Pyongyang launched two land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs) on January 25 and two road-mobile KN-23 short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) on January 27. These two sets of launches were the fifth and sixth North Korea has conducted this month (but not the last, as North Korea conducted an intermediate-range ballistic missile [IRBM] test on January 30; analysis to come). They were described by the North as “updating” the cruise missiles (with a modified propulsion system, it would appear) and “confirming the power” of a conventional warhead on the KN-23. The launches serve to underscore that both missile types will have a role in the North’s missile force, but the cruise missile will help augment a large existing ballistic missile threat that will be incrementally increased by the KN-23.
Land-Attack Cruise Missile Launches
South Korea reported that the North launched two unidentified cruise missiles into the East Sea/Sea of Japan on January 25, to an unspecified range. On January 28, North Korea announced “the test-fire for updating the long-range cruise missile system,” with the two missiles hitting a “target island” 1,800 km away after a flight of over 2.5 hours. According to the announcement, “The practical combat performance of the long-range cruise missile system would hold a reliable share in boosting the war deterrence of the country.”
The accompanying photos showed the launch of a cruise missile from a road-mobile launcher and an explosion on an island. The missile looked very much like the cruise missiles launched by North Korea in September 2021, but with a different paint scheme—more like that of the cruise missile North Korea displayed at the October 2021 “Defence Development Exhibition.” The engine air intake on the missile launched in January also appears different from the September missile; this, along with the January missile demonstrating 300 km more range and 26 minutes more flight time than in September, may mean the “updated” January missile has a modified propulsion system.
Implications. North Korea is continuing to improve the LACM system unveiled last September and apparently intends to add it to bolster its existing ballistic missile “war deterrence.” The increased range/flight time shown in the January tests would mainly be of use in allowing launch units to deploy deeper within North Korea and still hit targets throughout South Korea and Japan, and/or for some more use of evasive flight paths to avoid and complicate air defenses.
Overall, the impact of LACMs is consistent with 38 North’s analysis of the September 2021 launch: assuming they are deployed, they will almost certainly augment rather than supplant the North’s existing, longstanding and extensive ballistic missile force—which is already capable of accomplishing just about any mission a North Korean cruise missile can—and would further diversify and increase the flexibility of the North’s missile force.
Road-Mobile KN-23 Launches
South Korea reported the launch of two probable short-range ballistic missiles by North Korea on January 27, to a range of about 190 km with a 20-km maximum altitude (apogee). The same January 28 North Korean announcement covering the cruise missile also reported “the test-fire for confirming the power of conventional warhead for the surface-to-surface tactical guided missile,” claiming the “missiles precisely hit the target island, proving that the explosive power of the conventional warhead complied with the design requirements.”
The accompanying photos showed a KN-23 solid-propellant SRBM being launched from a road-mobile launcher, an apparent missile reentering just above an island, and an airburst explosion. These were the first known launches of the KN-23 from a road-mobile launcher since 2019; subsequent launches had been from rail-mobile launchers and a test submarine. The latest launches also had the lowest reported KN-23 apogee (previous flights have been to 37-60 km) and the shortest reported range (albeit only 10 km less than the first KN-23 test in May 2019).
Implications. The resumption of launches from road-mobile launchers further suggests that the road-mobile version of the KN-23 is deployed/operational, not just the rail-mobile version that the North claimed in September 2021 had that status. It is unclear whether the reported use of the launches “for confirming the power of conventional warhead” means that the warhead used is a new type or an existing deployed warhead. But this is the first time the North has explicitly attributed a conventional warhead to the KN-23, which is also capable of carrying a nuclear payload.
Use of the lower 20-km apogee would delay radar detection (but not detection by infrared satellites) and reduce the reaction time of missile defense systems, but at the cost of range compared to higher apogees – as well as putting more thermal and aerodynamic stress on the KN-23 missile airframe, which remains attached to the warhead through reentry. The KN-23’s ability to withstand these flight conditions also underscores its versatility, along with the apparent success of all 15 known launches from road-mobile, rail-mobile, and submarine platforms.
As noted previously in 38 North, even if KN-23s are deployed in significant numbers and are sufficiently accurate to be militarily effective with a conventional warhead, they will add only incrementally to the longstanding North Korean short-range ballistic missile threat. In particular, they would subject more US and ROK targets to SRBM attacks (particularly point targets), add to the intensity of attacks, increase opportunities to tailor particular attacks to particular missile systems, and further complicate the task of US and ROK missile defenses.
“Academy of Defense Science Conducts Important Weapons Tests,” Rodong Sinmun, January 28, 2022.
“Kim Jong Un Makes Commemorative Speech at Defence Development Exhibition,” Rodong Sinmun, October 12, 2021.
“Academy of Defense Science Conducts Important Weapons Tests,” Rodong Sinmun.
See: Vann H. Van Diepen, “It’s the Launcher, Not the Missile: Initial Evaluation of North Korea’s Rail-Mobile Missile Launches,” 38 North, September 17, 2021, https://www.38north.org/2021/09/its-the-launcher-not-the-missile-initial-evaluation-of-north-koreas-rail-mobile-missile-launches; Vann H. Van Diepen, “Implications of North Korea’s January 14 and 17 Short-Range Ballistic Missile Launches,” 38 North, January 25, 2022, https://www.38north.org/2022/01/implications-of-north-koreas-january-14-and-17-short-range-ballistic-missile-launches; and Vann H. Van Diepen, “North Korea’s ‘New Type Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile’: More Political Than Military Significance,” 38 North, October 22, 2021, https://www.38north.org/2021/10/north-koreas-new-type-submarine-launched-ballistic-missile-more-political-than-military-significance.
See: James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, “The CNS North Korea Missile Test Database,” Nuclear Threat Initiative, https://www.nti.org/analysis/articles/cns-north-korea-missile-test-database/; and Ankit Panda, Twitter post, January 27, 2022, 4:38 p.m., https://twitter.com/nktpnd/status/1486815792079462403.
This 20-km-apogee flight has been referred to as a “depressed trajectory” (see Ankit Panda, Twitter post, January 27, 2022, 4:38 p.m., https://twitter.com/nktpnd/status/1486815792079462403), which is correct. But it is important to note that any trajectory lower than a minimum-energy one is “depressed,” and thus, most KN-23 (and KN-24) flights have been on “depressed trajectories” even though they had much higher apogees than 20 km.