In late July – early August 2019, North Korea conducted a series of short range missile launches and large-caliber multiple rocket launcher firings. It caused a certain stir, but, before analyzing the international reaction, let us review the chronicle of the events.
Let us first note that all the launches took place against the backdrop of a decrease in the US-North Korean dialogue (the working groups agreed on at “the 2.5 summit” have not begun the work yet) and the coming military exercises of the US and South Korea. Certainly, their scale is significantly lower than earlier, but in terms of “violating the spirit of the agreement,” it is identical to the similar action of North Korea.
Besides, the US delivered two more fifth generation F-35A jet fighters to South Korea. These invisible planes are theoretically invincible for the present level of the North Korean missile defense.
On July 25, early in the morning, North Korea launched two short-range missiles in the direction of the Sea of Japan. The first missile covered a distance of 430 kilometers, the second one 690 km. Both missile flew at an altitude of about 50 km and fell in the Sea of Japan.
What is important though is that the South Korean military regularly lost sight of the second North Korean missile and, judging by what was shown by the surveillance systems, it carried out complex maneuvers of evasion in the horizontal and vertical plane. It did not fall at a certain destination after flying along a parabola trajectory, but flew for much longer keeping at low altitudes in a rectilinear trajectory. Besides, a flight altitude of 50 km is in the blind zone of the South Korean military Patriot PAC-3 SAM systems and the THAAD missile defense systems. At this altitude, North Korean missiles had been already able to cover a distance of up to 500 km. But the mark of 600 km was reached this time: such weapon can strike any point on the Korean peninsula and at the same time avoid the missile defense systems.
It means that North Korea has a short prestart cycle missile with a complicated trajectory capable of both striking facilities protected by the existing missile defense systems and destroying these very systems.
The military believe that the launches were made by means of a mobile launcher at a low angle and the missiles were of the same type as those launched in May – the North Korean version of the Russian Iskander missile which flies along a complicated trajectory as well, unlike usual ballistic missiles, and therefore has great ability to avoid interception.
However, it should be noted that when South Korean military equate KN-23 to Iskander, they are not being frank. With a comparable degree of verisimilitude, one could say that the North Korean missile is equivalent to the South Korean Hyunmoo-2B or the Ukrainian Hrim-2. In any case, Hyunmoo-2B was made with the assistance of Russian engineers and practically on the basis of Iskander, which, however, did not prevent military PR staff from describing it as their own design. The US experts Melissa Hanham and Jeffrey Lewis also note that there are several types of short-range missiles which bear a strong similarity to new North Korean complexes and that, in fact, all missiles of this class are similar.
The media coverage of the launch was no less important: the Korean Central News Agency provided a detailed report about the way Kim Jong-un “organized and guided the fire of the new-type tactical guided weapon as part of the power demonstration to send a solemn warning to the south Korean military warmongers who are running high fever in their moves to introduce the ultra-modern offensive weapons into south Korea and hold military exercise in defiance of the repeated warnings from the DPRK.”
The North Korean leader openly explained the purpose of the launch, stating that “the ultra-modern weapons and equipment which the bellicose forces of the South Korean military are introducing with desperate efforts are definitely offensive weapons and their purpose is absolutely clear.” Thus, “the South Korean authorities are revealing such strange double-dealing behavior as producing a “handshake of peace” and fingering joint declaration and agreement and the like before the world people and, behind the scene, shipping ultra-modern offensive weapons and holding joint military exercises.” Therefore, “we cannot but dynamically develop super powerful weapon systems to remove the potential and direct threats to the security of our country that exist in the south.”
Thus, a very clear message (or piece of advice) was conveyed to Seoul, namely that “the South Korean chief executive [must] understand in time the danger the developments will possibly bring, stop such suicidal act as the introduction of ultra-modern weapons and military exercises and come back to the proper stand as in April and September last year […] The South Korean chief executive should not make a mistake of ignoring the warning from Pyongyang, however offending it may be.”
The South Korean press immediately noted that the term “power demonstration” had not been used for a long time. On the other hand, the word “missile” was replaced with the expression “new-type tactical guided weapon,” and all the warnings were addressed to Seoul, rather than Washington, which Pyongyang intends to continue the dialogue with.
The second act took place on July 31, early in the morning. Two more ballistic missiles were launched in the direction of the Sea of Japan from mobile launchers in the district of Wonsan again. Both missiles covered a distance of about 250 km, reaching the altitude of 30 km. The South Korean military believe that, since the missiles flew at lower altitudes and covered a short distance, a near target strike with bypassing the enemy antimissile systems was rehearsed.
The Korean Central News Agency again, though in less detail this time, reported how highly Kim had appreciated the launch performance. After that, South Korean media started using the term “short range projectiles” instead of the word “missile,” emphasizing that, judging by the modification and flying range, the launch of July 31 was aimed at South Korea regardless of whether it is a multiple rocket launcher or a ballistic missile unit.
The third launch of two unidentified short range projectiles in the direction of the Sea of Japan took place on the night of August 2, 2019. The projectiles covered a distance of about 220 km with the maximum speed of 6.9 Mach at an altitude of 25 km.
This time, the Korean Central News Agency even showed a photo of the device more similar to a large caliber multiple rocket launcher than to a missile unit, though many important details were blurred. The weapon was dubbed a “newly-developed large-caliber multiple launch guided rocket system,” and the launch was carried out for the purpose of checking the flight characteristics of mastering altitude, orbit control and target hit accuracy.
Kim Jong-un again “guided the test launch from an observation post.”
However, let us proceed with the conclusions:
- Despite the sanctions, North Korean military production is continuing and provides quite modern weapons.
- The launches are, certainly, a way to whip up Washington and to warn Seoul, as they represent an explicit real threat for South Korea due to the helplessness of its missile defense against this type of weapon.
- However, the launches must be considered in the general context: against the backdrop of the development of the South Korean missile defense, it is no wonder that the opposite party reacted by designing missiles capable of bypassing this missile defense.
- As the missiles operate within short range, the recent tests cannot be considered a violation of the Pyongyang’s self-proclaimed moratorium on ICBM launches and nuclear tests which North Korea first introduced at the end of 2017 and then confirmed officially in early 2018.
- Certainly, the launches do not help reduce the tension, but North Korea is responding to the US and South Korean exercises and the import of new weapons to South Korea to the best of its ability.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Centre for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.