31.10.2020 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Development of North Korea’s Missile Program and Prospects for New Tests


As a result of the article about the military parade in Pyongyang, the author has received several requests to explain in more detail what North Korea’s missile development program is at the present stage.

In this context, it should be noted that North Korea is actively developing its program. Mike Pompeo was right when he said that this project was as important for North Korea as the Manhattan project was for the United States during World War II. Therefore, the author can provide some data as adjusted for the fact that North Korea is actively working to ensure that some of this information would already be obsolete when it appears in the public domain.

The nuclear missile shield is known as a significant achievement of the Kim Jong-un era, and the North Korean leader often repeats that nuclear deterrence will permanently guarantee the country’s national security.

On the eve of the Workers’ Party of Korea anniversary on September 29, 2020, Rodong Sinmun that serves as a leading newspaper, wrote that the most significant achievement of the WPK is creating a powerful national defense capability that guarantees sovereignty and survival.

The most powerful version of North Korean tested weapons is the Hwasong-15 Intercontinental ballistic missile, which has a range of 8,000 miles (12,874 km) and can strike any part of the US mainland. Its last test launch was on November 29, 2017.

Earlier models of the same series like Hwasong-13 can fly up to 5500 km and reach GUAM, and Hwasong-14, with rangeability of 10,058 km, can reach most of the US mainland.

The list of medium-range missiles includes solid-fueled Pukkykson-2 with a range of 997 km and Nodon with a range of 1287 km. Hwasong-10 and Hwasong-12 liquid-fueled missiles are also classified as medium-range ballistic missiles capable of flying more than 2,890 kilometers.

North Korea also had Scud-B SRBMs, but in 2019 the regime conducted 13 missile launches and demonstrated several new types of missiles. This includes its version of the Russian Iskander or American ATACMS, and a large-caliber multiple launch rocket system that fires short-range missiles. Such missiles could “cover” the entire territory of “Greater Seoul” in South Korea. It is no coincidence that Eric Gomez, Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, noted in an interview with the Korea Times that, although all attention was paid to ICBMs and SLBMs, short-range missiles and MLRSs of the DPRK “pose a greater threat to stability than nuclear weapons.”

SATO Masahisa, Chief Secretary of Liberal Democratic Party of Japan’s (LDP) Parliamentary Association for National Defense, agreed with him, describing the problem as follows: this time, the previous models of Scud and Nodon missiles, which could be intercepted by Aegis land-based systems, did not appear at the parade; instead, “new types of missiles that cannot be intercepted were showcased. The development of our defense capabilities does not correspond to the direction of development of North Korean missiles.”

In the same year, North Korea tested an improved submarine-launched ballistic missile, which supposedly has a range of more than 2000 km and is likely to be carried by a new submarine with a draught of 3000 tons.

Although longer-range missiles have not been tested, work is underway on them. According to the NK News portal, in 2018 and later, state media either downplayed Kim Jong-un’s visits to nuclear-related facilities or hid them altogether. Less than a month after the famous summit in Singapore in June 2018, on US Independence Day, Kim secretly visited a major nuclear weapons factory.

In addition to the missiles themselves, the means of transporting them are being improved. It is known that during the “Olympic Truce,” Kim visited the so-called “March 16 Factory”, the modernization of which led to Kim’s remark that the country can now independently provide itself with missile launchers in the necessary quantity.  This is important, since on February 8, 2020, at the parade in honor of the 70th founding anniversary of the Korean People’s Army, tractors with trailers were used to transport the Hwasong-14, and the Hwasong-15 was transported by six WS-51200 tractors from China, reinforced with an additional wheel pair.

In late 2019, Pyongyang warned of a demonstration of “new strategic weapons” that could result in a new ICBM with a more extended range or a new SLBM or submarine capable of launching such missiles. However, the new Hwasong has not yet flown, and its combat characteristics are purely speculative.  So, Michael Elleman, Senior Fellow for Missile Defence at the IISS, believes that the missile can carry about 2.5-3 tons of payload, which is almost twice the same parameter of Hwasong-15. However, its size makes it vulnerable to a pre-launch attack since its installation and refueling require several hours.

However, as noted in the previous text, this missile’s primary value is to serve as a demonstrative indicator of the red line, not as a means of a sudden attack.

