The Military Logic Behind North Korea’s Missile Medley
It is understandable that, even during the most severe European security crisis in decades, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken conferred with the Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong in Hawaii. The three governments urgently need a collective response to the increasingly belligerent stance the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has pursued this year. For instance, the DPRK conducted more tests this January than any other month in its history and resumed testing after the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. Furthermore, indications that North Korea is building a new missile base and new activity at the Punggye-ri Nuclear Testing Site for the first time in four years suggest that further missile testing is likely, including of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). On March 10, the US Department of Defense announced that the DRPK missile tests on February 26 and March 4 aimed to advance the development of precisely such a system, ending the moratorium on ICBM tests in force since November 2017.
According to a United Nations (UN) group of experts monitoring North Korean-related sanctions, the DPRK has exploited purloined cryptocurrencies and other cyber thefts to sustain a robust missile and nuclear weapons development program. The US intelligence community warns that even resumed nuclear weapons tests are possible. For more than a year, the DPRK has disregarded US and South Korean proposals to resume arms control talks and other negotiations. Though the United States imposed additional sanctions on the DPRK in response to recent missile launches, Chinese and Russian opposition has prevented the UN Security Council from taking a strong collective stand against these tests, which violate multiple UN Security Council resolutions.
Multiple reasons might explain the sudden surge in DPRK missile testing. One possibility is that North Korea is attempting to coerce the US and its regional allies into reducing sanctions, accepting its missile tests as a legitimate or at least unavoidable element of its defense policy, or securing recognition of the DPRK as a nuclear weapons state. The North may also seek to exacerbate the growing divisions among the DPRK’s main interlocutors, such as between the United States and China, South Korea and Japan and the US and Russia. Another explanation might be that the DPRK hopes to exploit America’s perceived weakness following the flawed Afghanistan withdrawal and its preoccupation with other issues, such as the conflict in Ukraine. Other reasons could be that North Korea aims to stay ahead in its missile competition with the Republic of Korea (ROK) or advance longstanding weapons development programs. Internally, the DPRK leadership may aim to impress domestic audiences or mark significant historical anniversaries over the next few weeks. The surge in testing also advances Kim Jong Un’s declaration at the Eighth Party Congress of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea that the DPRK would enhance its arsenal of advanced missiles and other strategic weaponry.
Since the North has so many reasons to develop and test missiles, halting this DPRK missile display anytime soon will prove problematic. The new ROK government and its allies will need to focus for now on reinforcing their defense and deterrent capabilities while seeking off-ramps to avert escalation and a means of dialogue to hedge against dangerous mutual misperceptions.
Deterrence and Defense
Notwithstanding these possibilities, the North’s efforts to field a fleet of next-generation missiles has military logic. The DPRK will likely need several more years of testing to operationalize these new delivery systems. Once they enter into service, though, these missiles could eventually help Pyongyang deter military actions against the DPRK in peacetime, fight foreign forces in wartime, challenge the credibility of US security guarantees to South Korea and Japan, and provide the North with the additional means for coercing other countries. The missiles can also raise the risks of crises, wars and escalation by potentially making DPRK decision makers more confident about employing force, controlling conflicts, achieving rapid war gains and deterring or defeating US counteractions.
North Korean defense policymakers are likely concerned that the Pentagon would employ conventional precision-strike systems to preemptively destroy the DPRK’s nuclear forces, command-and-control systems and other strategic capabilities. Doubts about assured deterrence capacity have spurred countries to invest in offensive strike systems to achieve effective retaliation, notwithstanding missile defenses and other challenges to their deterrents. Like others, North Korean strategists may interpret the brutal Russian assault on Ukraine as a reminder of the danger weaker countries face when they lack effective nuclear deterrents. Having the capacity to threaten offensive and retaliatory strikes against US soil, with even a small number of ICBMs, is important for the DRPK to deter US attacks.
In addition, the DPRK is acquiring more advanced intermediate- and shorter-range missiles to attack US forward-based forces, US and allied bases, and other priority targets. Weakening Washington’s extended deterrence guarantees to its allies and partners in Asia further enhances the North’s coercive capacity to intimidate these countries. For example, North Korea can leverage its improved deterrence against US strikes on its territory to make its threats of attacking other states more credible.
In its most recent five-year plan, the DPRK leadership designated developing hypersonic weapons as a top priority. There are two common types of hypersonic delivery systems, which by definition, travel at five or more times greater than the speed of sound. Hypersonic glide vehicles are delivered on a ballistic missile into the upper atmosphere and then glide toward a terrestrial target. Hypersonic ballistic or cruise missiles employ a rocket or scramjet engine to attain sustained hypersonic speed.
Since September 2021, the DPRK has announced three tests of hypersonic weapons. Though the capabilities of these prototypes remain contested, North Korea has demonstrated its stubborn determination and consistent progress in developing defense technologies. Prudent planning mandates preparing for the North’s possible fielding of one or both types of specially designed hypersonic vehicles in the next few years. In response to the DPRK and Chinese progress in this area, Japan and the United States are enhancing their defense industrial cooperation in the hypersonic field.
Since hypersonic systems pose a different threat profile than North Korea’s other delivery systems, they can hold ROK and US assets at risk in novel ways, which could change when and how the North might launch strikes against targets. In particular, hypersonic systems can better circumvent present-day missile defenses due to their combination of sustained rapid speed, increased maneuverability, nontraditional flight paths and other characteristics. For example, they could fly below the preferred targeting profile of the US and ROK Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile systems in South Korea, which are designed to intercept missiles at higher altitudes, but above the optimal range for lower-range interceptors like the US Patriot or the Korea Air and Missile Defense system. The wing design of some hypersonic systems allows for greater lateral and vertical maneuvers along a shallower trajectory than traditional missiles that fly along more parabolic paths. Compared with slower missiles, hypersonic missiles also decrease the response time available to defenders.
Instability and Preemption
Hypersonic missiles can give North Korea an additional means to strike first in a potential conflict. Due to their likely limited number, the North would have the incentive to use them early in a conflict before losing them to a ROK-US strike. The DPRK could employ hypersonic systems to quickly attack time-sensitive, mobile and other high-priority command, control, logistical and transportation targets. By removing these critical systems from the battlefield, DPRK hypersonic systems can facilitate follow-on attacks by the North’s more numerous, non-hypersonic missiles and other weapons against other targets.
The novel delivery vehicles the DPRK has tested since the beginning of the year are, like many of the North’s other missiles, typically dual-use systems that can carry either conventional or nuclear warheads. Arming delivery systems with nuclear warheads can amplify their effects by increasing their physical-psychological impacts and compensating for inaccuracies, defenses and other factors.
North Korea has engaged in an intense missile testing program in recent months. Besides the unprecedented number of these launches in such a short time span, the new systems display novel capabilities, such as hypersonic glide. Several factors are likely behind this surge, which looks likely to continue and even escalate to the renewed launching of ICBMs. Even if conventionally armed, North Korea’s emerging missile capabilities could make DPRK leaders more confident about successfully employing force, making rapid military gains, and deterring or defeating US-ROK defenses. Newly elected South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and his international partners must augment their deterrent and defense capabilities while developing additional means to manage these new challenges.
For a comprehensive review of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and their means of delivery, see: Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda, “North Korean nuclear weapons, 2021,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 77, no. 4, (2021): 222-236, DOI: 10.1080/00963402.2021.1940803, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/00963402.2021.1940803; and Sang-Hyun Lee, “Asymmetric WMD Threats: DPRK Nuclear, Cyber, and Bio-Chemical Weapons Capabilities,” Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament, December 2021, https://cms.apln.network/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/Sang-Hyun-Lee_APLN-Special-Report.pdf.