The year 2019 was in stark contrast with the previous year in terms of both North Korean weapons testing and U.S.-DPRK diplomacy.
Although North Korea opted not to test any “Christmas gift” missiles following the expiration of Kim Jong Un’s self-proclaimed year-end deadline, the North Korean leader did say that “the world will witness a new strategic weapon the DPRK will possess in the near future” at the December party plenum.
He also at the plenum vowed to maintain the country’s “nuclear deterrent” to defend itself amid stalled denuclearization talks with the U.S.
The country does not have the “ground for us to get unilaterally bound” to the ICBM and nuclear test moratorium anymore, Kim said, given the U.S. conducting joint military drills with South Korea and sanctions on Pyongyang.
North Korea is yet to test any weapons this year, however, and has maintained its silence on foreign policy. There was no military parade on February’s Korean People’s Army (KPA) foundation day either.
NK News has talked to military, weapons, and non-proliferation experts from around the world about the main points and implications of the country’s weapons developments in 2019 — and what may be ahead.
The following weapons experts responded in time for our deadline:
- Kim Dong-yub, Professor and Director of Research, Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES), Kyungnam University
- Vipin Narang, Associate Professor of Political Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
- Ankit Panda, Adjunct Senior Fellow, Defense Posture Project at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS)
- Joshua Pollack, Editor of the Nonproliferation Review, Senior Research Associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS)
- Uzi Rubin, Founder and director of the Arrow defense program against long-range missiles in the Israeli Ministry of Defense
- Yang Uk, Adjunct professor, Graduate School of National Defense Strategy, Hannam University
In your view, what was the most important breakthrough in North Korean weapons development in 2019? How was the DPRK able to test so many types of weapons in 2019?
Kim Dong-yub: Judging by the four sets of short-range tactical guided weapons introduced by North Korea in 2019, their intention to modernize its armed forces is more evident. In 2019, North Korea officially launched 13 missiles and/or Multiple Rocket Launchers (MRLs). Among them, except for one submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) launch, twelve were types of tactical surface-to-surface ballistic missiles whose range does not reach further than the Korean peninsula. With North Korea focusing on the economy after having stepped away from the byungjin line, it seems they are modernizing compact and impactful, low-cost, high-efficiency weapons to act as a deterrent, rather than using large-scale troops or conventional weapons like in the past.
All four sets recently introduced have a longer range, lower altitude, and faster speed compared to similar existing weapons. They have improved in accuracy and survivability through guidance and evasion functions. As they use solid fuel engines with mobile launch vehicles, they are difficult to detect with ROK-U.S. information assets and their kill chain preemptive strike system by shortening the launch time and diversifying the launching point.
Vipin Narang: Let’s start with the most important point: every day that passes without a deal is a day that North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile force improves and expands. That was the story of 2019. Rather than any one system, it is the summation of the capabilities and features North Korea improved in 2019 that is most significant: mobile, responsive, solid-fuel, maneuverable ballistic missiles that are a huge challenge for regional missile defenses. The KN-23 and KN-25 were mobile solid fuel systems, and therefore more survivable and responsive since they do not require time to fuel and can be hidden without large logistics signatures. The KN-23 demonstrated the ability to maneuver in flight, in a variety of trajectories, making it a nightmare for regional missile defenses. They were tested in salvo mode (very rapid firing succession), which further complicates missile defenses. And they were wildly successful in these tests, with over two dozen successful tests through 2019. In addition to the specific technological attributes of these systems that impart survivability and penetrability, the sheer number of missiles poses a saturation problem for defenses.
And although North Korea’s 2019 missile tests were restricted largely to short-range systems, save the purported Pukguksong-3 SLBM, the increasing comfort and experience North Korean missileers and operators are gaining in these areas may have implications for the longer-range force, as technologies such as solid-fuel and maneuverable warheads find their way into the ICBMs. So we should take little comfort from the fact that North Korea “only” tested mostly short-range ballistic missiles/quasi-ballistic missiles/rockets. The technologies and the operational experience gained from even these systems have implications for North Korea’s explicitly nuclear-related missiles going forward.
