North Korea’s new missile is ready for mass production and combat deployment, according to North Korean state media.
North Korea tested a Pukguksong-2 (KN-15) two-stage, solid-fueled, road-mobile, medium-range missile Sunday. The weapon is based on the North’s KN-11, a cold canister, submarine-launched ballistic missile.
“This is the DPRK’s answer to the Trump administration,” the Minju Choson reported Monday, adding, “Many more ‘Juche weapons’ capable of striking the U.S. will be launched from this land.”
While the missile cannot strike the U.S., the regime is rapidly advancing towards a working intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that could be used to strike U.S. targets, although the North is likely still several years away from mastering this kind of technology.
‘Juche weapons’ refers to weapons North Korea independently produces.
(Launch video starts at 3:00)
North Korea first tested the KN-15 in February. The weapon is carried on a tracked, road-mobile Transporter Erector Launcher (TEL) able to traverse harsh terrain, which permits launches from more locations. As a solid-fueled weapon, it can be fueled in advance, limiting the size of the crew required for launch. Mobility, reduced preparation time, and a smaller satellite signature make the KN-15 less vulnerable to pre-emptive strikes.
“It will either replace or augment the Nodong medium-range ballistic missile,” Bruce Klingner, who specializes in Korean and Japanese affairs as the senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “It will likely be nuclear-capable, and it’s a much more survivable mobile missile system.”
That North Korea is already pushing for the mass production of the KN-15 just three months after its first test highlights the speed at which Pyongyang’s missile program is developing.
“The question here is whether the DPRK government always had the capability of testing at this sort of tempo or whether this is something new related to the revival of their military industrial capabilities,” Dr. Nicholas Eberstadt, an international security expert at the American Enterprise Institute, told TheDCNF. “I would tend to suspect the latter than the former.”
Calling the weapons system a “big breakthrough,” Joshua Pollack, a senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies and the editor of Nonproliferation Review, explained to The Wall Street Journal, adding, “The North Koreans put their best brains on this one.”
The TELs are an important development.
“This is the first time we’ve seen an indigenous TEL,” Melissa Hanham, a senior research associate at the East Asia Nonproliferation Program, told TheDCNF.
Indigenous TELs also reduce North Korea’s reliance on imported equipment.
“They can expand the operational missile force pretty much to their hearts’ content,” Pollack told reporters. “It addresses one of the key bottlenecks that they had in terms of their operational capability.”
The new KN-15 complements Pyongyang’s shorter-range ballistic missiles, filling a gap as a medium-range missile. Experts vary in their assessments of the overall range, but observers suspect the weapon has the ability to strike bases in South Korea and Japan, although Okinawa might be out of reach. This weapon is for “targeting their neighbors,” Hanham said.
The Korean Central News Agency reported that the latest test confirmed the reliability and accuracy of the solid-fuel engine, stage separation, and the late-stage guidance of the warhead. The North attached a camera to the missile launched Sunday, which captured impressive images from space. At this time though, there is no clear data available on North Korea’s controlled re-entry capabilities beyond their claims.
Some observers suspect that the KN-15 may serve as a technological predecessor to the canister-launched ICBM mock-ups rolled out during last month’s military parade, but it is difficult to make that conclusion without knowing what was inside the canisters. “It’s certainly plausible,” Dr. Eberstadt told TheDCNF.
(ICBM mock-ups appear at 6:35)
“I think in a way, they are all interrelated,” Klingner explained, “By having a cold launch, in that it is ejected from the canister, that could serve as the basis for the development and the testing” of a potential solid-fueled ICBM. It will take time for North Korea to fully develop this technology though.
“I think those two systems are still a couple of years out,” Hanham explained, adding, “If it were me, I would finalize the liquid-fueled [missile] first … It would be a heavy lift for them to make a solid-fueled ICBM”
North Korea tested a new liquid-fueled medium long-range missile known as the Hwasong-12 one week prior to Sunday’s test of the KN-15. Some observers suspect that the Hwasong-12, which will replace or augment the Musudan, could be the predecessor to or even a stage of a liquid-fueled ICBM.
The timing of the recent test is also significant.
“I think the big deal is attempting to probe the U.S.-South Korean alliance to see what sorts of gaps can be discovered between the views of the new government in Seoul and those of the U.S. government,” Dr. Eberstadt pointed out. “I would think that is one of the instrumental objectives of the particular timing of this test.”
“There is the long-term operational objective, and there is the short-term diplomatic objective to observe or encourage friction in the U.S.-ROK alliance,” he added.
Hanham explained that this is one of the purposes of the ICBM program as well.
“The whole goal behind having an ICBM is to drive a wedge between the U.S. and South Korea because once they feel that they can hold the U.S. mainland at risk, they feel the U.S. will be much less likely to come to South Korea’s aid,” Hanham told TheDCNF.
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