05.04.2022 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Launch of Hwasong-17 on March 24, 2022

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On March 24, North Korea successfully launched a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the Hwasong-17, on the personal order of its leader Kim Jong-un.

According to the KCNA, all major elements and systems of the ICBM performed as designed, confirming their reliability and accurate compliance with design requirements.  This is the first North Korean ICBM launch since November 2017, when the DPRK tested the Hwasong-15 missile. According to the South Korean military, had the Hwasong-17 been launched on a trajectory optimal for maximum range and not on an exaggerated one, it would have been able to fly more than 15,000 kilometers, which means the launched ICBM is capable of hitting any point on US territory.

The Hwasong-17 is 23-24 m long, which is longer than the largest ICBMs: US Minuteman III is 18.2 m, China’s Dongfeng-41 is 21 m, and the Russian Topol-M is 22.7 m. Moreover, the Hwasong-17 appears to have more thrust than other long-range missiles. According to analysts, the first stage rocket is equipped with four liquid fuel engines.

In terms of payload, Park Won-gon, a professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University, noted that a longer range means the missile can carry a more powerful warhead or multiple warheads (including a probably Multi-Intelligence Reconnaissance Vehicle (MIRV) carrying two or three warheads) if its range is adjusted to fly a shorter distance.

As can be seen, the new missile overlaps the 2017 launches in all critical categories. And although the northerners are launching it on a high-altitude trajectory, this is due to several types of circumstances.

First, by doing so, they do not want to aggravate the situation by launching ICBM towards the US and creating the temptation to intercept them. Second, North Korea’s geographical position prevents it from launching whatever, however and wherever. Third, such launches may also be seen as preparation for the launch of an artificial satellite, which, unlike a purely military missile, proves to be a formal conflict of interpretations: a ban on the use of ballistic missiles versus any country’s right to the peaceful exploration of space.

What to expect next?

The fantasies of the prognosticators are not even limited by the technical capabilities of the DPRK, but by the authors’ notions of the level of “bloodiness” and “inadequacy” of the regime. For example, it is alleged in all seriousness that the DPRK could transfer nuclear weapons to Islamic terrorists to carry out an attack on Israel and detonate a nuclear explosion in the atmosphere, ignoring the concerns of its immediate neighbors.

The KCNA story stresses that it is an ICBM launch, but says it is a new type of ICBM, suggesting that North Korean engineers have a whole family of missiles ready to be worked on. This is not a question of single prototypes, but of missiles that are about to go into production and have already gone into series production. And they will be in service with the KPA for the foreseeable future.

In addition, there is the notion that satellite imagery suggests some kind of work is going on at both the Punggye-ri nuclear test site and the Yongbyon nuclear center. For instance, work is reportedly underway at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site to rebuild one of the tunnels that was blown up in 2018: northerners are digging a new passage to tunnel No. 3 in a mountainous area in the northeastern part of the test site. The restoration of the tunnel will make the site suitable for another nuclear test, and experts believe it is most likely that a small warhead for tactical nuclear weapons systems (medium- and short-range missiles) with a yield of 10 to 20 kilotons would be detonated.

And on March 30, ROK media reported that satellite images of the southern Sinpho shipyard showed “unusual movement” of the experimental submarine August 24 Hero, which may indicate a possible SLBM test.

Now about Seoul’s counter-actions.

About two hours after the launch of the Hwaseong-17, the South Korean side conducted its own missile firing, launching the Hyunmoo-II ballistic missile, and the ATACMS short-range missile. By doing so, Seoul has signaled that it has the capability to target North Korean missile sites. One Haeseong-II ship-to-ground missile and two JDAM air-to-ground missiles were also launched.

On March 25, maneuvers involving 28 of the 40 fifth-generation F-35A Lightning II fighters recently inducted into service (with full armament) took place under the name “Elephant Walk”.

On March 30, staff from the ROK Defense Research Institute conducted the first successful test of a solid-fuel space launch vehicle of its own design. Its range is estimated at 3,000 to 5,500 km. Seoul needs the relevant technology for its military reconnaissance satellite network and medium- and long-range ballistic missile programs.

These moves are expected to exacerbate the arms race on the Korean peninsula, similar to the autumn of 2021, when Seoul and Pyongyang took turns launching SLBMs and cruise missiles.

But that’s not what’s so interesting. A few days after the launch, information began to circulate, citing anonymous “US and ROK military officials”, that the DPRK had allegedly launched its predecessor, the Hwasong-15, rather than the Hwasong-17, as officially announced on March 24. According to anonymous experts, the photo and video footage is fabricated. This is supposedly evidenced by the weather – it was cloudy on that day, but clear in the images. Moreover, data from satellite images of the rocket in the infrared spectrum indicate a similarity between the rocket engine nozzle and the Hwasong-15. And the fact that the new missile went higher and flew longer can be explained by the installation of a lighter warhead on the missile.

The second set of arguments has to do with the fact that the failed ICBM launch on March 16 was also a test of the Hwasong-17 missile, which exploded due to a fuel leak in the first stage engine. In this situation, conducting a retest just eight days after the incident is unusual in terms of rocket engineering canons: in such cases, it takes months to analyze the accident and search for problems, let alone fix them.

On March 29 it became clear that the source of this information may have been a briefing in the National Assembly, where deputies from the relevant committees are briefed on the situation. According to the Conservative MP and presidential candidate Ha Tae-kyung (a rather remarkable personality whose “revelations” have been disavowed more than once), the point was that the missile “exploded several kilometers above Pyongyang, so it was visible to the naked eye, and debris fell like rain over Pyongyang. Human casualties have not been confirmed, but civilian damage occurred.” So the authorities went for a fake launch to reassure the population.

However, serious sources, such as US Department of Defense spokesman John Kirby on March 29, dodged the question of whether or not this was the case. A similar stance has so far been demonstrated by James Jared, chief of staff of the Indo-Pacific Command of the US Armed Forces. Glen VanHerck, commander of the US Northern Command, said in this context that the United States needed to deploy its next-generation missile defense systems to keep pace with North Korea’s growing missile capabilities.

Such attention from the US military suggests that, unlike conservative MPs whose stance jumps from “the communist regime is incapable of creating anything serious and is only throwing dust in their eyes” to “it is a threat to all mankind, take urgent action”, they are more sober in assessing the Kim Jong-un regime. And so the monster missile flight in any case marks a new stage in the development of the country’s missile capabilities.

International response

In the DPRK, the launch is justifiably vaunted. The central DPRK newspaper Rodong Sinmun reported on its front page: “Our country has become stronger once again and our people have become greater once more”.

Choson Shinbo, a pro-North Korean newspaper in Japan, reported that “the aim of developing strategic weapons is to acquire the overwhelming power that will completely break the will of the United States to go to war”, and the Hwaseong-17 is the key means of the North’s strategic armed forces to strike at the United States across the Pacific. The newspaper also stressed that there would be no armed conflict if Washington abandoned its hostile policy towards Pyongyang.

A little later, North Korean media quoted comments made by Kim Jong-un where he pointed out that the country can only prevent war and guarantee its security if it is equipped with “huge strike capability” and “overwhelming military power that no one can stop”.

Washington and Seoul condemned the launch, with little difference in the assessments of the incumbent and the president-elect. On March 24, US President Joe Biden condemned Pyongyang’s launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile, stressing the importance of resolving North Korea’s problems through diplomatic means.  Biden also noted that the US is committed to the security of the ROK and Japan.

ROK President Moon Jae-in condemned the launch, saying the North had broken the moratorium on ICBM tests that Kim Jong-un had promised the international community. Moon also said the launch poses serious threats not only to the Korean Peninsula and the region.

