Joshua PollackReasons Not To Underestimate North Korea

In its present state of economic weakness, North Korea is very easy to underestimate. But just because its regime is unspeakable, its people are malnourished, and its electrical grid barely operates, that doesn’t mean that North Korea lacks for skilled personnel who care about their work—perhaps including the negotiators who managed to get Bill Clinton to waive his usual appearance fee.

The presence of a certain pool of talent is apparent in the DPRK’s can-do approach to science, mechanical engineering and mathematics, to say nothing of the Yongbyon nuclear complex, which, judging by its unheated buildings, does its work on a shoestring, yet not without some pride.

So what can North Korea do when it comes to making Nodong MRBMs? The U.S. government has given a few indications in public statements on the matter.

The Rumsfeld Commission, which had access to every kind of intelligence, concluded the following, back in 1998:

There is ample evidence that North Korea has created a sizable missile production infrastructure, and therefore it is highly likely that considerable numbers of No Dongs have been produced.

In 2004, the Iraq Survey Group reported that Iraq had negotiated with North Korea in 2000 for “technology transfer” for 1,300-km surface-to-surface missiles, which is to say, Nodongs:

The North Korean Chang Kwang Technology Group was identified as the technology supplier and the prime technical mediator for the North Korean side. After an exchange of several communiqu├ęs, the representatives from both countries agreed to a list of specific subjects that would be discussed at the meetings, including technology transfer for SSMs with a range of 1,300 km, coastal protection missiles with a range of 300 km, and the possibility of North Korean technical experts working inside Iraq.

More recently, Ambassador Kenneth Brill, the head of the National Counterproliferation Center, took the occasion of a public speech to shed light on what the IC believes about the DPRK missile-industrial complex:

An open source center (OSC) report made inferences about the scope and structure of North Korea’s missile program by connecting patterns and terminology in Pyongyang’s official portrayal of the program with sporadic but specific DPRK media references. Correlating Pyongyang’s portrayal of its space and missile program with other technical information suggests that North Korea’s industries have the capacity to produce avionics, airframe parts, propulsion systems, rocket propellant, aerospace ground equipment, launch facilities, and command and control software for the country’s missile program.

After the failures of their IRBM and ICBM test launches, it’s tempting to dismiss the North Koreans as having overreached. And maybe they have. But considering the rest of the story, they have managed to attain some milestones short of that.

So, in conclusion, let’s not to be too quick to dismiss what they can do.

Yesterday: Why So Few Nodong Tests?

Previously: What Is North Korea Capable Of?