Ankit Panda: Without knowing more about precisely what kind of experimentation was conducted at the Tongchang-ri liquid propellant engine static test stand in December 2019, I would have to give top marks here to the Pukguksong-3’s inaugural flight test. This is the longest-range solid-propellant missile yet to be seen in North Korea. Even if North Korea’s ballistic missile submarines might not be the most fearsome vehicle to deploy a system like the Pukguksong-3, what is concerning to me is what this system represents regarding the sophistication of solid propellant casting and the manufacture of large solid propellant rockets in North Korea. If a solid propellant-based ICBM were to make an appearance in North Korea in the next few years, we should not be surprised if it appears to inherit quite a bit from what was seen in the Pukguksong-3. Such a system could have important strategic effects in terms of tightening preemption windows for the United States, South Korea, and Japan.
Joshua Pollack: It can be hard to know exactly what’s happening behind the scenes in North Korea’s missile program. For example, we may look back later and conclude that the engine tests of December 2019 were highly significant, but it’s hard to say what they signify at present. Perhaps the single most important development was simply Kim Jong Un’s decision to declare an end to the long-range missile testing moratorium.
The North Koreans were able to introduce four new types of short-range missiles in 2019 in part because they chose not to test anything in 2018. In hindsight, there was a backlog in testing. While it has been clear for a while that the North has been investing heavily in research, development, and production of solid-propellant missiles, the sheer number of types was a surprise. But the eventual start of flight-testing should not have been a surprise. If I recall correctly, one of these types of the missiles – the KN-23 (Iskander look-alike) – was exhibited in a February 2018 parade. Testing it seemed like just a matter of time.
Uzi Rubin: I believe that the most important breakthrough was the maturation of precision tactical ballistic missiles that can be launched in very depressed trajectory. I think this is more important than nuclear-capable missiles. Precision, depressed trajectory missiles can overturn the military balance against South Korea and deploying U.S. forces. It is equivalent to achieving air superiority without recourse to aircraft.
As for how the DPRK was able to test many types of weapons in 2019, obviously by running parallel programs and not terminating less effective or less successful programs permitted all of them to achieve maturity. This is a practice unacceptable in the more cost-conscious West. This, however, does not mean that all of the new designs will be mass-produced. Still, this approach is very costly, which brings back the question of “how can they afford it.”
Yang Uk: North Korea in 2019 secured precision strike capacity. Pyongyang has also demonstrated low-angle launch capability for breaking through missile defenses with three types of missiles: KN-23, KN-24, and KN-25. With the current international and political circumstances, such as the U.S.-DPRK talks stalling, making it easier for North Korea to test-launch their new weapons system, North Korea appears to have tested these weapons as a means of pressuring the U.S. and the international community — and to assess their new weapons system as well.
Do the new weapons pose a proliferation risk? Do they seem mainly aimed at filling roles within the KPA, or do they have illicit export value?
Kim Dong-yub: The new weapons have more meaning for domestic self-defense than illicit export value. The aim is to soothe and rally the North Korean people, in order to focus on the economy — and to boost the military’s morale and prevent a lapse of confidence. It is a North Korean version of ‘national defense reform,’ modernizing nuclear and low-cost, high-efficiency conventional weaponry for the economy-prioritizing ‘frontal breakthrough’ line. We cannot completely rule out the possibility of illicit exports, but it would be an over-exaggeration to interpret the weapons development of 2019 as North Korea’s intention to earn foreign currency through arms exports in the midst of the current sanctions regime.
In conclusion, the recent modernization of North Korean arms should be seen as a very elaborately crafted politico-military action to reinforce regime stability, to have their cake and eat it too — winning the hearts of the military and North Korean citizens.
Vipin Narang: If I were a country looking for a short-range solid-fuel missile capable of defeating regional missile defenses, I would be knocking on Pyongyang’s door for the KN-23 and KN-25. There is plenty of demand from many countries of concern for missiles in these classes. It is imperative to ensure these missiles, as well as fissile material and nuclear technology, are not horizontally proliferated by Pyongyang, which makes sealing a deal as soon as possible to prevent both North Korea’s vertical proliferation as well as horizontal proliferation to others the highest priority — rather than relying on the Trump administration’s version of “strategic patience” while China and Russia take the air out of the maximum pressure campaign. There is no evidence that these have yet been sold to others, but make no mistake that the demand likely exists, and we are relying strictly on an unwillingness from Pyongyang to provide supply to prevent their spread which, historically, is a bad bet without a deal that disincentivizes Kim to sell his wares.
