North Korea announced the launch of a “new-type” of missile on March 25 that appears to be a variant of the previous KN-23 short-range ballistic missile (SRBM). North Korea almost certainly conducted the launches more for political than technical or operational reasons, probably to signal the new Biden administration that it should not be taken for granted and will continue to develop its missile capabilities, as well as in response to the US-ROK joint exercises currently underway. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) claim that the missile carried a 2,500-kg warhead to a 600-km range was likely a deliberate overstatement, presumably for political purposes.
The military significance of these launches is questionable. A 2,500-kg warhead is almost certainly not required for the new missile to carry a nuclear warhead. If it exists, the heavier warhead is more likely to have some tailored conventional warfighting purpose. Regardless, North Korea already unveiled in 2019 three new solid-propellant SRBMs that have all of the key attributes of the new missile, and that collectively add incrementally to the longstanding North Korean SRBM threat.
Information to Date
North Korea announced on March 25 that it had test fired two “newly-developed new-type tactical guided missiles” on that date. Japan, South Korea and the US confirmed those launches. According to the North, the two launches were of a new-type solid-propellant missile “using the core technology” of an already-developed type, with an increased warhead weight of “2.5 tonnes” (presumably 2,500 kg). The DPRK released a few photos showing the ignition on a road-mobile launcher and the early ascent of an SRBM.
According to the North, the “quite successful” test flights have “reconfirmed the irregular orbit characteristics of the low-altitude gliding and skipping flight mode which has already been applied to other guided missiles.” Although North Korea suggested the missiles flew to a range of 600 km, the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff reported that they flew to a range of around 450 km with an altitude of 60 km; Japan stated the missiles reached 420 and 430 km. The North claimed the missiles “correctly hit” their target.
As is usually the case with North Korean missile activities, there is much we cannot confirm and do not know. In particular, we do not know that the missiles depicted in the photos were the missiles actually launched, nor do we know the payload weight, the degree of success of the missile flights, or if they in fact hit their intended targets.
Assuming the missiles in the photos were the ones launched, the North has conducted the initial launches of a solid-propellant SRBM that appears to be a variant of its KN-23 SRBM (itself apparently based on the Russian SS-26 Iskander SRBM). It may be the same variant unveiled by the DPRK at the January 14 military parade in Pyongyang, which reportedly was longer than the original KN-23 and—like the missiles seen in the new photos—had a more conical warhead.
Both the DPRK-claimed range of 600 km and the ROK/Japan-reported ranges of 420-450 km are consistent with previously reported KN-23 flights. The ROK-reported 60 km apogee (altitude) of the new missiles’ flights is consistent with the 50 km reported for past KN-23 flights, and with the North’s claim of a “low-altitude gliding and skipping flight mode.” Flying at such altitudes allows the missile’s direction to be controlled throughout its trajectory, making interception by missile defense systems much more difficult.
The most interesting aspect of the North’s claims is the new missile’s purported 2,500-kg payload, larger than the original KN-23. A larger payload is consistent with the more conical front section of the missile seen in the photos released with the launches and with the longer missile seen in the January parade. But because increases in the payload weight for a given missile system generally result in decreased range (and vice versa), it is hard to reconcile a 2,500-kg payload for the new missile with the ROK/Japan reported ranges of 420-450 km, much less the DPRK-claimed range of 600 km.
- The original KN-23 was assessed to carry a payload of 500 kg to a range of 490 km, and a reduced payload to 600 km. (There is, however, no direct open-source evidence of the missile’s actual payload weight or range/payload capability.)
- The Russian SS-26 Iskander is reported to carry a payload of 480-700 kg to a range of 400-500 km. Although the KN-23 is believed to be based on the Iskander, the latter probably incorporates more advanced solid-propellant technology than North Korea currently possesses.
Based on the information currently available, it seems most likely that the 2,500-kg payload attributed to the new launches is a deliberate overstatement, along with the claimed 600-km range. Perhaps the North also intends to pursue a future version of the new missile with a 2,500-kg warhead and a substantially reduced range (maybe as low as 100 km). But a North Korean solid-propellant missile of this size class with a 2,500 kg-payload and a 600-km range (or even a 420-450 km range) is questionable.
