North Korea’s leaders love to splurge on military parades, in which they strive to dazzle the world (and their subjects) with the spectacle of their military might. Pyongyang’s military parades are the epitome of martial pomp and circumstance, unparalleled anywhere in the world in their robotic exactitude.

Not since the Prussia of Frederick the Great has the world witnessed such geometrically perfect ranks of marionette-like, goose-stepping troops marching under the stern gaze of the Supreme Leader and a bevy of bemedalled generals. 

Following them is row-upon-row of roaring, smoke belching war machines, some tracked and some wheeled, some sporting cannons and some sporting missiles. In the most recent spectacle of April 15th – North Korea’s so-called ‘Day of the Sun’ – it was the missile part of the parade that caught the world’s attention.

STARTING FROM THE BOTTOM

North Korea’s intense focus on ballistic missiles as a mainstay of its tactical and strategic offensive capabilities has been advertised by its leaders ever since they started brandishing their nascent missile forces in their highly ritualistic military parades.

In the 2009 parade only two types of ballistic missiles were displayed: The tactical KN02 – a copy of a Soviet SS 21 (modeled on a sample provided courtesy of Syria), and the short range Hwasong-5, a copy of the Soviet R17 (Based on a Scud B sample provided by Egypt). The latter, interesting enough, was carried atop a copy of that Soviet masterpiece of military vehicles: the elegant MAZ 543 Transporter Erector Launcher (TEL).

KN-02 in parade April 2012

The KN-02 on display in a 2012 parade I Photo: Boaz Guttman, Flickr Creative Commons 

One year later, in 2010, North Korea watchers were amazed to see two additional ballistic missiles joining the parade. One of them, dubbed the Nodong or Rodong by Western analysts, was a scaled up SCUD already seen before in Iran and Pakistan, but transported, in the case of North Korea, atop a stretched SCUD TEL. The other was a significantly larger missile, which looked like a stretched version of the Soviet R27 SLBM.

This, in turn, was carried on top of what seemed like a modified version of the MAZ 547, the TEL of the road-mobile Soviet SS 20 IRBM – a vehicle supposedly extinct since the 1987 INF treaty. Many analysts in the West expressed their disbelief in the veracity of the display, branding the new missiles “fakes” and “stage props.” Several years later they had to eat their words when both types were shown in live tests.

A Nodong being tested last year I Photo: Rodong Sinmun

To those four types of missiles, the North Koreans added a sensational fifth type at the 2012 parade, when huge missiles which looked like three stage liquid-propellant ICBMs rolled down Pyongyang’s main thoroughfare aboard giant, eight axle launchers that looked like the Chinese version of the Russian MAZKT 79221 launcher of the TOPOL-M road mobile ICBM. A two-stage version of this missile was displayed in 2015 and again in 2016.

Ever bigger ballistic missiles were becoming a staple of Pyongyang’s annual road shows, but nothing prepared the world for the shock and awe of the 2017 spectacle, when a beaming Kim Jong Un saluted no less than seven types of indigenous ballistic missiles, four of them never seen before. They ranged from a precision version of the venerable SCUD to what looked like indigenous road mobile solid propellant ICBMs. The spectacle was preceded and followed by a frenzied flight test program, with several of the paraded missiles shown roaring off into the wild blue yonder.

AN EVENTFUL YEAR

The innumerable revelations of North Korea’s “Years of the Missiles” –  from the frenzied testing campaigns of 2016 to the April 2017 parade to the recent test of the single stage Hwasong 12 on May 14th – are grist to the mill of North Korea watchers and analysts, promising years of fruitful arguments and learned papers. For our purpose here it is less important to dwell on specific missiles and launchers, and more important to draw out the main outline of this vast North Korean missile program as a whole. This might help us to gain some insights on the motives that drive it.

After all, North Korea is a fairly small country with a population of 25 million and one of the lowest per capita incomes in the world – somewhere between 1000 to 1500 dollars per year, depending on how you count it – yet it is spending vast sums on maintaining an oversized missile program. The question is why? Surely, a less megalomaniac effort could still provide the Kim dynasty with adequate delivery vehicles for their cherished nuclear arsenal. The answer to this dilemma is far from clear, but some observations of the salient features of the program might narrow the range of possibilities.   