Ankit Panda: North Korean state media readouts on the many tests of shorter-range tactical weapons last year emphasized what they will contribute to the KPA’s warfighting ability. Even so, many of these systems do appear to have relatives in the militaries of China and Russia (and, in the case of the ATACMs lookalike short-range missile, the United States). Depending on the cost of manufacture and resource constraints, these could become appealing exports for North Korea, especially if it is able to undercut competitors on price. In general, the proliferation of wholesale, large ballistic missiles is a practice that Pyongyang has left behind in the early years of this millennium. Were it to return, however, we shouldn’t expect attempts at exporting larger Scuds, but perhaps many of these newer systems and modernized Scud variant missiles.
Joshua Pollack: There is almost certainly an export angle to these missiles, but they’ll probably have to offer them for cheap if they want to attract any buyers. First, it’s a violation of the sanctions regime to buy arms from North Korea. And second, there are competitors in this category, including South Korea.
Uzi Rubin: The tactical precision missiles obviously have export value, being both proven in tests and cheap. However, they can be purchased only by other rogue regimes because “normal” regimes will be wary of UN sanctions. One such rogue regime might be Venezuela. Myanmar could still be a prospective customer, but they seem to be aspiring for international legitimacy. Iran is definitely not a potential customer, it now has its own homegrown capability to turn out precision tactical missiles, as shown recently in the attack on the U.S. bases in Iraq.
Yang Uk: Even with tactical missiles, overseas exports are not easy under the current UN sanctions, which means they are more meaningful as game-changers for the KPA than proliferation risks. Their aim could still be illegal export, and importing countries could be Iran and Syria — but they would be risking a lot due to the current international climate.
How does the Pukguksong-3 contribute towards the DPRK’s pursuit of a credible second-strike capability? Does it represent an evolutionary or revolutionary jump past the previous Pukguksong systems?
Kim Dong-yub: Looking at the pictures North Korea made public, it is more likely that the test was not done through an actual submarine but through a barge for test-launches. It was a cold launch, and looking at the step-to-step pictures of the missile surfacing and igniting, the timing of ignition seems to have been good and the posture was also very stable. All in all, it was a successful first sea-launch. As for its appearance, it seems a lot of transformations were made in general. However, because submarines have spatial limitations — and because they need to reuse the originally-developed launching tube — we can assume that the diameter and the length of the missiles would not be bigger or longer than the previous missiles. For Pukguksong-1 and 2, they were 9 meters in length and 1.4~1.5 meters in diameters. It seems the Pukguksong-3 has a similar or smaller diameter. If smaller, there is a possibility that they have made this for the improved R-class submarine, which was publicly disclosed in August last year, with some parts of the picture censored. In that case, the Pukguksong-3 should be shorter than 7 meters — although this is all prediction. It seems that the missile has been transformed overall appearance-wise, such as in its warhead and tail area. It is certain that it has used solid fuel, looking at the propellant flame. Above all, it seems that — compared to the Pukguksong-2 — the diameter of the propellent flame output has become much bigger, which means that it became more powerful and that the range can be extended, and the missile payload can be increased.
Compared to 1 and 2, changing the warhead to a rounded shape is also notable. A rounded shape increases the internal space of the warhead, making it easier for it to load the (nuclear) explosives. Also, during atmospheric reentry, a rounded shape protects the warhead from friction heat better than a pointed shape — if the peak is well-made. The picture was too blurry to see exactly, but it seems similar to the rounded warhead area on the Pukguksong-3 blueprint that was exposed during Chairman Kim Jong Un’s visit to the Chemical Material Institute of the Academy of National Defense Science, reported on August 23, 2017. It is worth noting that the main responsibility of the institute may have been developing material and technology for reentry. Overall, it is concerning that it was an immensely successful test-launch — considering how it was a first sea-launch from a barge.
