt’s staunch support of Iraq during the ongoing Iran-Iraq War and, conversely, the DPRK’s support of Iran.(62) These technical exchanges were so extensive that when the DPRK achieved a Hwasong 5 production capability, Egypt possessed all the documentation necessary to undertake its own production, should it desire to do so. Beginning in late 1984 or early 1985, the DPRK extended a similar level of cooperation to Iran. The DPRK helped establish a Hwasong 5 assembly facility in Iran and provided all the required technical documentation for future production. On a regular basis, key engineers and military personnel have been exchanged between these two countries and the DPRK.

The PRC provided assistance to the DPRK from the beginning of the Hwasong 5 program, in the areas of engine design and production, metallurgy, and airframe design. It appears, however, that a majority of the missile-related support was academic or generic in nature, rather than aid specifically targeted to the Hwasong 5 program. For example, the PRC provided technical training to DPRK engineers and specialists, transferred high-quality machine tools, etc.

The numerous allegations of Soviet involvement in the DPRK’s early ballistic missile program are erroneous.(63) There is no evidence that the Soviet Union worked with the DPRK on the Hwasong 5 program or in the development of new warheads. Additionally, the Soviets provided no missile components during the early- to mid-1980s. DPRK–Soviet relations were strained during the late 1970s and only began to improve following Kim Il-song’s May 1984 visit to Moscow. Following that visit, relations improved dramatically and the Soviet Union did agree to provide the DPRK with several new SAM systems, maintenance, training, and equipment.(64) It is possible that the DPRK requested Soviet Scud Bs during this period of rapprochement, but the Soviets apparently declined because of fears that missile transfers would exacerbate regional tensions. With the dramatically changing domestic situation within the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe during the late 1980s, the DPRK appears to have achieved some success in acquiring—either through official or unofficial channels—technologies and components for its ballistic missile programs.

Other Missile-Related Developments

During this period, DPRK proficiency in HQ-2 production continued to increase. In 1984, the DPRK signed a contract to provide Egypt with technical assistance in Cairo’s effort to develop a variant of the SA–2b Mod. 1, known as the Tair al–Sabah (“Morning Bird”). Like most of Egypt’s indigenous advanced weapons projects during the 1980s, this SAM program was soon cancelled.(65)

As noted, Kim Il-song’s May 1984 visit to Moscow began a new era in DPRK–Soviet relations. One important result of improved relations was a 1985 agreement for the Soviets to provide modernization assistance to the DPRK’s armed forces. The agreement ultimately led to the introduction of the Soviet S-125 Pechora (SA-3b goa) and S-200 Angara (SA-5 gammon) missiles into MPAF service.

During the mid-1980s, the DPRK acquired the HJ-73 and HN-5A SAMs from the PRC.(66) It also undertook production of the HN-5A, and assembly or production of the Soviet AA-2 and Chinese PL-2 and PL-5 air-to-air missiles.

Continue on to the Longer Range Designs.
Return to the Occasional Paper #2 index.

Return to Top