On March 24, 2022, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) launched an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The next day, it announced it was the Hwasong-17—the new system first seen in a parade in October 2020. However, since the launch, it has become unclear whether the missile was actually the Hwasong-17, the smaller Hwasong-15 ICBM, which was previously flight tested in 2017, or a modified version thereof. This article assesses the implications if the launch was, indeed, that of the Hwasong-17. A future article will address the implications if the launch was instead of a Hwasong-15 or a modified version, including the significance of North Korea claiming that a Hwasong-15 launch was of a Hwasong-17.
This would be the first launch of the Hwasong-17 missile that successfully demonstrated the boost power of an ICBM. The launches that occurred on February 27 and March 5 of this year and that were revealed by the US to “involve” the Hwasong-17 only demonstrated medium range, while the March 16 launch of what was probably the new system failed early in flight. If the March 24 test was the Hwasong-17, it would have a number of key implications, including:
- Demonstrating the ability to reach anywhere in the US with a large payload, just as analysts had assessed based on the missile’s dimensions (performance challenging to extract from the Hwasong-15);
- Demonstrating the ICBM is also capable of putting satellites in low-Earth orbit (LEO) and that it can be used to launch warheads against the US from the south (flying from North Korea over Antarctica) rather than directly from the west; and
- Suggesting that further Hwasong-17 launches are likely.
It should be noted as well that the March 24 test apparently did not test multiple warheads or associated technology. Despite many analysts’ association of the Hwasong-17 with multiple warheads, they remain only a potential payload for the system.
Regardless of what ICBM was involved, the launch was accompanied by extensive political messaging about North Korea’s military and technological capabilities, and commitment to retaining a nuclear deterrent, unlike most launches in 2022.
However, the reality is that the Hwasong-17 will only make a significant military and technological addition to the North’s existing ICBMs if it is equipped with a multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) payload. It remains to be seen if, when and how extensively North Korea will deploy MIRVs on the Hwasong-17 and, therefore, whether this new missile will make a real difference.
What the Test Did and Did Not Show
On Range and Payload
When the Hwasong-17 was first unveiled during a DPRK military parade in October 2020, it was widely assessed, based on the missile’s length and diameter, that it would be capable of delivering a larger payload (1,700 kg, compared to 1,000 kg for the Hwasong-15) to anywhere in the US than the North’s previous, smaller Hwasong-14 and -15 ICBMs. This capability was successfully demonstrated in the March 24 test. By flying to an altitude of some 6,200 km over a distance of approximately 1,100 km, the missile exhibited sufficient flight time and boost energy to achieve a range of over 15,000 km if flown on a traditional ballistic missile trajectory—compared to upwards of 13,000 km for the Hwasong-15.
Furthermore, the Hwasong-17 had been previously assessed to use two twin-chamber rocket engines that were based on the Soviet RD-250 engine in the first stage. This was confirmed in images released by the North after the test. However, the second-stage propulsion system remains unknown.
On Multiple Warheads
Despite some media reports claiming that the Hwasong-17 “is thought to carry multiple warheads,” the only thing that is known for certain at this point is that it would be a good candidate to carry them due to its larger diameter and greater payload capability than previous North Korean ICBMs.
North Korea’s press statement about the March 24 launch was silent on the payload carried, and there has been no information to date from other sources on this matter. In addition, there was no mention of multiple warhead-related testing in the United States’ March 10 statement, which revealed that the February 27 and March 5 launches that North Korea claimed were related to reconnaissance satellite testing actually “involved” the Hwasong-17 and were likely intended to test unspecified “elements” of that system. The possibility that the “attitude control devices” North Korea claimed to test on these launches were for, or could contribute to, a post-boost vehicle (PBV) to dispense MIRVs remains unconfirmed.