Vipin Narang: The Pukguksong-3 in and of itself does not contribute to survivability without a submarine that can avoid detection, and that is still a long way off. But it shows that North Korea is interested in a diverse nuclear structure that enhances its prospects for survivable nuclear forces. It is pushing on all doors, which is sensible from a nuclear strategy perspective. For now, however, the uncertainty about how many nuclear weapons, land-based nuclear-capable missiles, and where they may be located probably offers North Korea plausible survivability. In extremis, could the United States wage a counterforce campaign to try to disarm North Korea of its nuclear forces, and hope that its ground-based missile defense system can intercept any residual ICBMs? Sure. But it would likely involve destroying the entire state and population of North Korea or risk one or several ICBMs surviving and penetrating our defenses and destroying one or several American cities. When the Obama Administration allegedly performed this analysis, it concluded that the U.S. could destroy 80 percent of the *known* North Korean nuclear assets—leaving 20 percent of the known assets to survive, and the unknown assets. As North Korea’s forces have grown since then, the absolute number of systems that would leave should give any rational American leader pause before believing he or she could engage in a so-called splendid first strike against North Korea.
Therefore, the land-based assets alone and the command and control structure Kim has likely erected to ensure their plausible survivability and use is likely sufficient for effective deterrence even today. That does not mean that North Korea may not want a nuclear missile submarine in the future, but it is a ways away and a single submarine is likely not all that survivable against American antisubmarine warfare anyway.
Ankit Panda: For a second-strike capability to be credible, one’s adversary has to believe that he or she has a very small probability of being able to find and finish all means of delivery of that capability. In effect, North Korea needs to be able to communicate to the United States, South Korea, and Japan that, no matter what, it will have a nuclear capability that can survive an attempt at a first strike. I’d argue that North Korea has a better odds of doing this with its land-based ballistic missile forces, as long as they remain responsive and road-mobile, than it does with its burgeoning submarines. These submarines will employ a “bastion” basing mode as opposed to the much more sophisticated “continuous at-sea deterrence” model employed by countries like the United Kingdom and United States, that have multiple nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines available to them. A credible second-strike can be attained with numbers on land. Right now, with its one Gorae submarine homeported at Sinpo and another under construction, North Korea’s ability to assure a credible second-strike with its submarines are low. The Pukguksong-3, as a means of nuclear weapons delivery, does not measurably change this.
Joshua Pollack: The precise capabilities of the Pukguksong-3 SLBM aren’t known, but it appears to be similar to the land-based Pukguksong-2 MRBM. I’m not sure that it represents the difference between having or not having a second-strike capability. North Korea already has a lot of missiles, launch vehicles, and tunnels to hide them in. The strategic naval program seems more like a prestige item than a crucial dimension of nuclear deterrence.
Uzi Rubin: Obviously the Pukguksong-3 is an evolution of the Pukguksong-1, probably with a better underwater launch system. By itself it adds only marginally to North Korean second-strike capability against the mainland U.S. For the relatively short range of the Pukguksong family, a true second-strike capability against the U.S. mainland requires stealthy (i.e. very silent) long-range submarines, which must be nuclear by necessity. With their presently noisy, short-range non-nuclear submarines, for a viable second-strike capability against the U.S. mainland the missiles they carry must be ICBMs – very far from the capability of the Pukguksong family.
Right now, the combination of the present generation of non-nuclear North Korean submarines and Pukguksong short-range SLBMs can only deter Japan. It can also pose a nuclear threat on distant U.S. outposts such as Guam, but that is not a true second-strike capability.
Yang Uk: The Pukguksong-3 has an increased range compared to the Pukguksong-1, but does not have the capability for a second-strike targeting the U.S., with its range still shorter than that of the U.S. or Russian SLBMs. However, it was developed as the next generation SLBM, and if this technology is accumulated, a next-next-level SLBM — with a meaningful increase in range — can appear. However, we should not forget that unless North Korea secures a nuclear-powered submarine, the diesel-electric platform cannot contribute to the country’s deterrent power. Hence, it is logically inferable that North Korea may currently be developing SSBNs.
What shortfalls do you still see in North Korea’s capabilities, and what do you think will be the priority in the coming year?
Kim Dong-yub: Recently, North Korea came out with a new ‘frontal breakthrough battle’ policy line, focusing on the economy. It seems that Kim Jong Un believes that North Korea needs firm credible self-defense in order to make this initiative a reality. North Korea will actively promote the construction of low-cost, high-efficiency military power — under their policy focus on economy — through the intensive modernization of some selected conventional arms, with the quantitative and qualitative increase of nuclear force. In 2020, it is highly likely that the North will reactivate Yongbyon nuclear facilities (for the production of nuclear material) and Tongchang-ri (for developing missile engine test), continuously test-launching new-type short-range missiles such as tactical missiles and MLRs along with it.
