Understated but Still Important: North Korea’s First IRBM Test Since 2017
On January 30, North Korea conducted its seventh round of missile testing this year and its first launch of the Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) since 2017. It deliberately understated the recent launch by not overflying Japan; it also emphasized the technical and operational aspects of the test in its state media reporting rather than engaging in threatening political messaging, unlike the two 2017 launches. Nonetheless, the launch is important for North Korea’s missile force in two key ways. First, the continued success in Hwasong-12 launches and the North’s characterization of the missile as being on the cusp of, if not already at series production and operational deployment, underscore that IRBMs are a solid and enduring part of the North Korean ballistic missile threat landscape. Second, the resumption of IRBM launches makes it more likely that the first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launch in over four years will be occurring soon, reflecting a likely North Korean judgment that the benefits from resuming ICBM launches have increased and the costs are bearable.
Information to Date
South Korea and Japan reported that North Korea launched an IRBM on January 30, flying into the East Sea/Sea of Japan on a highly-lofted trajectory with a range of 800 km and an altitude/apogee of 2,000 km. The next day, a North Korean media report confirmed the state had conducted an “evaluation test-fire of Hwasong 12-type ground-to-ground intermediate- and long-range ballistic missile.”According to the report, “The test-fire was aimed to selectively evaluate the missile being produced and deployed and to verify the overall accuracy of the weapon system,” and the launch “was conducted by the highest-angle launch system…in consideration of the security of neighboring countries.” The launch reportedly “confirmed the accuracy, security and effectiveness of the operation of the Hwasong 12-type weapon system under production.” The statement was accompanied by photographs of a Hwasong-12 IRBM lifting off from a road-mobile launcher, the missile in the early boost phase and four photos said to be from “the earth image data taken from space by a camera installed at the missile warhead.”
This is the first launch of the Hwasong-12 since September 2017 and the seventh overall since the system’s first known flight in April 2017. This launch also is the fourth consecutive apparently successful launch of the system after the first three launches failed at various points in flight. Some key points to take away from this test include:
- Missile is apparently unchanged. There are no apparent visible differences between the missile in the photos from the latest launch and photos of the Hwasong-12 from 2017.The North Koreans did not mention any modifications, or anything about the “ampoulization” of the Hwasong-12 booster, as they had for the three “hypersonic missiles” tested in September 2021 and January 2022 that used a scaled-down Hwasong-12 booster. (“Ampoulization” apparently refers to preloading the missiles with liquid propellants at the factory and maintaining the fueled missile as a sealed unit for loading into the launcher.) Whether the Hwasong-12 is “ampoulized” or not, it uses the same storable liquid propellants as the “hypersonic missiles” (and the North’s liquid-propellant ICBMs) that inherently permit such missiles to be maintained pre-fueled and launch-ready for years.
- Lofted trajectory shows longer range. The trajectory flown in the latest launch is very similar to that in the May 2017 test, which prevented the missile from overflying Japan—presumably one of the “neighboring countries” the North said it took into consideration in choosing that flight path. In its two previous flights in August and September 2017, the missile overflew Japan to ranges of 2,700 and 3,700 km, respectively. These flights were the only launches of a North Korean IRBM or ICBM on an operationally realistic trajectory; all others—including all ICBMs—have been highly lofted. Based on the missile’s performance on January 30, it is estimated the Hwasong-12 could have flown on a lower trajectory to a range of some 4,300 to 4,500 km, making it able to reach Guam (as well as all of Taiwan and the Philippines, and of course, all of Japan and South Korea) from any point in North Korea. From northeast North Korea, the IRBM could reach the southwest end of the Aleutian Islands, including the missile tracking radar on Shemya Island.
- Series production and deployment ready or ongoing. North Korea’s characterization of the January 30 launch as an “evaluation test-fire…to selectively evaluate the missile being produced and deployed and to verify the overall accuracy” implies that the Hwasong-12 is already deployed/operational or is in the process of being deployed, and that the missile is in series production or just ready to begin such production. Interestingly, North Korea did not portray the launch as troop training for an operationally deployed unit, as it did for the January 14 launch of two rail-mobile KN-23 short-range ballistic missiles.
