Undeclared North Korea: Missile Operating Bases Revealed

  • Though the subject of speculation by open-source researchers for years, new research undertaken by Beyond Parallel has located 13 of an estimated 20 North Korean missile operating bases that are undeclared by the government.
  • The first of these reports by Beyond Parallel will focus on the missile base at Sakkanmol, one of the closest to the demilitarized zone and to Seoul, South Korea.
  • These missile operating bases, which can be used for all classes of ballistic missile from short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) up to and including intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), would presumably have to be subject to declaration, verification, and dismantlement in any final and fully verifiable denuclearization deal.
  • Missile operating bases are not launch facilities. While missiles could be launched from within them in an emergency, Korean People’s Army (KPA) operational procedures call for missile launchers to disperse from the bases to pre-surveyed or semi-prepared launch sites for operations.
  • The dispersed deployment of these bases and distinctive tactics employed by ballistic missile units are combined with decades of extensive camouflage, concealment and deception practices to maximize the survival of its missile units from preemptive strikes and during wartime operations.
  • The KPA’s Strategic Force—responsible for operating ballistic missiles—is both sizable and capable of inflicting significant damage even when its missiles are armed with only conventional warheads.
  • Since his assumption of power in 2011, Kim Jong-un’s emphasis upon realistic training and increased operational readiness has extended to the Strategic Force.

While a considerable body of open-source information is available concerning the development of North Korea’s individual missile systems, much less is available concerning the number, deployment, and organization of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) ballistic missile operating bases. The vast majority of the information that is available tends to be internally inconsistent, incomplete, confusing, or simply incorrect.

Media reporting and defector statements have identified in excess of 65 areas or locations as ballistic missile operating bases. While there remains significant uncertainty as to whether all missile operating bases have been identified within the open-source, this number is obviously incorrect and largely a result of inaccurate and frequently internally inconsistent media reporting and defector statements; circular verification; errors in incorrectly identifying surface-to-air missile, coastal defense cruise missile, and rocket launcher bases as ballistic missile bases; use of generalized (e.g., province, county, or nearby city names) and often different location information (e.g., two different counties) for the same facility; challenges in transliterating location data; and difficulty in disambiguating place names.

Compounding these challenges is the fact that the KPA engages in an aggressive camouflage, concealment, and deception (CCD) program with regard to its ballistic missile force, the construction of new missile facilities and abandonment of others, and has at times redeployed ballistic missile units to different bases. Added to this is the confusion in distinguishing among brigade-, regiment-, and battalion-sized units. After extensive research, including interviews with North Korean defectors and government, defense, and intelligence officials around the world, many of these issues have been addressed and it appears that the KPA currently has approximately 15-20 missile operating bases.

Overview of the Sakkanmol Missile Operating Base, March 29, 2018. See associated report for more info. (Copyright © 2018 by DigitalGlobe.)

Missile operating bases are permanent facilities that contain a unit’s headquarters, barracks, housing, support, maintenance, and storage facilities. Due to cultural factors and a military policy that states the North remains in a state of war, the majority of KPA missile operating bases display a number of distinct characteristics, including:

  1. They are generally rudimentary in nature, and with the exception of headquarters and cultural structures, possess few large buildings or paved roads.
  2. With only a few exceptions, they are located in mountainous terrain, often spread out within narrow dead-end valleys. This often results in their lacking significant physical security measures and having only a basic entrance security checkpoint.
  3. Excluding their associated agricultural support infrastructure, they are physically small.
  4. They almost always consist of a network of underground facilities (UGF) to house the unit’s transporter-erector-launchers (TELs) or mobile-erector-launchers (MELs), ready inventory of missiles and warheads, and various other technical/launch support vehicles and equipment.
  5. They are not launch facilities. While missiles could be launched from within these bases in an emergency, KPA ballistic missile tactics and doctrine call for TELs and MELs to disperse from missile operating bases to pre-surveyed and semi-prepared launch sites for operations.
  6. These bases simply do not have the appearance of missile operating bases as seen in the United States, Russia, China, or Europe.

There has been occasional, and often sensationalist, media reporting based primarily upon defector reports that the KPA has constructed “underground launch pads,” silo-based or semi-enclosed (e.g., false mountainsides that split open) ballistic missile launch facilities in the northern reaches of the nation. However, no such facilities have been confirmed in open-source or satellite imagery to date.1


Construction of missile operating bases can be traced back to the mid-1960s and the acquisition of the FROG (Free Rocket Over Ground) series of long-range artillery rockets and the establishment of operating bases around Pyongyang and in North Pyongan province. With production of the Hwasong-5 (R-17E Scud) short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM) beginning in 1986, North Korea based these systems in the Pyongyang area and North Pyongan province.