It is also important to keep in mind that Kim Jong Un may decide to attend another engine test — something he did not do in December 2019. He may also decide to disclose a new submarine, test-launching a Pukguksong-3 type SLBM from a submarine this time, not from a barge. The ICBM test launch may be the final card for North Korea, so it’s unlikely that they will test right away, but there is also the possibility of unveiling a new ICBM, or the launching of a satellite, at the September military parade celebrating the 75th party foundation anniversary. This is relevant for Kim Jong Un’s future, since all these recent modernizations of North Korea’s armed forces are not merely for military reasons. This modernization is more closely related to Kim Jong Un’s ruling strategy and economic performance to strengthen regime stability.
Vipin Narang: There are still doubts remaining in some analytical quarters about the reliability of North Korea’s ICBMs and the re-entry vehicles mated on them, i.e. can they successfully survive reentry into the atmosphere. It is possible that North Korea attempts to demonstrate the reliability of its ICBMs with more tests, and the survivability of the reentry vehicle with a dummy warhead — hopefully not (and almost certainly not) with a live nuclear warhead. It may also want to develop solid-fuel ICBMs that are more responsive than the HS-14/HS-15. I would think that would be the natural evolution of their missile developments and testing sequence. However, given that President Trump is still Kim’s best bet for a long-term deal and recognition as a de facto nuclear weapons power, we may see some of these “new strategic systems” in a parade, but I leave open a significant possibility that Kim does not provoke or humiliate Trump in this election year with an ICBM test barring a significant deterioration in relations. But that does not mean that North Korea’s nuclear scientists and missileers aren’t quietly working feverishly to continue to expand and improve its nuclear weapons and missile force. Time is currently on Kim’s side, and it is clear he is taking advantage of it to develop a more powerful and lethal nuclear and missile force.
Ankit Panda: The main shortfall, I think, continues to be the availability of large, ICBM-ready launcher chassis for the KPA Strategic Force. North Korea cannot rely on the six WS51200 “logging trucks” it once imported from China; it will need either an indigenous vehicle or more externally sourced vehicles. State media has hinted at indigenous efforts with Kim Jong Un having emphasized work on “Korean-style” heavy vehicles in 2017 visits to industrial facilities. We may see new launch vehicles this year, which would be a concerning development in terms of what it would tell us about the theoretical maximum size of North Korea’s fieldable ICBM force.
Joshua Pollack: North Korea has only tested ICBMs three times now. I assume they will want to test the Hwasong-15 more, as it has only flown once, and is North Korea’s only flown missile that can reach every part of the continental United States. I’m not sure whether we’ll see the Hwasong-14 again; it may have just been a technology demonstrator, a sort of stepping stone to the Hwasong-15. Kim Jong Un’s promise of a new strategic weapon is certainly eyebrow-raising as well.
But North Korea’s most important shortfall is probably not in missiles at all; it’s their shortage of ICBM-capable launch vehicles. The attention that Kim Jong Un has devoted in recent years to facilities that produce heavy vehicles or their engines suggests that he is committed to overcoming this problem. Perhaps we’ll see some new launch vehicles during this year’s testing campaign? Also, in his remarks published this January 1, Kim instructed the Party to put on a big show for the 75th anniversary of its founding. That’s this coming October 10, which is one of the usual dates for military parades. Perhaps we’ll see something new then, either qualitatively or quantitatively.
Uzi Rubin: The main crucial shortfall of North Korea to reliably test missiles with a range of more than 1000 km or so is their testing in effective minimum energy trajectories. They are testing them now in lofted trajectories, which is good enough to make about 90% sure that the missile design is viable, but they cannot generate true terminal phase data nor prove accuracy in real scenarios.
To test realistically, they need to overfly Japan or use the space launch corridor flying southeast into the Yellow Sea. In that corridor they could test IRBMs without overflying any other national territory up to the range of Australia. Why they haven’t done this yet is a mystery to me. Perhaps they are restricted by telemetry receiving problems involved with long-range tests.
Yang Uk: As with most nuclear weapons states, they initially invest in nuclear power, and then invest in modernizing conventional weapons once the former is done. Since North Korea has finished investing in nuclear power to some extent, it can be understood that it is moving toward the modernization of its arms forces by pursuing such things as the precision strike capability of conventional weapons.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham