Just 24 hours after North Korea test-fired its Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in November last year, Kim Jong Un promptly declared that the DPRK had successfully completed its “state nuclear force”.

Coming after 17 separate missile test events in 2017 – which featured at least five new designs – the declaration was the first clear indicator that Kim’s appetite for high-frequency missile testing was about to change.

But while the sheer range and power demonstrated by the single HS-15 test blew away some who had ridiculed the poorer performance of two Hwasong-14 ICBM tests last year, the combined total of just three ICBM launches in 2017 mean it remains inconceivable for some that North Korea could have seriously accomplished its goal.

Perhaps because of this, statements by a wide range of senior United States officials have since implied that Washington remains unconvinced that Kim Jong Un could have really completed the most significant part of his missile development plan: developing a reliable capability to target the entire continental U.S. with nuclear warheads.

In December, General Mattis said North Korea’s HS-15 test didn’t yet confirm a “capable threat against us,” while the same month General McMaster said Washington is “in a race, really… because (Kim Jong Un’s) getting much closer and closer, and there’s not much time left.”

CIA Director Pompeo said on January 23 that North Korea is “ever closer” to putting “America at risk,” with the consequence being that Washington is “working diligently to make sure that a year from now I can still tell you that they are several months away…” And the National Security Council’s controversial new chief John Bolton said in March: “They’ve got a fairly limited number of things they need to do in North Korea to make their nuclear warheads actually deliverable on targets in the United States.”

But since Kim Jong Un oversaw the HS-15 ICBM test on November 28, official English language state media has boasted over 100 times that North Korea succeeded in completing its “state nuclear force.”

And while usage of the term has completely flatlined since President Trump agreed to meet with the North Korean leader in early March, Kim’s New Year’s speech included an important pledge: to “accelerate the project of mass producing and deploying nuclear warheads and ballistic rockets, whose strength and reliability have already been secured.”

So in face of these sharply differing perspectives, what should we really make of the state of North Korea’s ICBM programs and the prospects for the U.S. securing an extended missile and nuclear test moratorium?

ICBM credibility

For some missile specialists, Kim Jong Un has already accomplished his goal with the single successful test of an HS-15 last November.

“His basic aim is achieved,” says Uzi Rubin, former director of Israel’s missile defense program and regular NK Pro contributor.

“Regardless of the paucity of tests and the question of reliability, even with a one-to-one thousand chance that his missile will take out a major U.S. city, he has achieved his aim,” he says.

U.S. President Donald Trump will meet with Kim Jong Un in the coming months | Photo: Gage Skidmore

This is because “what counts for Kim is what it takes to frighten the U.S. – nothing else.”

Rubin’s analysis means U.S. military planners must take seriously the threat that North Korean HS-15s can already deliver nuclear warheads to the homeland.

And a lack of further testing should not be viewed as a barrier for a country like North Korea to deploy such missile types into active military service, Tal Inbar, another Israel-based missile specialist, says.

“The single flight test (of the HS-15) proved many technical issues of the missile, and as a minimum credible nuclear deterrence against the U.S. it is sufficient,” he says.

This is because the “the DPRK view of missile reliability differs greatly from the western point of view,” he says, citing the Hwasong-10 missile that was “deployed operationally with no tests at all.”

Indeed, U.S. intelligence estimates considered the Musudan deployed even prior to a series of eight tests that were conducted by North Korea in 2016, of which only one was ever successful.

“Credibility is all about perceptions,” says Scott LaFoy, who has written extensively about North Korean missile capabilities for NK Pro.

“U.S. industrial/engineering standards would not consider a U.S. system that was only tested once to be credible, but will generally take a ‘worst case scenario’ look at adversarial systems that generally includes a forecast,” LaFoy adds.

“So (the HS-15) isn’t exactly a “credible” system right now, but it is something that needs to be planned for and assumed as credible, even if actual credibility only emerges a few years from now.”

