North Korea’s latest advances in missile technology

North Korea's latest advances in missile technology

SEOUL — North Korea has been firing off missile after missile after missile this past year — in fact, Kim Jong Un’s regime has launched more than 100 since the beginning of 2022. Nearly every time, the regime’s propagandists claim they have made significant advancements in their nuclear and weapons program.

The flurry of tests show these claims are not just empty words and reflect actual progress, analysts say, as Kim is making his arsenal of missiles easier to launch, harder to track and one day capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

Diplomacy remains far out of reach, and North Korea has dug in its heels over its nuclear ambitions. Last September, North Korea updated its nuclear doctrine and announced that there would be “absolutely no denuclearization, no negotiation and no bargaining chip to trade” even if international sanctions were lifted.

The North’s rhetoric and advancements have only fueled South Koreans’ desire for their own nuclear deterrent and during South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol’s visit to the United States, President Biden pledged that any North Korean nuclear attack on the South “will be met with a swift, overwhelming and decisive response,” with a full range of U.S. capabilities, “including nuclear.”

So what has North Korea’s achieved so far?

One of the most notable recent developments is Pyongyang’s launch this month of a solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile, the Hwasong-18.

Kim has long wanted this technology. It’s no wonder, since solid-fuel propellants are easier to operate than liquid-propelled missiles and most countries with ICBMs maintain a mix of both types.

For solid-fuel missiles, fuel and oxidizer are mixed together into a hard chemical mixture, then packed into a metal cylinder ready for ignition.

That means the missile can be rolled out into the open with the fuel inside it, ready to launch. The solid propellants are more cost-efficient in terms of management, storage and deployment, said Shin Seung-ki, a research fellow at the Seoul-based Korea Institute for Defense Analysis.

In contrast, liquid-fuel missiles use fuel and oxidizer pumped into a combustion chamber, which combust when mixed and burned. The fuel and oxidizer need to be loaded on-site ahead of launch, which can be time-consuming.

Although far from perfect, the recent test “marks the first big step for North Korea’s propulsion system technology, toward its goal of sending a nuclear warhead to the U.S. mainland,” Shin said.

In case of a conflict on the peninsula, a high priority for South Korea and the United States will be to find and destroy as many nuclear-capable North Korean launchers as possible. North Korea is now making this a much more difficult task.

“North Koreans are saying, if you want to play whack-a-mole with our nuclear force, we’re going to have more moles than you can track and going to be hiding them in places you previously didn’t have to think about,” said Ankit Panda, nuclear policy expert at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace.

North Korea has test-fired numerous short-range ballistic missiles from a variety of locations, such as trains, submarines, and mobile launchers.

It has been experimenting with submarine-launched missiles since 2015. Last month, Pyongyang said it fired two cruise missiles from the 8.24 Yongung, its ballistic-missile submarine. A missile launched from a submarine has a complex trajectory that is hard to intercept, making it a major maritime threat.

North Korea also appears to now have the capability to launch missiles from underground. Photos suggest that during military drills in March, it fired a missile from a buried silo, allowing prelaunch preparations to be conducted without early detection.

These silos are especially useful for sheltering long-range missiles that North Korea is developing. One drawback of silos is that they are exposed to an aerial survey. Satellite photos from earlier this year captured possible signs of silos in North Korea.

Testing short-range missiles

Most of North Korea’s recent testing has been of short-range ballistic missiles, as the country works to improve capabilities in this range — which can reach South Korea.

The KN-23 is similar to the Russian SS-26 but has a significantly greater range, according to research by the Council of the European Union. The KN-24 is a solid-fuel ballistic missile launched from a mobile launcher, and is similar to the U.S. Army’s Tactical Missile System (ATACMS).

The KN-25 is a multiple rocket launcher system capable of firing multiple missiles in quick succession. The system is described by North Koreans as that of “super-large caliber.”

These systems are known to be operable and are “mature systems with sufficient sophistication that could present a real threat against the South,” said Go Myong-hyun, defense analyst at Asan Institute in Seoul.

Launching a spy satellite

North Korea said last week it is ready to launch its first military reconnaissance satellite, which would also help the regime hone its ICBM technology, Shin said. The regime’s space program is considered a pretext for developing missiles and rockets, and is banned under United Nations Security Council resolutions.

Such technology would help North Korea develop strategic situational awareness capabilities, which it currently lacks, Panda said. The spy satellite would give North Korea independent ability to detect a potential attack, which could allow the North to justify a preemptive strike against its enemies.

North Korea has not disclosed the anticipated timeline of the launch but its neighbors are already braced for it. Japanese Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada this week ordered the military to be ready to shoot down the North’s satellite rocket if necessary. Antimissile defense systems have been deployed in southern Japan.

The United States and its allies have never shot down a test missile fired by North Korea, which is typically launched on a high, or “lofted,” angle so that it doesn’t travel too far — and land on neighboring countries’ territory.

However, North Korea in February warned that its missiles would soon be able to hit targets in the Pacific, threatening to turn the ocean in to a “firing range.”

“The frequency of using the Pacific as our firing range depends upon the U.S. forces’ action character,” said Kim Yo Jong, powerful sister of the North Korean leader. She also warned the U.S. and its allies against intercepting its test missiles, saying it would be considered a “declaration of war.”

North Korea could soon launch an ICBM at a normal angle to experiment with its reentry technology, said Kim Dong-yub, a former South Korean navy officer who teaches at University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

Over the course of its flight, an ICBM exits and then falls back into the Earth’s atmosphere, exposing itself to extreme temperature changes. A reentry vehicle is necessary to shield the missile’s warhead from fiery heat during its high-velocity descent through the air. Unless the aerodynamics of reentry are worked out precisely for a proper shield, the warhead will burn up and fail to hit the target on the ground.

North Korea is looking for distant testing grounds to perfect its reentry technology. The test missile, if fired into American waters, would mark a major geopolitical escalation, Kim Dong-yub said. “North Korea is pushing the limits of what it can do under the name of a ‘test,’ to demonstrate its weapons in a chillingly warlike situation,” he said.

What about nuclear warheads?

For all its technological advances in recent years, there is one key thing that North Korea has not proved it can do: Make a nuclear warhead that is small enough to put on a missile. That process is called miniaturization — and it’s difficult.

Last month, the North Korean leader unveiled what he said was a small new nuclear warhead that could fit into short-range missiles. It was called the “Hwasan-31,” meaning “volcano.”

“North Korea has clearly been making its nuclear warheads smaller and lighter,” said South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup, in reference to the new Hwasan-31. He told lawmakers this month that the North’s achievements so far are “not negligible” and have to be assessed closely.

Lee said that North Korea has completed preparations for a new nuclear test, in what would be the first since 2017. Experts say the test would shed more light on how far North Korea has advanced in its goal to miniaturize nuclear warheads to mount on tactical weapons aimed at South Korea or Japan.

Tactical nuclear weapons are designed for limited use on the battlefield. They have shorter ranges and lower explosive yields than strategic weapons intended for targets bigger and farther away. These “smaller nukes,” often exploited for saber-rattling still have the destructive power to cause a large number of fatalities, experts say.

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