North Korea has been exclusively testing missiles that appeared in a military parade earlier this year, raising serious questions about what will come flying out of the hermit kingdom next.
North Korea held a massive military parade on April 15 marking the 105th anniversary of the birth of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, grandfather to the young despot Kim Jong Un. During the celebration of Juche ideology, a number of new missile systems rolled through Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang.
Among the new weapon systems put on display in the parade two months ago were the Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile, the Pukguksong-2 medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM), a new precision Scud variant, and an improved coastal defense cruise missile, all of which have appeared on the testing grounds in recent weeks.
The North, however, has yet to test the suspected solid-fueled, canister-launched intercontinental ballistic missile models (ICBM) seen during the parade, an important event offering critical insight into North Korea’s weapons testing patterns.
So, what is North Korea’s next move?
“I suppose one way to think about it would be to look at the April 15 parade again,” Joshua Pollack, a leading arms expert, told The Daily Caller News Foundation, “The missiles that go in those big canisters have yet to put on an appearance.”
At the same time, North Korea has yet to test the liquid-fueled KN-08/KN-14 ICBM models displayed in past military parades, or even a modified Taepodong satellite-launch vehicle.
While a liquid-fueled ICBM, according to Pollack and other experts, is more likely to come first, the possibility that North Korea will attempt to develop a solid-fueled ICBM is still on the table. In fact, there are several paths to an ICBM that North Korea could take. The recent string of weapons testing suggests that a test of some type of ICBM is coming soon.
North Korea has said as much.
“The series of recent strategic weapons tests show that we are not too far away from test-firing an intercontinental ballistic missile,” the Rodong Sinmun, the official paper of the ruling party, said Saturday. In addition to its long-range missile aspirations, the North is also interested in developing a diverse arsenal of missiles for a complex variety of combat contingencies.
Hwasong-12 Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM):
Declared a “perfect weapon system” by Pyongyang, the Hwasong-12 IRBM’s first successful flight test was May 14. North Korea launched this missile from Kusong, North Pyongan Province. Relying on a new engine tested in March, the Hwasong-12 succeeded where the Musudan IRBM failed repeatedly throughout last year. With a range of almost 3,000 miles, just short of the 3,400 miles required for an ICBM, this missile (SLVs aside) is considered the longest-range weapon North Korea has tested to date.
Most observers believe the Hwasong-12 could comfortably hit Guam, home to Andersen Air Force Base and the bomber aircraft that maintain America’s “continuous bomber presence” in the region.
An important aspect of the Hwasong-12 test is that the re-entry vehicle is believed to have survived atmospheric re-entry, an important part of the ICBM development process. The Hwasong-12 resembles a shorter, single-stage version of the KN-08 with a similar, if not identical, warhead, although the state-run Korean Central News Agency reports the North’s new IRBM is “capable of carrying a large-size heavy nuclear warhead.”
First tested in February and retested in May, the Pukguksong-2 (KN-15) is a solid-fueled, cold-launched, medium-range ballistic missile based on the Pukguksong-1 (KN-11) submarine-launched ballistic missile tested successfully last year. With a range of 750 to 1,200 miles, the Pukguksong-2 can be used to hold South Korea and Japan hostage. This missile system is for the targeting of North Korea’s neighbors.
The weapon is carried on an indigenously-produced tracked transporter erector launcher (TEL) able to traverse challenging terrain, increasing the number of locations from which the missile can be fired. As a solid-fueled weapon that can be fueled in advance and fired with little to no warning, the weapon is highly survivable.
The Pukguksong-2 may be the technological predecessor to the canister-launched ICBMs displayed in the parade, but a solid-propellant rocket would be less powerful. There are also concerns that North Korea would not be able to produce the necessary wide-diameter motor for a solid-fueled ICBM.
Modified Scud Short-Range Ballistic Missile (SRBM):
This Scud variant, an apparent modification of a Scud C, a “new-type precision guided ballistic rocket capable of making ultra-precision strikes” is carried on a “newly-developed caterpillar self-propelled” launch vehicle.
The fins on the nose cone, along with North Korean rhetoric, suggest that the North is experimenting with terminal maneuverability. The test of this system “verified the accuracy of ultra-precision guidance in the re-entry section by more precise late-stage guidance system,” the Korean Central News Agency reported after the test in late May. Terminal maneuverability could potentially enhance the weapons ability to evade enemy defense systems, such as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea. It could additionally execute precision strikes.
During the test of this missile, the weapon flew roughly 300 miles and landed within 23 feet of its target.
Like the Pukguksong-2, the short-range Scud variant has a reduced launch time and is carried on tracked road-mobile launchers able to move across unforgiving terrain, increasing the weapon’s survivability.
Coastal Defense Cruise Missile (CDCM):
Pyongyang claims the “new-type ground-to-sea cruise rocket” gives the country a “powerful attack means capable of striking any enemy group of battleships.” North Korea tested this system, which is reminiscent of the Russian Kh-35, from its east coast in June, firing off a salvo of four anti-ship cruise missiles.
During the test, the missiles struck an anchored and immobilized barge, signaling that the new missiles were not tested under realistic combat conditions.
Like some of the other systems, the new anti-ship cruise missiles were carried on a tracked transporter erector, creating a more survivable coastal defense.
The new CDCM, together with the improved Pongae-5 (KN-06) surface-to-air missile system tested a few weeks ago, offers North Korea limited anti-access, area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities.
North Korea may continue testing these systems, or they may move onto something bigger. Since the start of the year, Pyongyang has repeatedly indicated that an ICBM test is on its way.
“We have reached the final stage of preparations to test-launch an intercontinental ballistic missile,” North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un said at his New Year’s address, adding, “Research and development of cutting edge arms equipment is actively progressing.”
“Just because the U.S. is located more than ten thousand kilometers away does not make the country safe,” the Rodong Sinmun wrote in January, “Soon our ICBM will send the shiver down its spine.”
“Trump blustered early this year that the DPRK’s final access to a nuclear weapon that can reach the U.S. mainland will never happen,” state media reported Saturday, referencing one of President Donald Trump’s tweets.
North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won’t happen!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 2, 2017
“The DPRK is about 10 400 km far away from New York,” the Rodong Sinmun added, “But this is just not a long distance for its strike today.” Will North Korea call Trump’s bluff? Only time will tell for sure.
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