MIRVs are not the only appropriate use of the Hwasong-17’s larger diameter and payload-carrying capability, even if they would make a lot of sense militarily if Pyongyang has the technical capability to develop them. The large ICBM would also be good for carrying the following:
- A multiple reentry vehicle (MRV) payload, where the warheads are dispensed shotgun-style without being independently targeted by a PBV;
- A very high-yield single warhead, as China and Russia still deploy;
- Highly realistic, and therefore heavy, decoy reentry vehicles to help one or more standard warheads penetrate missile defenses; or
- More missile defense penetration aids of other types in conjunction with any other type of payload. (See below for another possible payload option that is unrelated to multiple warheads.)
It should also be noted that the only public indication of North Korea having any interest in developing multiple warheads was when Kim Jong Un reported in January 2021 that the country was researching “the guidance technology for [a] multi-warhead rocket.”  To the extent that what a Hwasong-17 launch “really represents is North Korea’s steady progress toward the ability to put multiple nuclear warheads on targets in the United States in the event of a war,” is because of the successful test of a suitable booster as opposed to having anything to do with multiple warheads themselves.
On Space Launch Capability
The boost energy demonstrated in the March 24 flight also confirms that the Hwasong-17 would be capable of putting a satellite into LEO. As previously noted, the new ICBM has more capable rocket motors and more energetic liquid propellants than the Taepodong-2/Unha-3 booster used in previous North Korean satellite launches. Therefore, it may also be able to launch a satellite about twice as heavy as the Unha is able to carry. Furthermore, the Hwasong-17 could do this from a road-mobile launcher, which would allow for a satellite launch to be conducted more quickly, with less warning and less vulnerability to an attack than the large, fixed-launcher Unha.
Another potential use for the level of boost capability demonstrated by the Hwasong-17 would be with a Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS) payload. This was an option that was assessed for the new missile soon after its original unveiling but is not known to have been discussed by the North Koreans. Instead of flying directly to its target on a typical ballistic missile trajectory, the FOBS warhead is put into a low orbit and is then de-orbited over the target using retro-rockets prior to completing a full revolution of the earth. This option would be of potential value to the DPRK in making it possible to launch a strike against the US from the south (flying from North Korea over Antarctica) as opposed to from the west like a traditional ICBM, thereby avoiding US missile defenses in Alaska.
On Political Messaging
The March 24 launch stands out for the direct and extensive North Korean political messaging that accompanied it, which was starkly different from the succinct, overwhelmingly technical and operational focus of Pyongyang’s messaging around all the missile launches in January 2022. The political dimension of the launch, especially for the North Korean domestic audience, is particularly evident in the overproduced promotional video of the launch shown on state television and Kim Jong Un’s participation in it.
According to the statement accompanying the launch, it was intended to convey:
- North Korean power and self-reliance;
- Reliable nuclear deterrence;
- Industrial might;
- Technological prowess; and
- The priority of building up the North’s military capability.
Most importantly, in light of common Western characterizations of the launch (and most other DPRK missile activities) as a North Korean effort to provoke a favorable negotiating outcome with the US, the North proclaimed that “steadfast is the strategic choice and determination of our Party and government to keep bolstering the powerful nuclear war deterrence qualitatively and quantitatively” (i.e., it does not intend to trade its nuclear deterrent away).
This was underscored in a March 28 North Korean report on Kim’s meeting with persons involved in the development of the Hwasong-17. The report referred to: “the absolute force of self-defense that can not be bartered nor be bought with anything,” and Kim’s declaration that “we would continue to attain the defence up-building goal and develop much more powerful strike means to equip our army.”
Pyongyang also clearly was prepared to weather whatever increased international political and sanctions blowback resulted from acknowledging the new launch to be an ICBM rather than trying to blunt the impact by claiming a satellite-related purpose.
On Further Launches
North Korea did not characterize the Hwasong-17 as nearing series production or operational deployment, as it did with several other types of missiles it launched in January. Instead, by stating that the missile will “be [future tense] operated by the strategic forces of the DPRK” and “will creditably perform its mission and duty,” it implied that these milestones have yet to be reached and that further flight testing will occur. The failure that occurred early in the boost phase of the probable Hwasong-17 that was launched on March 16 also seems to provide a good reason for further flight testing, although North Korea has previously deployed missile systems after only one successful test, apparently including the Hwasong-15 ICBM. Further testing would almost certainly be required if the North intends to deploy the Hwasong-17 with multiple warheads since, as previously mentioned above, this type of payload has apparently not yet been demonstrated.
