Artillery: North Korean Budget Ballistic Missiles


February 25, 2024: North Korea has been building ballistic missiles since 1984. At first the North Korean missiles were primitive SCUDs, which were based on the ballistic missiles Germany designed and used towards the end of World War II. Russia captured a lot of that technology and Germans who designed, developed, and built these missiles. That was the beginning of the Russian ballistic missile program and in the 1980s Russia sold some of that technology to North Korea. By the time the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, North Korea was producing primitive ballistic missiles. With the end of the Soviet Union there was also an economic crisis that cost a lot of Russian ballistic missile designers, developers, and production workers out of work. North Korea saw an opportunity and hired a lot of these Russian experts to upgrade their ballistic missiles. These Russians were also able to broker illegal sales of Russian missiles to North Korea and help with the smuggling effort needed to get them out of Russia and into North Korea.

This was initially difficult because Russia and North Korea then shared only a small border on the Pacific Coast with only a few small roads. North Korea welcomed a subsequent Russian offer to extend the Russian railroad into North Korea via this 17 kilometer-wide border. When Russia began buying North Korean ballistic missiles in 2023, this is how they were shipped out of North Korea to Russian areas near the Ukrainian border. North Korea made a lot of money from these missiles and was willing to accept Russian food shipments in lieu of cash for the missiles. North Korea had been increasingly short of food and in 2023 some rural North Koreans starved to death. Russia pays from three to ten million dollars per missile. This is a bargain for Russia and a very profitable one for North Korea. The demand for North Korean cruise and ballistic missiles has led to North Korea factories producing missile components or assembling those components into completed missiles to hire more workers and operate at two eight hour shifts a day, every day. This put lots of unemployed, or underused North Koreans to work. The Russian demand for missiles will only last as long as the Ukraine War does so the North Koreans are making the most of it.

The first shipments came from stockpiled North Korea missiles. These were old and many had degraded somewhat after years in storage. North Korea fixed obvious signs of aging and made the missiles attractive, even though the oldest ones would often fail when used. The North Koreans knew this because they had, for years, been launching elderly missiles into the waters between North Korea and Japan. These missiles usually had no explosives material in their warheads, but South Korea began to send recovery ships, and sometimes armed escorts, just in case, to recover fragments of the missiles from the ocean floor for examination. South Korea found out quite a bit about the quality and reliability from these examinations and observations of missile launches.

Until late 2022 North Koreans paid little attention to their country’s ballistic missile program. Then North Koreans became aware that North Korea had launched $70 million worth of ballistic missiles on a single day in 2022. News of this came slowly to the North Korean people, as news critical of their government usually does. Chinese living on the border with North Korea have more access to accurate information about what the North Korean government is doing. That news eventually gets across the border into North Korea and then slowly spreads throughout the country.

News of the value of the missiles launched in one day reached the North Korean population at a time when most North Koreans were not getting enough to eat or enough wood, coal, or natural gas to keep them warm in winter. The hungry North Koreans were becoming more aware that the cause of their situation was waste and corruption in North Korea. This missile cost number, $70 million, was the value of what North Korea imports from China each month. This includes food shipments which prevent mass starvation in many parts of the country. In an uncharacteristic move, North Korean state-controlled media released news that the numerous missile launches were necessary and successful in discouraging America and South Korea from attacking North Korea. This was an often-used explanation of obviously large military expenditures that appeared to serve no rational purpose.

There was a similar reaction in the capital Pyongyang when the recent completion of the Taesongsan Ice Cream Factory. The government said ice cream production would begin in a year and this facility was built by leader Kim Jong Un to demonstrate his love for the people. People in the area where this facility was built complained that what good was an ice cream factory when they were no longer getting as much food as they used to receive. Apparently, this means that government fairy tales delivered as news are no longer acceptable to most North Koreans and the people were speaking out as never before with their observations and complaints.

This situation changed in 2023 when Russian came seeking to buy ballistic missiles from North Korea. Russia uses those missiles against targets in Ukraine. Russia also builds missiles, but the Ukrainians are able to intercept most of the Russian missiles and Russia needs a lot more missiles to overcome this and do some serious damage to Ukraine. About 80 percent of the missiles Russia fires at Ukrainian targets are intercepted.

In late 2023 and early 2024 Russia fired dozens of North Korean missiles at Ukrainian targets. These attacks did some damage and killed 14 Ukrainians and wounded about 70. The Ukrainians collected fragments of the missiles, which was their standard procedure, to determine what kind of missiles they were and who made them. Most of the North Korean missiles had ranges up to 600 kilometers and warheads containing a ton or half ton of explosives.

Meanwhile North Korea continues to spend about half a billion dollars a year building more missiles. On average, each new missile costs about $4 million each. North Korea continues to test a few of the new missiles and a lot more elderly missiles that will soon reach the age where they cannot be safely launched. Better to get rid of them by firing them into the waters off Japan. That frightens and annoys the Japanese while also disposing of North Korean missiles that are too old to be useful anymore. When Russia orders more missiles, North Korea sells them the older ones first and as they run out of elderly ones, they provide the Russians with new ones. The Russian purchases of missiles will only continue as long as Russian needs a lot of missiles to use against Ukraine. That might not be much longer because Russia is running out of money to buy missiles and soldiers to fight in Ukraine.



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