On April 16, North Korea tested a new, unnamed short-range ballistic missile (SRBM), claiming the test would improve the operation of its “tactical nukes.” The new missile would add incrementally to the substantial existing artillery and SRBM threat against South Korean and US forces within about 100 km of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). But it would not add meaningfully to North Korea’s tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) capability, given its longstanding deployment of large numbers of other nuclear-capable SRBMs, such as the Scud and the new KN-23. More significant is Pyongyang’s rhetorical emphasis on “tactical nukes,” clearly an effort to heighten South Korean and US concerns about the potential use of such weapons. Observers have rightly noted that the North’s claims, in conjunction with renewed activity at its nuclear test site, could mean Pyongyang plans to test a TNW in the near future. Although such a test would be logical (and probably required to field a small, low-yield TNW), it is still not clear what exactly the North means by “tactical nukes,” and there are logical reasons to test various other types of nuclear weapons as well.
Information to Date
On April 17, Guam’s Office of Civil Defense reported “the recent launch of an unidentified projectile out of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).” Later that day, North Korea issued a brief statement reporting that Kim Jong Un “observed the test-fire of a new-type tactical guided weapon.” North Korean media reported that the successful test “is of great significance in drastically improving the firepower of the frontline long-range artillery units and enhancing the efficiency in the operation of tactical nukes of the DPRK and diversification of their firepower missions.” The accompanying photos showed a new type of solid-propellant SRBM fired from one of four rectangular launch canisters mounted on a small, wheeled, road-mobile launcher. In the wake of Pyongyang’s announcement, the Republic of Korea’s (South Korea) Joint Chiefs of Staff reported that the North had launched two projectiles on April 16 to an altitude of about 25 km, a range of about 110 km, and a top speed of Mach 4.0 or less.
The unnamed new missile appears to draw on the earlier KN-23 solid-propellant SRBM. Based on the photos, launch vehicle and trajectory, however, it is a much smaller system with a much shorter range (some 110 km vs. 450 km for the full-payload KN-23). This range appears consistent with the North’s claims that this missile will improve “frontline long-range artillery units,” akin to the role of South Korea’s similar-appearing 180-km range Korea Tactical Surface-to-Surface Missile (KTSSM).
The new missile has a similar range to Pyongyang’s earlier KN-02 Toksa SRBM (120-170 km), making it unclear whether it will fulfill a different role. If the new missile is derived from the KN-23, it has the potential to be more accurate than the older KN-02. It may also be guided throughout flight as the KN-23 is believed to be, enabling it to perform unexpected maneuvers that would complicate the task of US-ROK missile defenses.
The most significant aspect of the North Korean statement about the recent test was its association of the new missile with “the operation of tactical nukes of the DPRK.” This is the first time Pyongyang has linked a specific delivery system with TNW. But that does not necessarily mean the new missile is North Korea’s first delivery system for such warheads or that TNW are only now being deployed. A few key points to keep in mind:
- Analysts have long assessed that North Korea’s earlier SRBMs are capable of carrying nuclear weapons.
- By noting that the new missile is “enhancing the efficiency in the operation of tactical nukes of the DPRK and diversification of their firepower missions,” the March 17 statement implies that such warheads have already been deployed with earlier delivery systems.
- Kim Jong Un’s January 2021 Eighth Party Congress report noted that Pyongyang had by that time already developed the technology “to miniaturize, lighten and standardize nuclear weapons and to make them tactical ones,” and that it had “proceeded to develop ultra-modern tactical nuclear weapons including new-type tactical rockets.” It also sought to “make nuclear weapons smaller and lighter for more tactical uses …to develop tactical nuclear weapons to be used as various means according to the purposes of operational duty and targets of strike in modern warfare.”
If deployed, the new missile would add only incrementally to the substantial existing North Korean artillery and SRBM threat against South Korean and US forces within about 100 km of the DMZ. If fielded in substantial numbers, it could free up some longer-range SRBMs to strike targets deeper inside the ROK—although producing the new missile may come at the expense of additional KN-23 production if the two missiles use the same production infrastructure. If armed with conventional warheads, its probable greater accuracy than the Scud and KN-02 means fewer missiles would be needed per strike to be confident of destroying targets. If it has KN-23-like maneuverability, the new missile’s improved survivability against missile defenses also would allow using fewer missiles per target than earlier systems.
It is unlikely the new missile will add meaningfully to North Korea’s TNW capability, given its longstanding deployment of large numbers of other nuclear-capable SRBMs. More significant than the new missile is Pyongyang’s choice of the April 16 tests to emphasize its “tactical nukes.” It clearly is using the opportunity to heighten South Korean and US concern about such weapons, as well as tout its technological progress and its successes in implementing the leadership’s military development plans.
Observers have been quite right to note the coincidence of the North’s April 17 statement with renewed activity at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site. If the North resumes nuclear testing, a TNW test would be logical—although we still do not know if, by “tactical nukes,” North Korea means:
- “regular” nukes on longer-range SRBMs used against battlefield and other tactical targets;
- shorter-range delivery systems equipped with “regular” nukes; and/or
- smaller, lower-yield nuclear weapons.
The latter probably would require nuclear testing. Based on Kim’s January 2021 report and its weapons development trends, however, North Korea would also have reason to test a thermonuclear weapon, a boosted fission weapon, or a smaller strategic weapon better suited for multiple-warhead missiles, among others.
“Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un Observes Test-fire of New-type Tactical Guided Weapon,” Rodong Sinmun, April 17, 2022.
“Great Programme for Struggle Leading Korean-style Socialist Construction to Fresh Victory: On Report Made by Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un at Eighth Congress of WPK,” DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs, January 9, 2021.