And Michael Elleman, who has written extensively about North Korea’s ICBM programs for the 38 North website, says that while the HS-15 might have been proven to work, the issue is that the reliability of the design has not yet been proven.

“I would argue that it could be deployed, but if called upon to deliver a nuclear weapon to the U.S. – assuming no additional flight tests –  the Hwasong-15 is more likely to fail than succeed,” he says.

This is because “one test under optimal conditions does not provide a measure of reliability: the DPRK would not know if the HS-15 works under a range of weather conditions – hot summer day, cold winter night, wind, rain, snow, etc,” he says.

And it’s this lack of sustained testing in different environments that leads some missile watchers to dismiss the HS-15 entirely.

“There is not a single program that I know of that required just one test for operational capability,” says Markus Schiller, a Germany-based missile engineer. “This is simply not enough to figure out if the missile/rocket works in case of a real war, under any conditions.”

And while North Korea did deploy the Musudan operationally with zero tests, Schiller says, “I only wonder why people always tend to believe them.”

But despite all the differences of opinion, another missile specialist wonders if thinking about a credibly deployed ICBM capability is even the right question to begin with.

“In the U.S. debate over enemy ICBM development in the late 1990s, it was explicitly assumed that ‘initial threat availability’ took place after the first successful flight-test,” says Joshua Pollack, a missile researcher based in Washington DC.

“In other words, the missile could be used in a pinch, regardless of whether it had entered serial production or deployment.”

Because of this debate, “that has been the standard by which these matters have usually been judged.”

Consequently, Pollack points out that not all parts of the U.S. government agree with the notion that some kind of window of opportunity exists to prevent a North Korean missile from reaching the U.S. homeland.

“As the DIA Director testified earlier in March, the Hwasong-15 ‘demonstrated a capability to reach the United States,’” Pollack says.

Consequently, “it seems to me that Mike Pompeo and other administration officials are now simply moving the goalposts,” he says. “No one wants to have to admit that something deemed unacceptable happened on their watch.”

North Korea showed off the Hwasong-15 at a military parade in February | Photo: KCTV

Lofted vs long-distance

With the exception of its satellite launch attempts and two Hwasong-12 intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) tests over Japanese territory last year, Pyongyang has avoided testing emerging medium-to-long range missiles over its neighboring countries.

Consequently, all three ICBM tests in 2017 were launched on “lofted” trajectories: high into the atmosphere and splashing down within a range of just several hundred kilometers from North Korean coastlines.

But while DPRK n foreign minister Ri Yong Ho controversially warned last year that Pyongyang could test a nuclear warhead on a long-distance trajectory ICBM far out into the Pacific Ocean, the DPRK is yet to conduct an ICBM test on a ‘normal’ flight path.

It’s this long-distance vs lofted testing question that has further led some observers to doubt the credibility of North Korea’s recently unveiled missile capabilities.

But is long-distance testing really necessary to prove an ICBM works?

“…the more realistic the flight test is, the more confidence in the design and operability of the missile is,” says Tal Inbar, the Israeli missile specialist.

“Having said that, it is not mandatory to put any missile on an operational-like trajectory… but it is a good measure to conduct such test(s).”

Meanwhile, Pollack says the “geography problem” surrounding North Korea provides a natural disincentive to go ahead with long-distance testing for Pyongyang, as does a probable lack of telemetry equipment to detect and record splashdown events thousands of kilometers away.

However, the November 2017 test may have been an answer to that problem.

“The Hwasong-15, in particular, appears to be overbuilt,” Pollack says. “In its test configuration, it demonstrated the capability to reach all of Cuba, never mind all of the United States.”

As a result, “if the North Koreans felt the need to add a layer of ablative material to their reentry vehicles, for extra confidence on their end, I don’t see what would stop them,” Pollack concludes.

Other analysts, however, say the lack of long-distance testing will pose problems for North Korea’s missile engineers.

“If you want to fight a war with such a missile, you want to know if it behaves… therefore, every General will want to see the standard/nominal trajectory flight,” says Schiller, the German engineer. “Only this way do you get an idea how precise your weapon actually is.”