President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol’s transition team strongly condemned the launch. Its statement said the ICBM launch was a serious provocation that threatened security and was in direct violation of UN Security Council resolutions. Yoon Suk-yeol himself wrote on his Facebook page on March 25, “I sternly warn North Korea that there is nothing that can be gained from provocations … The Republic of Korea will safeguard freedom and peace by building a stronger security posture.”

ROK Special Representative for Peace and Security on the Korean Peninsula Noh Kyu-duk held telephone talks with his Chinese counterpart Liu Xiaoming and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov, asking for a consolidated position.

According to conservative media in the ROK, the launch “was also a sign that the Moon administration’s peace efforts during the past five years were in vain”.

In terms of retaliatory measures, referring to the Non-Proliferation Act against Iran, the DPRK and Syria, Washington has imposed a series of new economic sanctions, targeting the DPRK’s Second Academy of Sciences and North Korean Ri Sung-chul, who have been involved in missile weapons programs. However, it has not yet been possible to impose sanctions through the UNSC. On March 25, 2022, the UN Security Council held its first public meeting on North Korea since 2017. The US has, predictably, taken a tough stance, calling on the international community to adopt a new resolution reinforcing the sanctions pressure on North Korea. Russia and China, for their part, invited all sides to show calm and restraint, and insisted on considering their proposals for easing restrictions on the DPRK. At the end of the meeting, 15 countries – including the US, UK, France, Japan and Republic of Korea – issued a joint statement condemning the launch, but there were no binding documents – or at least no text on behalf of the entire UNSC.

As a result, the US promised to present a draft resolution “to update and strengthen the sanctions regime”. What their content will be is unclear, but the ROK media suggest that it will go towards reducing North Korea’s restrictions on crude oil and oil product imports, which are currently set at 4 million barrels and 500,000 barrels a year respectively. However, such a reduction does not seem feasible, as China and Russia would certainly oppose it.

It is also clear that the North’s move is likely to prompt South Korea and the US to deploy strategic weapons, such as fighter jets and submarines, on the peninsula during the joint military exercises scheduled for next month. With President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol pledging a strong response to possible “provocations by the North”, inter-Korean relations will remain frozen.

The conservative JoongAng Ilbo reports that North Korea has crossed a red line, but Pyongyang must realize that under a conservative president the alliance between Seoul and Washington is bound to strengthen, and “the international community will be stronger against aggression by dictatorships after Russian President Putin’s war”.  Therefore, the situation should not be exacerbated there.

The author, however, continues to wait for more launches and more attempts to impose sanctions, but it is not entirely certain that Yoon Suk-yeol will become the new Lee Myung-bak on the inter-Korean issue.

On the one hand, judging by the composition of its transition committee, foreign policy will be handled by people related not even to Park Geun-hye but to Lee Myung-bak. In particular, one of his advisers who was instrumental in moving the presidential residence to the Defense Ministry complex was former Defense Minister Kim Kwang-jin, whose approach could be described as extremely hawkish. At one time Park Geun-hye even “pushed him to the top” in order to deprive this man of direct control over the troops.

On the other hand, a politician’s actions often differ from his campaign promises, and pragmatic leaders find themselves able to accept reality by removing the shades of ideology. Very few imagined that Donald Trump, who threatened Kim with “fire and fury” in 2017, would be meeting the North Korean leader a year later and maintaining a respectful personal relationship with him. Yoon Suk-yeol could, in theory, go for something like this, being a pragmatist rather than a professional politician.

What worries the author most, though, is what will happen when the US does present a draft UNSC resolution and what will be the reaction of Moscow and Beijing. Previously, despite their excellent understanding of the North’s motives, Russia and China have prioritized the preservation of the existing world order and have declared their strong opposition to the North’s desire to join the “nuclear club” and become equal to the “Big Five”. But now we have a situation where the Ukrainian crisis and the US-China confrontation have a chance to break the existing world order, and all sorts of things may happen.

Up to and including the previously unthinkable VETO.

And if that happens, the world will enter a whole new era with different rules.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, 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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