- Another technical, not political, announcement. The North Korean statement on the Hwasong-12 launch was devoid of policy/political content, sticking instead to technical matters. While this is very different from the North’s reporting of the 2017 IRBM launches, which were pointedly directed at the US threat, it is consistent with North Korean reporting of the other six missile launches conducted this year.
The January 30 Hwasong-12 launch has two important direct implications for North Korea’s ballistic missile force:
- North Korean IRBMs an enduring part of the force. The apparent success of the January 30 launch and its reported deployment status underscore that IRBMs are a solid and enduring part of the North Korean ballistic missile threat landscape. No longer being portrayed as a political messaging tool, the Hwasong-12 has a compelling military reason to exist: posing a deterrent threat to US territory and having the ability to disrupt bases in Guam (as well as the Philippines and farther-flung reaches of Japan) that could support US operations against North Korea. Moreover, the North is likely to continue to improve its IRBMs in the future. The Hwasong-12 poses a nuclear threat for now, but North Korea may at some point improve its missile guidance technology sufficiently to permit a viable conventional capability at IRBM range as well, allowing it to disrupt US operations on Guam during the conventional phase of a war. The North might even decide to develop the ability to deploy a few IRBMs with maneuvering reentry vehicles (MaRVs) to help suppress US missile defenses on Guam or even the Shemya radar. The Hwasong-12 also is a good candidate for rail-mobile deployment, with which the North is gaining experience using the KN-23, and a future solid-propellant IRBM would provide operational advantages.
- ICBM testing is more likely. A case can be made either way that launching an IRBM (as opposed to an ICBM) breached the limits on long-range missile flights Pyongyang imposed on itself in April 2018, and that it renounced in December 2019 and “reconsidered” breaching on January 19, 2022. Whether that Rubicon has already been crossed or not, the resumption of IRBM launches after over four years increases the likelihood that an ICBM launch will be occurring soon.
After over four years, and as underscored by the IRBM launch, the North probably now sees refraining from ICBM testing as imposing greater costs and providing fewer benefits than it has in recent years.
- North Korea probably regarded the two successful Hwasong-14 and one successful Hwasong-15 tests in 2017 as yielding an ICBM threat sufficiently credible and reliable to meet its objectives without further flight testing for some time. After four years without flight-testing, however, the credibility of that threat has objectively declined. North Korea’s push since the fall of 2021 to demonstrate that its missile force is technically capable and operationally credible is consistent with likely a desire to resume also fuels a desire to resume ICBM testing.
- Moreover, resumed flight testing is necessary to realize a number of follow-on ICBM developments that North Korea has revealed or committed itself to, including the new large road-mobile ICBM it paraded in October 2020, the solid-propellant ICBMs Kim Jong Un sought to “push ahead with the development of” in his report to the January 2021 Eighth Party Congress, and ICBMs with multiple warheads (highlighted in that same report) or even “hypersonic” payloads like the North has been testing on medium-range ballistic missiles.
- The US attitude toward North Korea has worsened since the advent of the launch hiatus, with no near-term prospect of improving, and US and UN sanctions have persisted. Having survived almost five years of US “maximum pressure,” as well as two years of self-imposed isolation due to the COVID pandemic, Pyongyang may not see resumed ICBM launches as resulting in appreciable additional economic costs. It also may regard worsening US relations with China and Russia over the past few years as reducing the likelihood those countries would permit the substantial increases in UN sanctions needed meaningfully to add to the already “maximum” pressure from US unilateral sanctions.
“Test-fire of Hwasong 12-type Ground-to-ground Intermediate- and Long-range Ballistic Missile Held,” Rodong Sinmun, January 31, 2022.
“6th Political Bureau Meeting of 8th C.C., WPK Held,” Korean Central News Agency, January 20, 2022.
“On Report Made by Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un at 8th Party Congress of WPK,” Korean Central News Agency, January 9, 2021.