And another motivation for long-distance vs lofted testing? To ensure the re-entry vehicle (RV) – which some analysts question if North Korea is even yet to master – actually works according to design.

“The dynamics of a full-range test are different to that for a lofted one,” says Elleman, the implication being that only long-distance testing would help engineers “understand how the ICBM performs, including the RV on a shallow – not steep – re-entry into the atmosphere.”

Consequently, according to LaFoy, “long-distance tests are really the only way to fully vet a system, end-to-end.”

“Testing outside of expected operational conditions means someone, domestic or foreign, can always point to the test and say “no, but X is so different that we cannot be sure you can survive X in a real situation,” he says.

“This characterizes reentry capabilities debates, currently.”

Some analysts say the lack of long-distance testing will pose problems for North Korea’s missile engineers | Photo: KCNA

Ready for mass-production?

Casting aside concerns about reliability, it remains the case that Kim Jong Un publicly instructed his scientists to begin mass producing recently tested missile and nuclear capabilities in his New Year’s speech.

And by a February 8 military parade in Pyongyang, military authorities had already showcased at least four HS-15 missiles on nine-axle transporter-erector-launchers (TELs) and at least three HS-14 missiles on tractor trailers.

But while the number of missiles on parade was far fewer than the “dozens” CNN sources anticipated being shown at the event, their presence was nevertheless evidence that at least limited efforts appear to be underway to adapt or produce equipment to support additional HS-15 and HS-14 missiles.

So, is it realistic to assume Kim Jong Un could now be mass-producing two ICBM variants that were tested only a combined three times in total?

“There is no reason why he can’t mass produce his HS 14 and 15 ICBM,” says Rubin, the former director of Israel’s missile defense program.

“This is a question in risk and resource management: Kim knows that his systems can work, but doesn’t know what reliability figures to factor in. In other words, how many he has to launch in order to achieve one hit.”

As a result, “if he can afford it, he can assume a low reliability factor and manufacture, say, 10 missiles for each single mission,” Rubin continues. “Quantity compensates for reliability, provided you are rich enough to afford it”.

Other missile specialists agreed that North Korea may now be mass-producing the two missile types, but that quality concerns are likely.

“Ultimately this is up to the DPRK’s industrial quality control people, rocket scientists, military procurement people, and political leadership,” says LaFoy. “One group may have serious reservations about the missile, but if there is enough pull from other institutional actors, it still may get pushed through.

“This plays into credibility again, where a very poor system could end up being produced and deployed despite serious issues.”

And Schiller says that it’s for this reason that countries often test emerging missile types over and over again to confirm reliability first.

“You could certainly order mass production … but it would be quite likely that all of these missiles will have the same undiscovered flaws as the prototype, he says.

As a result, “usually (there) are so-called lot acceptance tests where roughly one out of 20 missiles is launched to see if these missiles were still produced the right way, and are still working the way they come from the production line.”

This kind of process, however, is something Schiller says the international community has never seen for any of North Korea’s “claimed ‘indigenous’ programs.”

Freeze impact

Assuming that mass production of some sort has actually begun – even if the ICBM designs remain ‘imperfect’ for some – what will be the impact of a sustained testing moratorium for North Korean missile engineers still seeking to push their programs forward?

Such a prospect looms high given the nearly half-year pause in tests since November 2017 and – assuming the Trump and Kim Jong Un summit goes well – the further prospect of ongoing North Korean test restraint well into the medium or long term.

But although the impact at this stage depends on which missile specialist you talk to, most agree that freeze or no freeze, North Korea’s engineers will keep up their work.

“If it ends up just being a freeze of nuclear and missile flight tests, there is plenty of on-the-ground engine and reentry test work that can (still) be done,” says LaFoy.  “The DPRK (will be able to) do as much on-the-ground research as it wants within the framework of that deal and already existing sanctions regimes.”