Subsequently, as the number of available Hwasong-5 missiles and their associated TELs and new MELs slowly increased, a Scud regiment was established and deployed south of Pyongyang in 1988.2 Accompanying this, and extending into the early 1990s, the KPA initiated the construction of dedicated missile operating bases in North Hwanghae and Kangwon provinces along the demilitarized zone (DMZ).3

Some of these and later bases were created by converting existing military facilities to accommodate the ballistic missile units and their equipment. With the introduction of the Hwasong-6 (Scud C), the KPA both reorganized and expanded Scud missile units and established new units.4 By the mid-1990s, construction of additional missile operating bases was begun within South Pyongan, North Pyongan, Chagang, Ryanggang, and South Hamgyong provinces to house units equipped with the newer Hwasong-7 (Nodong) and Hwasong-9 (Scud-ER) families of medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBM).5 Construction of missile operating bases continued into the early 2000s. Since that time, there has been minor but continued development at existing bases and the construction of at least one additional missile operating base to house newer or longer-range ballistic missiles (e.g., Hwasong-11/-12/-13/-14).6

Following Kim Jong-un’s ascension to power in December 2011, he instituted widespread changes throughout the KPA emphasizing realistic training and increased operational readiness. These changes soon resulted in the reorganization of the Strategic Rocket Command into the Strategic Force during 2013 as well as significant infrastructure developments at a number of missile operating bases.


The ballistic missile operating bases are small, dispersed throughout the nation, and, with few exceptions, located in narrow mountain valleys. The deployment pattern has evolved over time, garnering a variety of descriptions, but today it is most commonly described as consisting of the three “belts”: the Tactical (or Forward), the Operational, and the Strategic (or Strategic Rear) based upon their physical distance from the DMZ.7

General Arrangement of North Korea’s Ballistic Missile “Belts.”

The Tactical Belt extends across North Hwanghae and Kangwon provinces and is 50-90 km north of the DMZ. Missile operating bases situated within the Tactical Belt are reportedly equipped with the Scud family of SRBMs—perhaps with a small number of Nodong MRBMs. The locations chosen for these bases are far enough forward to provide coverage of critical facilities in the northern two-thirds of South Korea, yet far enough from the DMZ to be beyond the range of South Korean and U.S. long-range artillery.8 The fielding of the longer-ranged Hwasong-6 and Hwasong-9 (Scud-ER) placed the entirety of South Korea (including the island of Cheju-do) within range of these forward bases.9

The Operational Belt extends across the mountainous sections of South Pyongan province and the southern section of South Hamgyong province and is 90-150 km north of the DMZ. This belt is reportedly equipped with Nodong missiles or longer-range systems that cover all of South Korea and Japan. The Strategic Belt extends across the mountainous sections of North Pyongan, Chagang, Ryanggang, and the northern section of South Hamgyong province and is more than 150 km north of the DMZ. The units deployed in this zone were initially equipped with Nodong missiles. However, reports often claim that the Taepodong 1 MRBM and Taepodong 2 ICBM were also deployed here.10 These bases will likely house the newer Hwasong-11/-12/-13/-14 as they become deployed.

The official designations for any of the missile operating bases, or the units deployed at them, are unknown. They are, however, reportedly assigned cover designations (military unit cover designator—MUCD in U.S. and South Korean terminology) such as the “Fourth Training Center” or “Fifth Training Center.”11

The deployment pattern of the KPA’s ballistic missile operating bases is logical for a nation that still believes it is in a state of war and must be ready to defend itself from outside aggression at any time. It is also a recognition of the fact that the Korean People’s Air and Anti-air Force (KPAF) will be unable to deter a combined South Korean and U.S. air and missile offensive against the nation. The dispersed nature, small size of operating bases, and tactics and doctrine employed by ballistic missile units provide the best chances for their survival given the KPA’s technology and capabilities.

Combat Operations

From the little open-source information available on the subject, a preliminary pattern of KPA wartime ballistic missile operations can be pieced together. If hostilities resume with little or no warning, a TEL or MEL will move out of its UGF to the base’s drive-through arming and fueling facility. Here, a missile will be loaded—if one isn’t already—armed, fueled and system checks will be conducted. The launcher will then move a short distance within the base, launch at pre-assigned targets, and return to its UGF or disperse to a pre-arranged location—potentially to a UGF away from the base.

