N. Korea’s new submarine-launched ballistic missile: unpacking the Pukguksong-3
The DPRK remains committed to developing a sea-leg for its nuclear forces
On Wednesday, October 2, North Korea conducted the first launch of its apparent second-generation submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), the Pukguksong-3. The system was described as a “new-type” SLBM.
The launch, which took place a day after the North announced a firmed up date for working-level talks with the United States, is the first test-launch of an unambiguously nuclear-capable missile system in the country since the November 28, 2017, test-firing of the Hwasong-15 intercontinental-range ballistic missile (ICBM).
The Pukguksong-3 appears to be a two-stage, solid-fuel-based SLBM, with an apparent range capability of at least 1900 km based off the performance seen during the October 2 test.
According to a preliminary trajectory analysis by physicist David Wright at the Union of Concerned Scientists, the observed 910 km apogee and 450 km range of its inaugural flight-test would suggest that if launched on a so-called minimum energy trajectory—the type of the trajectory designed to maximize distance—the range demonstrated would be close to 1900 km. This estimate is agnostic of the missile’s payload weight, which is unknown for this test.
With the 1900 km range estimate, the Pukguksong-3 has instantly become the longest-range solid propellant-based ballistic missile ever seen in North Korea.
That is a notable development, and underscores the qualitative progress that has been made in the country even while leader Kim Jong Un has turned toward diplomacy with the outside world.
If there was any debate over whether Pyongyang’s short-range systems tested this summer constitute violations of its obligations under United Nations Security Council resolution 1718 to withhold from ballistic missile tests, this test should remove that. This test constitutes a grave violation of North Korean commitments under successive resolutions.
The missile’s flight downrange took it on a southward trajectory from its launch point in the waters near Wonsan through the East Sea, all the way to Japan’s exclusive economic zone off Shimane prefecture.
In the Korean Central News Agency’s report on the test, North Korea offered its usual observation on long-range missile tests—that the launch “had no adverse impact on the security of neighboring countries.” The reaction in Tokyo suggests a different view.
The Pukguksong-3’s existence had become known to analysts in August 2017. During a visit by Kim Jong Un to inspect the Chemical Materials Institute, a prominent poster was seen in a room showcasing schematics for this missile. Also during that visit, Kim was seen walking near wound filament missile casings.
If the Pukguksong-3 employs advanced composite materials in its airframe, it may represent a significant evolutionary shift over its predecessor SLBM, the Pukguksong-1. With a lower weight and the same booster as the Pukguksong-1—holding payload constant—the Pukguksong-3 would demonstrate a longer flight range.
In coming days and weeks, open-source researchers will attempt to measure this missile to determine whether it is likely using the same booster as the Pukguksong-1.
There is a possibility it might not be. Given the newly revealed North Korean ballistic missile submarine under construction at Sinpo based on the Romeo-class submarine, Pyongyang may have chosen to incorporate a missile with new dimensions.
Unfortunately, given that the released images offer few shots of the missile next to anything but water and sky, measurement may prove difficult.
The physical appearance of the Pukguksong-3 diverges considerably from its predecessor, however. Even if the diameter may be the same, the most prominent difference between the two missiles is in the nose section.
Where the Pukguksong-1, like the Chinese JL-1 first-generation SLBM, incorporates a naked reentry body, the Pukguksong-3’s reentry body is apparently encapsulated within a very blunt shroud, similar to China’s JL-2. North Korea, for whatever reason, has taken programmatic influence from China’s first and second SLBMs with its own program.
Moreover, just like China took the JL-1 and put it on land to begin the far more successful DF-21 missile family, so too did North Korea take the Pukguksong-1 to land with the Pukguksong-2.
A similar fate might lie ahead for the Pukguksong-3, which may serve as a test bed for what could become the first North Korean solid-fuel missile of intermediate-range, possibly with sufficient range to strike targets as far as Guam with an added third stage.
A notable difference between the missile seen in the images released on Thursday and the 2017 schematic is the apparently shortened reentry body shroud. It’s possible Pyongyang may have made adjustments to the design.
A few more observations can be offered at this early stage. First, unlike the first underwater ejection test of the Pukguksong-1 in May 2015, North Korea did not falsely claim that this was a test conducted from a submarine. In one of the released images, a support vessel, possibly towing the underwater launch platform, is clearly visible.
This tells us that Pyongyang may be leaving the unusually deceptive practices used around its SLBM program in the past. Further analysis, however, may reveal doctoring of the released images. North Korea has doctored both SLBM imagery and video in the past.
A striking non-technical facet of this latest launch is Kim Jong Un’s absence. KCNA only notes that the leader sent his “warm congratulations” to the Academy of Defense Science members present at the test. Kim staying away from the first test-launch of a strategic, nuclear-capable missile since November 2017 is an important development.
It could presage the start of a new relationship between the supreme leader and his “treasured sword,” or it may simply indicate an effort to keep a distance from the most provocative weapons test in 22 months as working-level talks with the United States begin. Either way, this is a new development that merits mention.
The first test of the Pukguksong-3 is a grave development for regional security. North Korea remains committed to developing a sea-leg for its nuclear forces. Contrary to older perspectives on the Gorae-class submarine and the Pukguksong-1, this program is not an afterthought or a prestige project.
Kim has calculated that there are survivability benefits to be gained from taking his nuclear weapons to sea.
While the anti-submarine warfare capabilities of the United States, South Korea, and Japan are robust, nuclear warhead-toting submarines will introduce new planning requirements and complicate wartime operations.
Similarly, successful launches from a North Korean submarine out at sea could present challenging new azimuths of attack to existing missile defenses in South Korea and Japan, which may not be ideally positioned to defend against anything but warheads originating on North Korean soil.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Rodong Sinmun
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