Jeffrey Lewis800 NORK Ballistic Missiles

I am creating a new category called “data points.”

Lieutenant General Walter L. Sharp, nominated to be Commander, United States Forces Korea, estimates the size of the North Korean missile stockpile in his answers to advance policy questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee:

North Korea continues to build missiles of increasing range, lethality and accuracy, bolstering its current stockpile of 800 missiles for its defense and external sales.

This complements a statement in 2000 by General Thomas Schwartz, then-Command USFK, during a Senate Posture Hearing with PACOM, USFK AND SOUTHCOM.

There’s about 500 Scud missiles that North Korea has that are aimed at the Republic of Korea. We also have the No Dong, about 100 missiles. And they’re now developing the Taepo Dong 1 and possibly the 2. So theater missile defense has to be and remains one of my priorities.

Those are more specific claims than one typically sees. In 2001, the National Intelligence Council stated that “North Korea has hundreds of Scuds and No Dong missiles.” [Emphasis Mine.]


  1. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    Without a doubt that DPRK can churn out missiles that mostly work on their assembly lines to whatever number they wish only limited by the willingness of the regime to divert resources into the program.

    The question is, “so what”.

    800 missiles carry very little tonnage compared to the bomb loads that can be carried by allied – or narrowly speaking, ROK – air forces in theater.

    Any reasonable estimate of their CEP would suggest that they can do relatively little damage to dispersed military targets, but a lot of damage to civilian installations.

    Put it in a different perspective, Seoul is within artillery range, which is capable of delivering a much larger tonnage far more economically than using missiles.

    If the warheads are fitted with Nuclear, Chemical, Biological or other WMD devices, that is a different story.

    DPRK firing artillery or missiles at ROK means restarting the Korean war. This time, with a very different political situation in Russia and China.

    To me, the big issue is whether China understands that the DPRK missile arsenal and their possession of nuclear weapons poise a threat to China.

  2. Nick Nolan (History)

    These missiles are big threat for Japan. Koreans, both North and South, hate Japanese. Only difference is that South don’t want to go war against Japan.

    One possible scenario is that if North Korea collapses, It will shoot it’s whole arsenal against Japan before surrendering to South. It might be mixture of bio-, chem- and nuclear missiles.

  3. Geoffrey Forden (History)

    Congratulations on starting “data points” which should be an excellent source of reference! A few other numbers should help put the 800 SCUDs into perspective. Iraq purchased a total of 819 SCUDs during two decades (the 1970s and 80s) and used almost all of them in its wars against Iran (eight years long) and its Al Hussein attacks during the first Gulf War. That’s actually a very small number of firings for such a long war; Iraq mainly used its SCUDs to attack Iranian cities near the front lines and then only during specific campaigns. The longer range Al Hussein was only developed after the first War of the Cities, which took place in 1985, during which Iraq was forced to use its airplanes to bomb Tehran. Iran, however, was able to use its SCUD missiles to attack Baghdad. In the later, 1988 War of the Cities, Iraq was able to fire 189 Al Husseins on Tehran in a three month period.

    It used 43 SCUD-equivalent Al Hussein missiles against Israel in its week long attack. (I say SCUD-equivalent because eventually Iraq was able to do a one-for-one transformation from SCUDs to Al Husseins.) I believe, though I cannot find the reference right now, that its largest salvo was six missiles; a number limited by the number of mobile launchers it had. The question then becomes, how long would North Korea expect 800 SCUDs to last during an invasion of the South?

    Most war games I have heard about say that North Korea would attack air bases, ports, etc. with chemically armed SCUDs in order to slow down the reinforcement by US troops with multiple SCUDs hitting each target. If you assume something like 50 such resupply targets and five SCUDs per target (numbers picked totally arbitrarily, perhaps someone could use GOOGLE Earth to count them?) then that means a total of 250 SCUDs in the initial barrage. So 800 SCUDs doesn’t seem all that large a number. However, 250 launchers is quite a few launchers! Of course, North Korea could have relatively cheap “permanent” launchers and it could reload a smaller number. That’s another thing for readers of Armscontrolwonk to try to find on GOOGLE Earth! You have a great deal of talent and interest in your readership; perhaps you could harness that in some useful “distributed intelligence” work. The launchers would, of course, be very hard to find, consisting mostly of a single erector arm.