If, however, a new conflict is anticipated, prior to the start of hostilities, the missile unit and technical support elements will deploy from the base. The TELs or MELs will move out from their UGF to the base’s drive-through servicing (e.g., arming, fueling, and maintenance) facility and then disperse to another UGF or to a network of pre-surveyed launch sites throughout their area of responsibility—often no more than a wide spot in a road. Here, they will then wait for orders to launch.

Once they launch, the TELs or MELs will quickly displace to another pre-surveyed launch position or UGF (other than those at the missile operating base) where they will meet up with the technical support element and its equipment (i.e., reload missiles, warheads, fuel, crane vehicles, etc.). Once serviced and rearmed, the technical support elements will move to another prearranged location while the TEL or MEL will either wait for a launch order or move to another pre-surveyed launch position and wait there for a launch order.

As the conflict develops, rather than returning to an operating base—which will undoubtedly be the target of repeated attacks—both the technical support element and launchers will remain in the field using pre-positioned reloads and supplies while moving frequently to different pre-surveyed locations. The missile operating base, or more likely a preplanned dispersal UGF, will function as a technical support base with technical support elements and launchers infrequently returning.

These dispersed mode operating procedures concede the absence of air superiority, minimize the loss of the technical support element, and address the reality that a single TEL or MEL with a liquid fuel missile requires approximately 30 minutes from arrival at a pre-surveyed position to prepare, launch, and begin redeployment—a long time on the modern battlefield for a highly visible target. The loss of a single launcher, while significant, does not adversely impact the overall ability of the surviving elements of the unit to conduct combat operations. However, due to its essential role in the larger organization, the destruction or neutralization of the technical support element would severely impact the ability of the parent unit to conduct launch operations. Therefore, additional procedures are in place to facilitate its survival.

Research Note

This report is based upon an ongoing study of the Korean People’s Army ballistic missile infrastructure begun by one of the authors (Joseph Bermudez) in 1985, which itself is based upon numerous interviews with North Korean defectors and government, defense, and intelligence officials around the world. While some of the information used in the preparation of this study may eventually prove to be incomplete or incorrect, it is hoped that it provides a new and unique open-source look into the subject that other can build on. The information presented here supersedes or updates previous works by J. Bermudez on these subjects.