Important Unknowns Remain
Finally, in evaluating the significance of the March 24 test and the Hwasong-17 missile system, it is important to remember that the following is currently unknown:
- Why the March 16 launch failed, how successful the March 24 launch was—much less which missile was actually flown–and what development work remains to be done on the Hwasong-17, including how many more developmental flight tests will be conducted;
- Whether North Korea will actually bring the Hwasong-17 into serial production and operational deployment;
- How many Hwasong-17 launchers and missiles may be deployed; and
- What type(s) of payload(s) may be deployed, and in particular, how many warheads any MIRV version would carry, and how long MIRV development would take.
The Bottom Line
If it was the Hwasong-17 that was launched on March 24, no significant new insights were provided. Instead, it only confirmed outside analysts’ prior assessments of the missile’s capabilities. The Hwasong-17 will only make a significant military and technological addition to North Korea’s existing ICBMs if it is equipped with a MIRV payload. This is because, for a few years now, the North has apparently already operationally deployed ICBMs with nuclear warheads that are capable of striking anywhere in the US, and those missiles use the same type of rocket engine as the Hwasong-17, albeit in different configurations.
It remains to be seen if, when and how extensively North Korea will deploy MIRVs on the Hwasong-17 and, therefore, whether the new missile will make a real difference.
See Colin Zwirko, “Imagery casts doubt over North Korea’s Hwasong-17 ICBM claims,” NK Pro, March 25, 2022, https://www.nknews.org/pro/imagery-casts-doubt-over-north-koreas-hwasong-17-icbm-claims; “Allies view N. Korea’s ICBM launch as involving Hwasong-15, not new missile: sources,” Yonhap News Agency, March 27, 2022, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20220327002200325; Michelle Ye Hee Lee, “North Korea’s latest missile test may not have been what it claimed,” The Washington Post, March 28, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/03/28/north-korea-missile-hwasong; and Timothy W. Martin, Dasl Yoon, and Nancy A. Youssef, “North Korea’s ICBM Intrigue: Is Latest Missile New or Old Technology?,” The Wall Street Journal, April 1, 2022, https://www.wsj.com/articles/north-koreas-icbm-intrigue-is-latest-missile-new-or-old-technology-11648819821.
“Striking Demonstration of Great Military Muscle of Juche Korea: Successful Test-Launch of New-Type ICBM Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un Guides Test Launch of ICBM Hwasongpho-17,” Rodong Sinmun, March 25, 2022.
For example, see “N. Korea fires apparent ICBM toward East Sea.” Yonhap News Agency, March 24, 2022. https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20220324007452325; and Choe Sang-Hun, “North Korea still faces technological hurdles to clear in its ICBM quest,” The New York Times, March 24, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/live/2022/03/24/world/north-korea-icbm-launch.
“Striking Demonstration of Great Military Muscle of Juche Korea: Successful Test-Launch of New-Type ICBM Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un Guides Test Launch of ICBM Hwasongpho-17,” Rodong Sinmun.
However, such an attack would not be able to arrive undetected. It would be detected upon launch by US infrared intelligence satellites as a Hwasong-17 flying to the south in an orbital trajectory, and the warhead would be seen coming over the southern horizon flying toward the US by ballistic missile early warning radars.
Supersuhui, “주체조선의 절대적힘, 군사적강세 힘있게 과시－신형대륙간탄도미싸일시험발사 단행경애하는 김정은동지께서 대륙간탄도미싸일 《화성포－17》형시험발사를 지도하시였다,” YouTube, march 25, 2022, video, 15:14, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0mA3Gik3paM. Also see Alistair Coleman, “North Korea Hwasong-17 launch gets Hollywood-style effects,” BBC News, March 25, 2022, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-60877578.