As with most of its other missile activities, North Korea almost certainly conducted the March 25 launches more for political than technical or operational reasons.
- These were the first ballistic missile launches Pyongyang conducted since March 2020, suggesting the North intended them as a signal to the new Biden administration that the DPRK and its interests should not be taken for granted, and that it will continue to develop its missile (and, implicitly, nuclear) capabilities.
- The launches probably also are a response to the US-ROK joint exercises currently underway, which Kim Jong Un’s sister complained about as a threat to peace.
- That these launches involved SRBMs, not longer-range systems, suggests the DPRK did not want to provoke a crisis with the new administration at the outset, but it is also consistent with the idea that the North is testing how the new administration will respond, and is reserving the right to conduct (if not gearing up for) further tests at increased ranges based on its assessment of the new US leadership. The launch of ballistic missiles violated the ban on all such launches established by United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolution 1718, which does not apply to the cruise missiles the DPRK launched a few days earlier. Unlike its predecessor, the Biden administration has referred the SRBM launches to the UN Security Council North Korea sanctions committee.
- The unveiling of yet another new SRBM (or SRBM variant), along with the claims of a much larger payload and a “low-altitude gliding and skipping flight mode,” is probably intended to underscore the DPRK threat to South Korea and Japan, and to help drive wedges between the US (whose homeland is not threatened by SRBMs) and its Asian allies within range of North Korean theater-range missiles.
- The apparent deliberate overstatement of the payload and range of the missile likewise probably is intended to highlight the threat to the ROK, as well as magnify the achievement of North Korean science and technology.
The military significance of these launches is questionable, however.
- Arming the new missile with 2,500-kg warheads, if indeed such warheads exist, does not “indicate they are being designed for nuclear strikes.” The DPRK is assessed to have deployed nuclear warheads for many years on its existing Nodong medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) and Scud-B and -C SRBMs, with payloads of 700-1,000 kg. A 2,500 kg-warhead is almost certainly not required for the new missile to carry a nuclear warhead.
- If it exists, the 2,500-kg warhead is more likely to have some tailored conventional warfighting purpose. A larger unitary warhead could be intended to have a greater effect against bunkered targets, or create larger craters in airstrips; a larger warhead also would permit delivering more and/or heavier submunitions, covering a greater area or increasing lethality over the same area.
- In any case, North Korea has long deployed some 900 SRBMs and MRBMs that can cover all of South Korea. It unveiled in 2019 three new solid-propellant SRBMs (the KN-23, -24, and -25) that have all of the key attributes of the new missile, and that collectively add incrementally to the longstanding North Korean SRBM threat. In particular, all these missiles “would allow North Korea to subject more US and ROK targets to SRBM attacks (particularly more point targets), add to the intensity of attacks, increase the North’s opportunities to tailor particular attacks to particular missile systems, and further complicate the task of US and ROK missile defenses.”
In other words, the new missile, assuming it is deployed in any numbers, will be more of the same.
“New-type tactical guided missiles test-fired,” Voice of Korea, March 26, 2021.
“Academy of Defence Science Test-fires New-type Tactical Guided Missiles,” Rodong Sinmun, March 26, 2021.
“New-type tactical guided missiles test-fired,” Voice of Korea.
“It Will Be Hard to See Again Spring Days Three Years Ago,” KCNA, March 16, 2021.
See: United Nations, Security Council, Resolution 1718 (2006), S/RES/1718, October 14, 2006, https://www.undocs.org/S/RES/1718%20(2006) (See Operative Paragraph 2); and Aamer Madhani and Matthew Lee, “White House: North Korea conducted short-range missile test,” Associated Press, March 23, 2021, https://apnews.com/article/antony-blinken-south-korea-north-korea-united-states-cd7b4dd2142258e172e2ad3a932bc38d.
Kim Tong-hyung and Hyung-Jin Kim, “EXPLAINER: North Korean missiles getting more agile, evasive,” Associated Press, March 26, 2021, https://apnews.com/article/joe-biden-technology-seoul-south-korea-north-korea-d6bdaa7f3c5613ba3bd38218dbb8acb8.