Show 11 Footnotes

  1. It should be noted that North Korea has extensive underground facility construction, mining, and tunneling experience and a review of academic papers and reports published during the past 25 years clearly indicates that scientists and researchers have in the past and are actively conducting research into a wide range of dual-use technologies and capabilities that have direct application to the construction of silo-based missile facilities should the nation desire to do so. Additional experience in silo construction and operation is available from the hardened early warning radar and surface-to-air missile facilities operated by the KPAF that employ silo-based radar systems that are elevated out of their silos when operated. Osamu Eya, Great Illustrated Book of Kim Chong-il, (Tokyo: Shogakukan, 2000), 10-15; Hwang Yang-jun, “North Korea Builds Six Bases for 550 km-Range Missiles,” Hankook Ilbo, October 27, 1999; “South Defense Minister Says North Tunnel For Missile Use,” Kyodo, July 8, 1999; and C.W. Lim, “North Korean Tells of Nuclear Accident,” The Washington Times, August 25, 1993, A1.
  2. Author interview data; “DPRK’s Advanced Weapons Analyzed,” The Korea Times, February 8, 1991, 8; and “Measures Against Possible Scud Attack Detailed,” Yonhap News Agency, April 12, 1991.
  3. Ibid.; and “DPRK Building ‘At Least Five’ Underground Missile Sites,” Yonhap News Agency, January 8, 1999; “Pyongyang Found Constructing 5 Underground Facilities,” Yomiuri Shimbun, January 8, 1999; “DPRK Said to Deploy Missiles at More Than 10 Sites,” Yonhap News Agency, January 6, 1999; “DPRK Deploying, Exporting Medium-Range Missiles,” Kyodo, January 2, 1999; “US Military Detects Underground Bases in DPRK,” NHK, December 8, 1998; “Defense Ministry: May Nodong-1 Test Successful,” Yonhap News Agency, June 24, 1993; “Newspaper Reports North’s Scud Missile Deployment,” Seoul Shinmun, February 24, 1992, 8; Bill Gertz, “North Korea Set To Test Missiles,” The Washington Times, November 12, 1990, A3; and Bill Gertz, “North Korea Builds 2 Missile Launch Sites,” The Washington Times, June 14, 1990, A4.
  4. Ibid.; and “N.K. Building Bases for Scud-C Missiles,” The Korea Herald, October 28, 1999; “North Reportedly Expands Scud Unit,” Tong-A Ilbo, August 25, 1991, 2; and “North’s Continued Military Buildup ‘No Surprise’,” The Korea Herald, February 5, 1991, 8.
  5. Ibid.; and “Pyongyang Beefs Up Artillery Near Demilitarized Zone,” The Korea Times, October 28, 1999; “DPRK ‘Doubled’ Number of Submarines, Artillery Since 1994,” Yonhap News Agency, October 15, 1997; and “Defector Says Long-Range Missile Bases Built,” KBS-1, August 24, 1993.
  6. “DPRK Operates Missile Launch Battalions,” Yonhap News Agency, February 27, 2000; “DPRK Defector Discusses Chemical Weapons,” Kyodo, April 28, 1994.
  7. Some sources continue to describe the North Korean missile deployment as having two belts instead of the three noted here; however, all reports are referring to the same missile operating bases. Author interview data; Joseph S. Bermudez Jr. and Nathan Hunt, “North Korean Missile Base Shows Operational Focus,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, October 2018, 44-49; Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., “Behind the Lines—North Korea’s Ballistic Missile Units,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, July 2011, 48-53; Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., “Going Ballistic—North Korea’s Advanced Missile Capabilities,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, March 12, 2009; and Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., “Ballistic Ambitions Ascendant,” Jane’s Defence Weekly 19, no. 15, April 10, 1993, 20-22.
  8. Ibid.; and author interview data; David A. Fulghum, “North Korean Forces Suffer Mobility Loss,” Aviation Week & Space Technology, November 24, 1997, 62.
  9. “N.K. Building Bases for Scud-C Missiles,” The Korea Herald.
  10. There is still some discussion as to whether the Taepodong systems—developed in parallel with the Paektusan and Unha family of space launch vehicles (SLVs)—were ever operational, and if they were, what their internal designations were. Ibid.; author interview data; “DPRK Operates Missile Launch Battalions,” Yonhap News Agency; “DPRK Missile Industry, Technology Examined,” T’ongil Kyongje, August 1999, 96-104; “Further on DPRK Underground Missile Facilities,” Hangyore, July 8, 1999, 2; “South Defense Minister Says North Tunnel For Missile Use,” Kyodo; “U.S. Confirms Missile Deployment in North of N. Korea,” The Korea Times, March 28, 1999; Lee Sung-yul, “North Korea Operates at Least 4 Missile Factories, 10 Launch Sites, Official Says,” The Korea Herald, March 26, 1999; “Report on DPRK Missile Plants, Launch Sites,” Hangyore, March 25, 1999; “Officials Confirm Missiles Deployed Near DPRK-PRC Border,” Kyodo, March 5, 1999; “Pyongyang Found Constructing 5 Underground Facilities,” Yomiuri Shimbun; “DPRK Said To Deploy Missiles at More Than 10 Sites,” Yonhap News Agency; “Further on DPRK Deploying Nodong Missile,” NHK, January 2, 1999; “U.S. Military Detects Underground Bases in DPRK,” NHK, December 8, 1998; “DPRK Reportedly Building 3 Underground Missile Sites,” The Korea Times, December 8, 1998; “Official Predicts DPRK Missile Finalized by 2000,” Yonhap News Agency, September 2, 1998; “NK Builds Two New Missile Sites,” Chosun Ilbo, November 21, 1998; “DPRK Defector Discusses Chemical Weapons,” Kyodo; “North Missile Sites Said Along PRC Border,” Yonhap News Agency, April 8, 1994; U.S. Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, North Korean Missile Proliferation, 105th Cong., 1st sess. (October 21, 1997); “Defector Says Long-Range Missile Bases Built,” KBS-1; “Defense Ministry: May Nodong-1 Test Successful,” Yonhap News Agency; and “Ko Yong-hwan, Former Interpreter for Kim Il-song and High-Ranking North Korean Diplomat, Speaks,” Seoul Shinmun, October 9, 1991, 5.
  11. Author interview data; and Osamu Eya, Great Illustrated Book of Kim Chong-il, (Tokyo: Shogakukan, 2000), 10-15.