On Friday, March 4, North Korea showed off a new “large-caliber” artillery rocket system.
Although Kim Jong Un watched a number of tests of different kinds of conventional warheads, the North Korean statement on the weapon described the system as one of a series of new strike capabilities under development. It also talks about the importance of increasing the quantity and quality of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, implying—but not asserting directly—the system might eventually be nuclear armed.
What Is The New System?
There have been a number of press reports in recent years about North Korea’s development of a new, large-caliber artillery weapon.
The pictures released in North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun—24 in total—reveal a number of details. The launch vehicle itself appears to be Chinese. Its cab is a perfect match for a 122 mm rocket artillery system produced by Sichuan Aerospace in China. The same vehicle appeared in an October 2015 parade honoring the 70th Anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea, carrying smaller artillery tubes, but did not attract notice at the time.
The Chinese system was first shown at a defense exhibition in November 2006, which suggests it may have been exported after that date and may represent a violation of UN sanctions. As of October 2006, UN Security Council Resolution 1718 prohibited the export to North Korea of most kinds of conventional weapons, including large-caliber artillery systems (defined as greater than 100 mm). In 2009, UNSCR 1874 widened the ban to cover all arms exports. The cab and chassis appear to be marketed for commercial uses, raising the possibility that China will deny it knew the end use of the trucks as it did with the launch vehicle for the KN-08 road mobile ICBM in 2012. The UN Panel of Experts will have to seek clarification regarding what precisely China exported to North Korea and when.
Each launcher carries eight rockets. Although North Korea describes them only as “large-caliber,” they appear similar to other rockets such as Russia’s Bm-30, Pakistan’s Hatf-9 (Nasr), and China’s SY-300, which would suggest a size of about 300-400 mm in diameter. This is not to say that any of these rockets are identical, merely that they appear similar in design.
Finally, the launch appears to have occurred out of Wonsan, at the test site we geolocated in 2014, with the rockets hitting a target on an uninhabited islet about 150 km away. This would be consistent with the upper-end of range estimates for large-caliber artillery rockets.
What Does It Mean?
North Korea’s announcement emphasized the importance of developing a range of strike options to hold targets in South Korea at risk.
Longer-range artillery allows North Korea to deploy the new systems out of range of South Korean and US artillery rockets, reducing their vulnerability to counter-battery fire. One often hears that North Korea’s artillery could easily destroy Seoul, but more careful estimates of the number, type and deployment of existing North Korean artillery suggests that the US and ROK artillery fire would quickly silence North Korea’s existing artillery forces. Longer-range North Korean artillery may restore some of this threat.
Rocket artillery is also difficult to address with missile defenses, both because of the low-engagement altitudes and the potential volume of fire. In response to the most recent North Korea space launch, Seoul announced that it was negotiating the deployment of US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defenses in Korea. While systems like THAAD would provide an additional layer of defense against Scud ballistic missiles, they would provide no capability to defend Seoul against North Korea’s rocket artillery.
In recent years, South Korea has tested new ballistic and cruise missiles with precision-strike and earth-penetrating capabilities—developments that have alarmed the North Korean leadership. In turn, the North Koreans have accused South Korea and the US of pursuing a strategy of “beheading,” which we would normally call a “decapitation strike.” The presence of long-range artillery that is relatively safe from counterbattery fire and not liable to be intercepted by missile defenses may help restore confidence in North Korea that it can hold targets in Seoul at risk during a crisis.
Is It Nuclear-Armed?
The North Korean statement only hints at the possibility the system will be nuclear-armed, but it is perhaps worth considering the plausibility of the idea and its potential implications.
It is unclear whether North Korea can develop a nuclear warhead small enough for the new artillery system. Pyongyang has conducted four nuclear tests, but it is generally thought that the purpose of these tests has been to develop an implosion-type device that weighs a few hundred kilograms. Such a warhead would probably be about 60 centimeters in diameter and thus too large for the new artillery system.
Pakistan has asserted that it deploys small nuclear weapons for the Hatf-9 (Nasr) artillery system. The Nasr, according to some estimates, is approximately 360 mm in diameter. That would allow only for a relatively small nuclear weapon. Based on design information that appeared in the public domain following the collapse in 2002 of the nuclear smuggling network run by A.Q. Khan—the father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb—many analysts think the most modern Pakistani design is approximately 60 centimeters in diameter. If the Nasr has a nuclear warhead, it must be considerably smaller.
One possibility is that Pakistan or North Korea might attempt to develop an artillery shell similar to early US nuclear artillery projectiles such as the W-9 shell, which was 280 mm in diameter. The W-9 was a gun-type device that used uranium. There is no evidence to suggest that Pakistan or North Korea have developed such a device, although it would be technically feasible.
North Korea might choose to build nuclear-armed artillery for a number of reasons. Nuclear-armed artillery would pose a serious threat to Seoul that would be difficult for the United States and South Korea to completely eliminate. And North Korea, like Pakistan, might see nuclear artillery rockets as a possible way to compensate for its conventional inferiority, particularly if US and South Korean armored units were racing northward.
Nuclear-armed artillery would pose real stability challenges for the Korean Peninsula. North Korea may view nuclear-armed artillery as an effective deterrent to South Korean military action, particularly to South Korean threats to decapitate the North Korean leadership. But this deterrence may come at a cost. The decision in the United States to deploy nuclear-armed artillery was accompanied by a decision to pre-delegate the authority to use nuclear weapons to commanders in the field. The possibility that conventional war might escalate to a nuclear war, and that the decision might not be fully under the control of North Korea’s leadership, is what Thomas Schelling termed “the threat that leaves something to chance.” This also, however, creates the prospect of inadvertent to uncontrollable escalation.
Moreover, South Korea’s leaders may be more alarmed than deterred by such a threat. Seoul might reasonably conclude that the possibility of inadvertent escalation is yet one more reason in a crisis to attempt to decapitate the North Korean leadership in the hope that lower-level North Korean commanders would not use nuclear weapons. Although the point of pre-delegating nuclear use to local commanders would be to create a sort of “dead hand” that will retaliate even after the Kim family is gone, South Korean leaders might gamble that the will of the North Korean army will dissipate without the Kims in charge.
The appearance of a new long-range artillery system that is specifically linked to North Korean fears about decapitation strikes deserves our attention, even if the possibility of nuclear armament is only hinted at.
Over the past few years, both North and South Korea have invested in new artillery and missile systems in what is clearly an action-reaction cycle. The development of these capabilities has been described in terms of doctrines in both countries that raise questions about whether future crises on the peninsula will be stable.
The new system is a wake-up call that stability on the Korean peninsula is not something that will happen naturally. The bottom line is that far more attention needs to be paid to North Korea’s evolving nuclear doctrine, on the one hand, and South Korea’s development of conventional doctrines that involve preemption and decapitation on the other.
Jeffrey Lewis is Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, and a frequent contributor to 38 North.
 At the April 15, 2012 military parade in North Korea, six KN-08 road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles were featured on transporter-erector-launchers (TELs) that appeared to have been of Chinese origin. The UN Panel of Experts confirmed that the Chinese company, Wanshan Special Vehicle Company, had exported to North Korea six heavy-duty chassis in 2011. Chinese officials claimed that Pyongyang had purchased the vehicles to be used in logging activities for the Ministry of Forestry. See Jeffrey Lewis, “That Ain’t My Truck: Where North Korea Assembled Its Chinese Transporter-Erector-Launchers,” 38 North, February 3, 2014, https://www.38north.org/2014/02/jlewis020314/.