The DPRK’s Remarkable Missile Tests and Their Strategic Implications
North Korea’s Rocket Force is testing an impressive array of new platforms that markedly increase the regime’s nuclear capabilities. The U.S. and its allies should take note. Pyongyang missile tests, once momentous and newsworthy events, have with time assumed the contours of a regular occurrence, just noticeable enough to “strongly condemn” them in pre-compiled communiques, but not worrying enough to capture the attention of senior United States officials and policy-makers.
And yet, in recent months experts have been following with increasing interest and concern the latest developments in North Korea’s Strategic Rocket Force activity. This is partly due to the unprecedented frequency of provocative actions: twelve tests, often involving more than one missile, have been conducted since the beginning of the year. One more is expected soon to greet, Pyongyang-style, President Joe Biden’s upcoming visit to Asia.
Nonetheless, what really sets the last months apart is the wide range of the innovative platforms tested by the Korean People’s Army.
The year was off to a rocky start when, on January 5, the regime announced the successful test of a hypersonic missile. It should be noted that any Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), which the DPRK fields since the ‘80s, is hypersonic by default toward the end of its trajectory, when descending on target. The emphasis on the term hypersonic is arguably a sign of the time: since hypersonic weapons are nowadays at the core of high-tech military competition between the world’s most advanced militaries, Kim’s regime cannot avoid but advertising its own alleged indigenous hypersonic platform. Thus, most observers labeled the launch as just the latest combination of provocation and bombastic claims aimed at boosting national pride at home as well as projecting an image of strength abroad.
But things were bound to change with the next missile test just five days later which introduced a genuine innovation: a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV). The advantage of such a system, already in service with Russian (Avangard) and Chinese (DF-17) nuclear forces, is the maneuverability of the suborbital glider, which is capable of turning at hypersonic speeds, executing evasive maneuvers or changing course entirely. This makes prediction of its trajectory and target extremely difficult, thus considerably reducing any chance of interception. While some experts doubt that the vehicle tested was in fact an HGV, they all agree that it represents a considerable advance in the sophistication of North Korean nuclear-capable delivery platforms, greatly enhancing the survivability of the warheads.
Three more tests followed in the single month of January, involving long-range cruise missiles as well as intermediate and short-range ballistic missiles, the latter of which were launched from a railcar, taking advantage of the country’s extensive railway network to disperse its mobile launchers.
More recently, the regime has also tested its new oversized ICBM, the Hwasong-17, that, with an estimated range of 15,000 kilometers, would theoretically be capable of hitting any location on the US mainland. The last test to date, conducted on May 7, involved a submarine-launched short-range ballistic missile. Once again, while the missile itself is hardly state-of-the art, the fact that it was successfully launched by North Korea’s only ballistic missile submarine, a heavily modified Romeo-class, suggests that the regime is expanding its strike capabilities and strengthening the resiliency of its nuclear force through diversification.
That is not to say that Pyongyang’s impressive new array of wunderwaffen are immune to failure, the opposite is true. In March, an ICBM test failed spectacularly when the missile, launched from Pyongyang’s Sunan International Airport, exploded a few moments later over the skies of the capital city in a plastic representation of the regime’s disregard for its citizens’ safety. Apart from the reckless practice of having a missile flight path overfly a densely populated urban area (an extremely rare setting in the notoriously underdeveloped nation, to speak candidly), it should be noted that North Korea is the only country known to use civilian infrastructure, such as an international airport, to test ballistic missiles. Speculation suggests the move is intended to provide Kim Jong-Un with a comfortable location from which to observe the launches, just a few kilometers from his Pyongyang residence.
Despite the dubious reliability of its new missile systems, what is increasingly clear is that the regime is considerably strengthening its nuclear strike capabilities, doubling down on a military doctrine that privileges investment and expansion of nuclear forces over conventional ones. Ballistic submarines, railway launchers, highly-mobile cruise missiles, combined with a number of Transporter Erector Launchers (TEL) disseminated throughout the nation all serve the purpose of making Pyongyang’s nuclear forces highly resilient against pre-emptive or retaliatory strikes aimed at neutralizing them. Kim’s regime is making sure that should the US employ its overwhelming technological advantage to rain “fire and fury” on the country, it would still have the means to inflict a catastrophic nuclear blow to its enemies.
As of this article’s publication, new evidence has also emerged that Kim’s regime may be on the verge of completing a second long-dormant nuclear reactor at the Yongbyon nuclear facility, a move which would allow a tenfold increase in the production of weapons-grade plutonium. That would confirm Kim’s intention to increase the number of nuclear weapons from the current estimate of around 20-30 warheads to 30-60 more. The stockpile’s expansion goes hand in hand with the miniaturization process, aimed at fitting the nuclear warheads onto the country’s ballistic missiles. By now, most experts agree that the regime has likely achieved that objective and that in the near future, it may focus on developing a multiple-warhead payload for its monster-sized ICBMs.
Such concerning developments in the Korean Peninsula call for a renewed and critical discussion of the U.S. and its allies’ position vis-à-vis North Korea. Leadership changes in Japan and, more recently, South Korea, offer a unique opportunity to reassess previous assumptions and develop an updated common strategy. This is an overhaul that would be increasingly overdue and must be based on an honest analysis of the threat of nuclear escalation in the region. Moreover, such an assessment should not overestimate the effectiveness of American ballistic missile defense, which could instill a sense of overconfidence in officials and elected representatives, a miscalculation conducive to careless behavior and extremely dangerous repercussions.
While it is true that the U.S. is bent on creating a multi-layered defense infrastructure through state-of-the-art platforms such as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) fielded in South Korea, the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System deployed on U.S. Navy destroyers and the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense based (GMD) in Alaska, the effectiveness of such systems against an all-out nuclear attack remains dubious. The GMD installation at Fort Greely, Alaska, for example, has reached an interception success rate of only 50% after years of trials, and that does not include the instances in which tests were aborted even before the interception attempt due to software or hardware failures. This is hardly a confidence-inspiring readiness status, considering that in case of an actual nuclear strike, the GMD should act as the last line of defense for the U.S. homeland and intercept on short notice up to 30 incoming ICBMs capable of deploying hundreds of countermeasures.
It has also been argued that the mere existence of American attempts at creating missile defense systems is the primary drive of modernization in its opponents’ nuclear forces and the revival in China, Russia, and North Korea of delivery systems such as HGVs capable of eluding U.S. countermeasures. In this case, putting too much emphasis on what are essentially unproven defense technologies would not only be gravely misguided, but also actively counterproductive.
In conclusion, one cannot but hope that policymakers will consider with the utmost attention the inherent risks of instability in the Korean Peninsula, especially in light of recent trends. It is recent news that a humanitarian crisis will likely erupt in North Korea due to the spread of Covid-19 in an overwhelming unvaccinated population with scarce access to lifesaving treatment and mostly living close to or below the poverty line. The combination of such a destabilizing event and the Kim regime’s escalatory trend of nuclear brinkmanship could have unpredictable consequences: the stakes are simply too high to ignore the threat. If there is anything that the tragic events currently evolving in another region of the globe may have taught us, it’s that decades of building tensions and a catastrophic, previously unthinkable conflict, are just one dreadful day apart from each other.