North Korea’s weapons program is advancing at an accelerated pace, as the reclusive regime has tested at least three new ballistic missiles this year.
All three systems have been tested successfully in the past three weeks. The North has developed a working liquid-fueled intermediate-range ballistic missile, a solid-fueled mid-range missile, and a precision short-range Scud variant. North Korea is diversifying its arsenal of ballistic missiles. In total, the North has fired off twelve missiles and conducted nine weapons tests, only four of which were unsuccessful.
All three of the missiles were presented in a military parade marking the Day of the Sun, the 105th anniversary of the birth of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, on April 15.
North Korea tested the new Scud variant Monday, claiming the successful launch of a “new-type precision guided ballistic rocket capable of making ultra-precision strikes.” The weapon is carried on a “newly-developed caterpillar self-propelled” launch vehicle. The fins on the nose cone suggest the missile has late-stage maneuverability capabilities, potentially giving the missile the ability to skirt enemy defenses through terminal guidance.
The new Scud variant also reportedly has a reduced launch time. Road-mobile missiles that can be fired quickly enhance their survivability in the face of possible pre-emptive strikes.
Watch: May 29, 2017 test
North Korea tested the Pukguksong-2 (KN-15) on May 21, marking the second successful test of a solid-fueled weapons system first tested in February. The KN-15 is a road-mobile, cold canister-launched missile carried on a heavy, tracked Transporter Erector Launcher independently produced by North Korea. The TEL can traverse harsh terrain, allowing the North to fire from more locations, and the fueling can be done in advance, reducing preparation time and the size of the crew required for launch, decreasing the size of the weapon’s satellite signature.
The KN-15 is a land-based version of the KN-11 submarine-launched ballistic missile.
After the most recent test, Kim Jong Un approved the KN-15 for mass production and deployment across the country. The KN-15 may be the technological predecessor to the intercontinental ballistic missile mock-ups rolled out during the military parade. The missile may also augment or replace the Nodong medium-range ballistic missile.
Watch: February 12, 2017 test
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.
Watch: May 21, 2017 test
North Korea tested a new liquid-fueled medium long-range missile known as the Hwasong-12 on May 14. 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 Hwasong-12 is believed to be the longest range missile North Korea has tested to date, with some observers claiming that the missile can fly approximately 2,800 miles, potentially putting the U.S. base in Guam within range.
Watch: May 14, 2017 test
North Korea has tested all of the missiles presented in the parade except for two ICBM mock-ups.
Kim Jong Un warned in January that his country is close to testing an ICBM. “We have reached the final stage of preparations to test-launch an intercontinental ballistic missile,” Kim said in his New Year’s address, adding that, “Research and development of cutting edge arms equipment is actively progressing.”
“Soon our ICBM will send the shiver down [America’s] spine,” the Rodong Sinmun, the paper of the ruling party, warned shortly after Kim’s speech.
After the latest missile test, Kim said that North Korea is working on a “bigger package of gifts” for the Yankees, a reference to the U.S. Such rhetoric may be bluster, or it could suggest the North is preparing to unveil a long-range weapons system. After the recent test of the KN-15, South Korea’s defense minister said that North Korea’s ballistic missile program is progressing much faster than expected.
Some observers expect North Korea to develop an ICBM in the near future. Others, however, believe that the North is still several years away from mastering this type of technology.
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