“If you want to fight a war with such a missile, you want to know if it behaves” | Photo: KCNA

Inbar agrees, warning that “(missile) production could continue with no interference, (with) only an unofficial moratorium on dynamic tests in effect.”

And under such circumstances North Korea will continue to work to “accumulate raw materials, critical parts and equipment for future use, and could conduct some static tests in a semi-clandestine way,” Inbar adds.

But while Elleman says DPRK engineers will be able to “do some ground testing (and) computer simulations, all of which are helpful to the effort…there is no substitute for flight tests.”

“This is why the U.S., USSR, others undertake dozens of flight tests before declaring a system operational,” he says.

“For first and second-generation ICBMs, the U.S. and USSR did 24 or more flight tests before deployment, and continued testing after deployment to ensure launch-crew readiness, training, surveillance of the arsenal as it ages, etc.”

Consequently, there will always be limits to what North Korean engineers will be able to achieve without an ongoing test program.

“Nuclear and missile flight test freezes still affect the most important part of the test cycle (meaning) there is only so much certainty a state can get on a system that has barely been tested,” says LaFoy.

“The -14 and -15 need more tests to be credible to foreign states, as well as to give the scientists, engineers, and military more faith in their own system.”

And even in the case, the two ICBMs are somewhat reliable, any extended test freeze could impact ground crew training and unit formation, two things which LaFoy says are “absolutely necessary to express that the system is functional, inducted into the military, and prepared for use.”

“Deterrence doesn’t work if you build four ICBMs or ICBM models, parade them, and then the U.S. and allies never see evidence that real, operational missiles are moving around the country with crews,” he says.

And it’s because of this that LaFoy believes a window of opportunity exists for some U.S. figures.

“If anything, seeing models with no operations would provide a strategic incentive for war, as the DPRK would have failed to demonstrate to the U.S. and allies that it really “had” missiles, instead of just having a missile industry still working out a system,” he explains.

This, LaFoy says, could justify “warhawks (arguing) that an Iraq-type preventive war could be launched to prevent the DPRK from gaining a strategic deterrent against the United States.”

A serious threat?

From the North Korean perspective, the HS-15 and 14 designs both work to credible enough terms to justify putting the missiles into the phase of “mass production.”

Kim Jong Un observes the Hwasong-15 test in November last year | Photo: KCNA

But in senior U.S. circles, Pyongyang appears to have stopped short of actually completing its development program, meaning there’s still time to prevent the DPRK from emerging with a reliable ICBM capability.

Consequently, as President Trump prepares for an unprecedented summit with Kim Jong Un, it is certain that maintaining a freeze on all North Korean missile and nuclear testing will be a bare minimum goal for the U.S. – ostensibly, to avoid Pyongyang emerging with a reliable ICBM capability.

But while U.S. officials continue to talk about a month-long window to stop North Korea emerging as a credible ICBM-possessing country, something some specialists agree with, others now warn about the serious risks of not taking Kim Jong Un seriously.

“The scholastic discussion of what Kim has still to do is a self-fulfilling rational,” says Rubin. “He has still a lot to do, so he’s not dangerous, so there is still time for diplomacy, and the war can be postponed.”

However, “all the above questions (really) have to do with how reliable is his capability.”

“Such questions are relevant for conventional threat, (but) for nuclear threats, reliability is a minor point,” he adds.

What, then, can any potential summit agreement really mean if Kim Jong Un already has a limited capability of being able to strike the U.S. in the first place? Nothing – arguably – if the irreversible disassembly of all North Korea’s ICBMs and nuclear warheads cannot soon be guaranteed to Washington.

“It strains credulity to argue that North Korean missiles do not pose a credible threat to the United States today,” Pollack says.

“We can insist that they must flight-test to distance. We can even insist that they must flight-test to distance and detonate a nuclear device in the atmosphere, if that’s what it takes to avoid conceding the point. But if we keep insisting, the chances are good that they will eventually grant our wish.”

“Quit while you’re behind, I always say.”

Edited by Oliver Hotham

Featured image: KCNA