What is the direction of a creative search? – As The Chosun Ilbo reported in July 2020, referring to the US Congressional Research Service, North Korea has improved its ballistic missiles over the past two years, aiming at “reducing the efficiency of anti-ballistic missile defense deployed in the region: Patriot, Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) and Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD)”. In other words, the US acknowledged that the North’s missiles could disable the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile battery.

On August 6, 2020, Victorino G. Mercado, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy, Plans, and Capabilities, noted that “North Korea is actively working to develop long-range nuclear ballistic missiles that can threaten the homeland, allies, and partners.” The country “continues to expand its ballistic missile capabilities and conduct test launches, despite international restrictions.” The official noted that while many often emphasized launch failures, the regime has a very thoughtful test program where they widen their technological limits, learn from failures, and demonstrate continuous improvement.

On September 2, 2020, Rob Soofer, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear and Missile Defense Policy, said that North Korea continues to build up its long-range missile capabilities.

On October 20, 2020, Nam Se-gyu, President of the Agency for Defense Development, indicated that North Korea is developing its missile capabilities much faster than expected, significantly reducing the gap with the South. Presenting an analysis of the weapons displayed at a recent military parade, Nam admitted that he “thought we were about 20 years ahead in terms of solid-fuel ballistic missiles or other missile systems.” But now he believes the gap has more than halved.

If one were to summarize the expert opinions, several areas can be distinguished:

  • Development of an ICBM with multiple warheads or a massive block with a set of false targets.
  • Miniaturization of nuclear weapons so that the warhead can be effectively placed on short-range missiles.
  • Testing telemetry and precision missile guidance to the target.
  • Increasing the ability to overcome the enemy’s missile defense. It is no accident that when commenting on North Korea’s demonstration of a new type of missile on October 13, Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi described it as “a new challenge to provide interception capabilities.”

Of course, the military of the South claims that the threat could be fended off. According to deputy spokesman Colonel Moon Hong-sik. North Korean SRINF can be intercepted using Patriot and M-SAM II anti-missile systems. In the event of an attack using various types of missiles, the South Korean military can disable them by using the Korean-style missile defense system and other strategic strike systems. The report of Air Force Staff, prepared for the annual parliamentary inspection of the Ministry of National Defense of the Republic of Korea, also noted the willingness of the Air Force to work on providing opportunities for the application of retaliatory strategic strike and the strengthening of missile defense, to enhance intelligence activities on the Korean Peninsula and in the adjacent region in preparation of the operational command of South Korean forces to be transited under the control of Seoul in wartime.

But every new weapon needs to be tested. The introduction of further missiles has only increased the debate about when they will be seen in the sky and whether there will be political or purely technical reasons for this.

The director at the Center for Naval Analysis in Virginia, military analyst Ken Gause told the Korea Times that “North Korea doesn’t want to stand in the way of Trump’s victory.” Terence Roerig, a Professor at the Naval War College, also doubts that “Kim will conduct any major weapons tests before the US election, for fear of doing something that could jeopardize Trump’s chances of winning.”

However, both experts believe that a Biden victory will increase the likelihood of a launch, although it is likely that the northerners will wait and raise the stakes only if it becomes clear that the new US President will return to “strategic patience.” Former Unification Minister Kim Yong Chol also thinks North Korea may test its new ICBM depending on the results of the US presidential election.

More partisan experts like Bruce Klingner, a former CIA analyst, economist in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation, believe that regardless of who is elected President of the United States, Kim will give a “salute” early next year. “North Korea has historically conducted intense provocations in the first year of the American and South Korean administrations to train them like a dog.”

However, Roerig considers that the North Korean missile test may be related to its political goals and technical requirements. “For North Korea to make sure that its weapons systems work, they will have to be tested. Thus, tests are often conducted not to exchange political signals, but rather to make sure that the missile systems are functioning as intended, so that the test schedule is determined by technical requirements, and not just political goals“.

And since this author does not know the exact technical schedule of tests, he will just wait quietly. Sooner or later, the test will happen, although one would like the de facto moratorium on ICBM testing to be extended for another year from the point of view of maintaining regional detente.

Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D. in History and a leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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