Each and every photograph and video clip released is carefully screened to advertise success while hiding essential information that could help outside observers to assess its reliability

First and foremost, we need to remember that we are watching a carefully orchestrated roadshow, designed to broadcast military might and technological prowess. Each and every photograph and video clip released is carefully screened to advertise success while hiding essential information that could help outside observers to assess its reliability. We see what Kim Jong Un wants us to see: a lot of missiles being paraded or roaring up into the wild blue yonder.

Footage of missile launches is highly choreographed 

We are not shown any failures, we are not allowed to see any test range equipment such as radars and ground telemetry stations. Except in rare occasions, we are not offered any view of production facilities for rocket motors, missiles, and missile launchers. Still, and with the above caveat in mind, the accumulation of officially released information over the years from parades and flight tests is by now sufficient to draw out the salient features of this North Korean program.  

Perhaps the most outstanding feature of the entire effort is its centrality to North Korea’s emerging military tactics and strategy. What stood out in the April 15th parade was not only what was on display, but also what was missing: no air power was shown this time, save a flight of primary trainers and a handful of ground attack aircraft trailing colored smoke.

While air power has always played second fiddle in Pyongyang’s parades, its MIG 29’s fighter and Ilyushin 76 heavy airlifters were conspicuous in their absence from this year’s parade. Even some of the older types of ballistic missile like the Rodong stayed home, emphasizing the single-minded focus of North Korea’s rulers on newer and ever more powerful ballistic missiles. Clearly, Pyongyang is betting the house on its missiles as the mainstay of its aspirations, whatever they may be.

The quantum leap in North Korea’s engineering proficiency becomes clear once the modest arsenal of Soviet copies displayed less than one decade ago is compared to the wealth of the new missile designs

Next, what impresses outside observers is the extraordinary variety of designs, technologies and basing modes. North Korea has paraded and tested, to date, 13 distinct types of ballistic missiles (as well as two types of space launchers), ranging from precision battlefield missiles to ICBMs, powered by both liquid and solid propellant rocket engines, and fired from tracked and wheeled vehicles as well as from submerged submarines.

Only silo-based ICBMs are still missing from their repertoire, but this could be easily rectified by placing some of their putative solid propellant, canistered ICBMs inside silos rather than onboard launch vehicles.  

North Korea’s new solid-fuelled Pukguksong-2 ballistic missile | Click to zoom

For habitual skeptics who tend to dismiss this sudden plethora of ballistic missiles as a smoke and mirror show, it might be useful to observe that up until now the majority of the displayed missile types – to be precise 8 out of 13 types – have been seen in actual flights. Those types not seen flying, to date, are mainly the newest ones. It stands to reason that they too will eventually be flight tested, as was the case for all their predecessors.

The North Koreans may take their time to overcome the usual teething problems of new designs, but up until now they have demonstrated a singular tenacity in realizing each and every missile design shown in public, even if it takes years to do so.

“GREAT LEAP FORWARD”

The quantum leap in North Korea’s engineering proficiency becomes clear once the modest arsenal of Soviet copies displayed less than one decade ago is compared to the wealth of new missile designs – not seen anywhere else – rolling down Pyongyang’s main square last April. Until this great leap forward became apparent there were many observers – this present author included – who believed that Iran, once a recipient of North Korean missile technology – had overtaken its erstwhile mentor in missile sophistication.

Not anymore: North Korea has shown that it now masters all the technologies used by Iran and on a larger scale. What stands out, in particular, are North Korea’s newly revealed large solid propellant rockets used in the PK1 SLBM and its sibling the PK2 land mobile IRBM. Large solid rocket motors are not traded in arms markets, due to safety hazards. Rather, they must be manufactured in the user’s own country. This requires not just expertise but also large manufacturing facilities to mix, cast inspect and test the motors.

The fact that they power at least two and possibly four new types of North Korean ballistic missile proves that the North now has in its possession all the necessary production facilities, thereby achieving a high degree of self-sufficiency in this field.

This is a blow to arms control: once more, as in the case of Iran, international export control tools – mainly the Missile Technology Control Regime – could perhaps slow, but definitely not prevent, the proliferation of missile technologies and production machinery to belligerent countries.  

Image result for pukkuksong-1 slbm

The Pukkuksong-1 SLBM launch last year I Photo: Korean Central News Agency

A less discussed but no less significant revelation from the April parade is the emergence of a terminally guided ballistic missile. This missile, provisionally dubbed KN-17 by North Korea watchers, looks like a SCUD with a steerable reentry vehicle – a “hypersonic glider” in miniature.

