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Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
North Korea is presumed to have launched a new type of solid-fuel intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) using technology related to submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM), South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said on Monday.
South Korea’s JCS said the military understood that the North had used a “cold-launch system” to launch the IRBM, pointing to the North Korean media’s claim on Monday that the test-fire “proved the reliability and security of cold eject launch system.”
The North’s Pukguksong-1 SLBM allegedly used cold launching technology, which ejects the missile out of an undersea submarine and to the surface of the water using high-pressure gas.
The mobile launcher that the North used for Sunday’s missile launch is a “tracked transporter erector launcher (TEL),” JCS added.
The North’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said the goal of the test-firing of Pukguksong-2 was to verify the overall weapon systems including medium and long-range ballistic missiles using high thrust solid fuel-powered engines.
Scott LaFoy, an NK Pro missile analyst, said the solid-fuel engine could reduce the time to launch “significantly.”
“The solid fuel means that it can be launched with fewer support vehicles and with less lead time. Liquid-fueled missiles, depending on the type, are frequently fueled at or near their launch position, which requires numerous support vehicles,” LaFoy said. “Solid is always loaded into the missile, so it is always ready to go.”
LaFoy said that the liquid fuel Chinese Dong Feng-3 (DF-3, NATO: CSS-2) missile, using a hot launch system, needs 30 vehicles to support one launch whereas solid fuel DF-21 (NATO: CSS-5), which uses a cold launching system, needs only eight.
The North claimed in March last year that the country had conducted a test for a solid-fuel rocket engine, something that, if successful, could pave the way towards shortened launch preparation times, making detection more difficult for the U.S. and South Korea.
Joshua Pollack, editor of the Nonproliferation Review, also argued that switching to solid fuel was an “important development.”
“It means that missiles can be launched more quickly, without the same preparations as liquid-fueled missiles,” Pollack told NK News. “So, any efforts to hunt down these missiles before they can fire will be very difficult indeed.”
NK News Director of Intelligence John Grisafi pointed out the tracked TEL has the advantage of “traversing difficult terrain.”
“It is easier to cross obstacles and move over steeply angled terrain on a track. The implications of a tracked TEL versus a standard wheeled TEL is it makes more areas accessible to it,” Grisafi said.
Despite the top speed of tracked vehicles being “pretty low” compared to wheeled TEL, Grisafi said the tracked TEL has “greater mobility and thus more potential launch locations.”
“From an intelligence standpoint, both of those factors (sold fuel engine and tracked TEL) reduce the ability to detect signs of launch preparation.”
Both military experts based in Seoul and Washington maintain the North may be self-producing the tracked TEL.
“The tracked vehicle looks the same as mobile launch vehicle of RT-15 and RT-20 missile produced by the former Soviet Union during the 1960s, but it’s presumed that the North self-produced it.” Kim Min Seok, a senior researcher at the Korea Defense and Security Forum (KODEF), told NK News.
“But (self-production) may be the last resort as the North couldn’t import wheeled TEL from either China or the former Soviet Union.”
Pollack maintained that the tracked vehicle was not being produced anymore and that the “few treaded missile launchers” in the Soviet Union had been “phased out.”
“So, this appears to be something unique. I also notice that the treads look very much like those on the ‘Koksan Gun,’ North Korea’s heaviest self-propelled artillery piece,” Pollack said.
“Making launch vehicles at home is also significant. It indicates that the North Koreans have overcome one of the last serious obstacles imposed by export controls and sanctions.”
As the South’s JCS had argued, Pollack said the cold-launch system was “apparent” in the photos released by the North Korean media.
“This means that the missile is ejected from the canister with compressed gas before its engine ignites,” Pollack told NK News. “This approach helps to preserve the launcher, ensuring the safety of the crew and allowing the launcher to be re-loaded and re-used.”
Kim Min Seok also said that the cold-launch system had an advantage as it “caused less damage to the missile launch tube,” adding it’s usually hard to produce a launch tube that can endure the heat of the missile.
“The structure of the launch tube becomes complicated as it contains a device which ejects the missile using high-pressure gas,” Kim told NK News. “But the North already has cold launch technology, as the country has KN-06 Surface to Air Missile (SAM) using the technology.”
Kim said the designs of Pukkuksong-1 and Pukguksong-2 were “almost the same”, in the sense that two pipe exhausting gas were seen in the photos published by the North’s media.
Kim Dong-yeop, Assistant Professor at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University, said the test may serve a long-range purpose.
“I thought the North would go ahead with liquid fuel intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) considering last year’s test, but I see now the North could develop a solid fuel one,” Kim told NK News. “The North may give up developing [liquid-fuelled] KN-08, 14 and move toward Pukguksong missiles, but they could do both at the same time.”
Featured Image: Rodong Sinmun