  4. Bruce Klingner (History)

    Usual unclassified numbers are 600 SCUD variants (included extended range and with improved CEP) and 200 No-Dong. SCUDs could be used with high explosive, bomblets, and persistent chemical munitions as terror weapon, to constrain allied air operations by targeting airfields, and to impede US resupply through Busan and other ports.

  5. Karl Schenzig

    Dear Mr. Forden,

    With what forces do you suggest the North Koreans will invade in this scenario? There is a consensus among specialists I have talked to that Kim Jong Il’s conventional forces are no longer capable of conducting major combat operations. Furthermore, I think that it is difficult to imagine that the United States will not respond to the mass use of chemical weapons with a nuclear attack. Given these considerations, it is very unlikely that Kim Jong Il will attack the South.

  6. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    Dr Forden,

    The notion that DPRK will use the missiles armed with WMD – including chemical – warheads is a disturbing one.

    To me, it is just as likely that DPRK, in desperation, would fire the missiles so equipped at China and Russia for failing to come to their aid.

    There is a very good case for making the effort to remove WMDs – including chemical weapons – from DPRK.

    I realize it is virtually impossible to verify elimination of WMDs by DPRK short of, regime change. But, at least it can be on the table for discussion.

    A good start might be if five of the six parties arrive at a consensus about eliminating WMDs from the Korean Peninsular.

    This may seem pie-in-the-sky, but so did the fall of the Berlin wall.

  7. Geoffrey Forden (History)

    I make no predictions as to whether or not North Korea will attack South Korea. It is impossible to know, however, the significance of 800 missiles without putting it in some reference frame; the most logical being an attack on the South. From this rather simple, perhaps naive, calculation, 800 missiles seems more than they would need but not excessively so. Nothing would please me more than to know that the North-South tension had been resolved diplomatically. But on the road to that solution, we have to look at the facts, as they are, straight in the face. And 800 SCUD-type missiles are certainly consistent with an invasion of the South by the North Koreans.

  8. James (History)

    Mr Klingner: is there any evidence that North Korea has produced cluster munitions? I don’t think it’s as simple as it sounds.

    Mr Forden’s point about launchers is pretty compelling. The SCUDs simply won’t be very effective unless massed; many of those 500-600 missiles will never find their way to a launcher; many of the launchers will be destroyed.

    Missiles have a peculiar hold on the popular imagination. The SCUD can carry about a one ton warhead 500 kilometers. An F-16 can carry three times that payload the same distance, and with much greater accuracy. The SCUD can get itself within a kilometer or so of the target, which is worse accuracy than a WW2 bomber.

    The reason the North Koreans have so many SCUDs is not because they are so wicked and sly, but because they are so Goddamned backwards. They started up this assembly line back in the 80’s and they keep it going because they can’t afford to replace it with an aircraft production line. It takes quite a bit of imagination to dress it up as a threat. As Mr Forden points out, Iran was on the receiving end of 800 SCUDs and survived to pose an existential threat to the world in the collective consciousness of the Bush Administration; obviously, the SCUD terror is endurable.

  9. Karl Schenzig

    Dear Mr. Forden,

    Allow me to dispute that the most logical use of North Korea’s missiles is an attack on the South. In my view, it is overwhelmingly more likely that their primary purpose is the extortion of economic and political concessions from other countries, with a secondary deterrence function. So in the spirit of your suggestion to look facts straight in the face, I submit that North Korea is a weak, rotten hovel which should be relentlessly assailed by economic and political means until it collapses.

  10. Daniel Feakes (History)

    For interest, the subject of North Korea’s possible chemical weapons programme has come up here in The Hague as CWC states parties meet for their Second Review Conference. In an AP interview that he gave on Friday the OPCW Director-General said that contacts with the North were “non-existant” and that discussions on CW should be separate from the Six-Party talks: “Common sense indicates that these issues should be addressed one by one. They are totally separate issues.”

  11. FOARP (History)

    how’s this for a datapoint: “Iran announced today that it was embarking on a plan to install 6,000 centrifuges to enrich uranium at its main nuclear plant”

  12. Andy (History)

    To add to what others have said, North Korea’s missile program is an economic export and source of hard currency.

    WRT the military utility of missiles, many countries consider them a cheap alternative to an effective air force. While an F-16 can carry more ordnance and deliver it more accurate than a SCUD, the North Koreans (along with many other third-world nations) either lack such aircraft or the capability to utilize them in such deep-attack roles. For such countries, missiles are the only option, despite their significant downsides.