Some analysts see it as an anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), which it certainly isn’t: at least not yet. For the time being, this cutting edge technology is useful for precision attack of stationary point targets such as aircraft shelters and power stations. Once equipped with a homing sensor and backed by target tracking sensors, this missile might yet evolve into a true ASBM. Still, its very existence, even in a land attack version, is bad news for its prospective victims.

What foreign media have dubbed the KN-17, on display at April’s parade I Photo: NK Pro

Two giant mystery missiles grabbed the world’s attention at the April 15th parade. Emulating Russian and Chinese land-mobile ICBMs, one type – a Topol-M look alike – was carried on the Chinese version of the MAZKT 7922 eight axle TEL vehicle. The other – a DF31 look alike- was transported on a multi-axle semi-trailer towed behind a German made MANN commercial tractor vehicle. No clue on the missiles within the canisters – if any – was provided. Judging by outside appearances they house (or will house) multi-stage solid propellant ICBMs.

If so, this might signify another quantum leap in North Korea’s capability to cast an even larger solid rocket motors. Is the Hermit Kingdom going to do it on its own? It is tempting to think that this is not the case. North Korea’s technology sharing with Iran has been extensively discussed in the past and much of it is still obscure. Yet one thing seems fairly certain today: both countries shared in the development of a quadruple liquid motor power pack for the first stage of their heavy satellite launchers, the Iranian Simorgh and the North Korean Unha respectively.

It is, therefore, not inconceivable that they are sharing the development of a supersize solid propellant rocket motor. According to some observers, the 2011 explosion in Bid Kaneh that took the life of Iran’s chief missile engineer and many of his top team occurred during the casting of a giant solid propellant rocket motor. Perhaps this was part of a joint program aimed to provide both countries with the wherewithal for evolved ICBMs and heavy space launchers. There is no evidence to substantiate this speculation, but the thought is tempting.   

MITIGATING RISKS

Despite the apparent progress, North Korea’s missile program also exhibits some limitations and strains.

The peculiar mix of TELs in the April 15 parade and the subsequent HS-12 test may be telling a story of some shortages in adequate launch vehicles. While in previous years the giant MAZKT 79221-like launch vehicles carried putative liquid propellant ICBM’s, they were exiled this year in favor of a canistered, putatively solid propellant TOPOL-M-like ICBM. Evidently, the North Koreans don’t have enough of these giant vehicles to go around for both kinds of missiles.

The newly unveiled HS-12  was paraded on the same MAZ 547 that is used by its smaller stable mate, the Musudan. Yet its launching method is significantly different: it is fired from a separated launch table, with the MAZ vehicle itself driven out of sight.

This seems to be a retrograde step, harking back to the WWII-era mode of launching V2 missiles. What compelled the North Korean engineers to take this backward step is far from clear: perhaps it was done in order to protect the launcher from the missile exhaust gases during liftoff. Yet the same MAZ 547 launches the Musudan missile from an attached flight table.

The Hwasong-12, launched last week I Photo: Rodong Sinmun

One possible reason for this discrepancy is the Musudan’s apparent low reliability and frequent catastrophic failures, which endangered costly launch vehicles. An explosion on liftoff would destroy both missile and the launcher.

Hence it would make sense to reduce this risk in the next design – the HS 12 – by separating the missile from the vehicle in live tests, thus preserving the latter in case of catastrophic mishaps, like the ones that seem to have occurred on March 22nd and then again on April 29th. Be it as it may, the use of the same type of vehicles for two very different missiles and the effort made to safeguard it from test-related risks even at the cost of some loss of operational flexibility tend to indicate that the Soviet-made MAZ 547 is regarded as a scarce resource.

Above all, the North Koreans seem to be in a hurry

The use of a tracked vehicle as a TEL for the new precision missile KN17 is also surprising. The Soviet’s early SCUD vehicles were also tracked, but they later shifted to logistically superior wheeled TELs. The North Koreans showed in the past a five-axle version of a wheeled TEL for the Rodong missile which could very well fit the KN17. Why they selected a tracked vehicle for the KN17 remains a mystery. Perhaps they don’t have enough stretched MAZ 543s or experience a difficulty in manufacturing more of them.

A LONG WAY TO GO?

The program is still suffering from North Korea’s reluctance to test their missiles to full range in realistic, minimum energy trajectories from their west coast down into the Pacific Ocean. Instead, they keep testing eastwards in lofted trajectories, an unsafe and not entirely adequate way to qualify their designs.

Why they keep doing this is puzzling. Several possible reasons come to mind: perhaps they lack the blue water capability to send instrumented ships downrange for tracking, telemetry data recording, and clarifying the impact point location of missiles fired deep into the ocean.

They may be wary that such instrumented ships sailing far away from North Korean shores might be captured by the U.S. – a “Pueblo” in reverse, or they are uncomfortable with the thought that the U.S. might recover the debris of their warheads fired into the Pacific Ocean, as it was rumored to have done in the case of the debris from the Unha satellite launches.

The program seems to be competently managed by capable and even innovative leaders.

Or they may just be content to burnish their belligerent image by repeated missile launches in the direction of Japan. Be that as it may, it seems that they are comfortable with the current situation and are willing to accept some loss in test fidelity. Whatever the reason, the strategy of testing to lofted trajectories is quite ingenious, providing the North Korean with sufficient engineering feedback while allowing them to proceed without the political repercussions that would come from overflying Japan, as they did in their failed satellite launch in 1998.

A quadruple Scud launch earlier in the year

Above all, the North Koreans are in a hurry. The redundancy of overlapping technologies, designs and ranges, the frenzied tempo of testing and the acceptance of less than optimal solutions such as ill-fitting launchers and constricted flight test geometries seem to indicate a program working at top speed.

But in a rush for what? Two possible explanations come to mind. First, we may be witnessing a rapid transition from an older generation towards a newer, largely indigenous and more reliable generation of missiles.

Perhaps the new HS-12 is destined to replace the older and unreliable Musudan, hence the use of the same MAZ launch vehicle for both types. The solid propellant PK-2 may well replace the liquid propellant Rodong. The new SCUD derivatives (both long range and terminally guided version as the KN-17) will eventually replace the older Hwasong-6, and the huge solid propellant ICBMs are destined to replace the liquid propellant HS-13 and 14.

In short, this apparent overabundance of missile types is no more than a case of “double vision” caused by watching both outgoing and incoming missile generations at the same time.

This might explain the overabundance of missile types, but it does not explain the frenzied tempo. Why does Kim put his missile program on hyperdrive? Perhaps because he perceives himself as being trapped in a cusp of vulnerability: he figures that his cherished nuclear program has a realistic chance to provoke preemptive military strikes by the U.S. Further, that his only chance to dissuade the U.S. from attacking is to achieve a devastating conventional threat on South Korea and other U.S. allies in the region and a realistic nuclear threat to the continental United States itself as quickly as possible.

We may be witnessing here a rapid transition from an older generation a newer, largely indigenous and more reliable generation of missiles

This brings us to the much-discussed topic of the timetable for such a viable nuclear threat. Many analysts maintain that North Korea’s ICBMs will pose a real threat only when they achieve demonstrated reliability in repeated a flight test program which may take years, perhaps as long as a decade. This is wrong.

The question is not what it takes to make generals accept a new weapon into their arsenal. The question is what makes politicians and their constituents take the threat seriously and factor it in their deterrence equations – in other words, what counts is perception, rather than dry military acquisition regulations.

The U.S. considered the Soviet Union a viable nuclear threat as soon as the “Sputnik” reached orbit, regardless of the fact that it took years to build up a reliable and adequate stock of ICBMs. It was the same with China.

Hence all it takes to establish the perception of a viable nuclear threat on the mainland U.S. is one convincingly successful flight test of a convincingly survivable North Korean ICBM. If the North Koreans are in a real hurry, this may happen at any time and certainly much sooner than one decade in the future. Judging by the current pattern, the odds are that this test, too, will use a lofted trajectory.

North Korea has chalked up remarkable successes in acquiring a missile production infrastructure in the face of sanctions and international arms control measures, creating a cadre of skilled managers, engineers, and technicians and coping with the inherent limitations of its geography regarding missile testing. While it is still suffering from some shortcomings, the program seems to be competently managed by capable and even innovative leaders.

The missile program and its siblings – the space program and the air and missile defense program – are probably taxing even North Korea’s command economy. Perhaps the greatest success of Kim is his ability to finance those vast programs. How does he do it? This, perhaps, remains the most interesting question of them all.  

Edited by Oliver Hotham