While North Korean state media had reported that the March 24 launch of the Hwasong-17, Pyongyang’s newest and largest intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) recently showcased in its military parade was successful, South Korea’s defense ministry assessed the test to be of the earlier model, the smaller Hwasong-15. There is a highly compelling case that the images North Korea released of the March 24 test were in fact of the March 16 test of the Hwasong-17 prior to its in-flight failure. That deception, however, does not indicate what type of missile was launched on March 24. To date, the issue remains unresolved, with Japan continuing to assess the March 24 launch as a “new type” of ICBM. The US is not on record either way, and unnamed US sources are ambiguous.
An earlier 38 North article assessed the implications if the missile launched on March 24 was, in fact, a Hwasong-17. This article examines the possibility that it was a Hwasong-15 and North Korea perpetrated a deception. It concludes that:
- It is plausible that the North launched a Hwasong-15 or modified version and achieved the performance demonstrated in the March 24 test, although conducting another Hwasong-17 launch so soon after the March 16 failure would be well in character for Pyongyang.
- A successful Hwasong-15 launch would not increase the North Korean threat because that missile has probably been operationally deployed since 2017. It would, however, maintain or bolster North Korea’s confidence in the reliability of its deployed force and, therefore, of its nuclear deterrent threat against the US homeland.
- North Korea would almost certainly expect that the US would determine the true identity of the missile launched on March 24. Therefore, if it did try to portray a Hwasong-15 launch as a Hwasong-17, it presumably: 1) calculated that the positive effects of underscoring its ICBM capability to the outside world would outweigh the downsides of later being exposed; 2) focused on messaging to its domestic audience, or 3) both.
While it is entirely credible that Kim Jong Un may have staged a “big lie” for domestic political purposes, this hypothesis raises a number of key questions that make it an unsatisfying explanation—even if it ends up being true. The US government almost certainly knows what was tested, while South Korea and Japan are unlikely to be able to determine this without US data. Hopefully, we will find out the truth at some point. In the meantime, further testing of either ICBM remains possible.
Can the Hwasong-15 Deliver the Altitude and Range of the March 24 Launch?
The ICBM launched on March 24 demonstrated a maximum altitude of some 6,200 km over a distance of approximately 1,100 km on a flight of about 71 minutes, sufficient to achieve a range of over 15,000 km if flown on a traditional ballistic missile trajectory. In its first and only known prior flight in November 2017, the Hwasong-15 demonstrated a maximum altitude of 4,475 km over a distance of 950 km on a 53-minute flight, translating into the ability to deliver a 1,000 kg payload to a range of at least 12,000 km and upwards of 13,000 km (far enough to reach the entire continental US).
It would be possible for the Hwasong-15 to achieve the greater range capability demonstrated on March 24. But to do so, the missile would have to have been launched with a substantially smaller payload (perhaps 800 kg less, according to one source); its booster would have to have been modified to deliver substantially greater performance or some combination of the two.
Why Would North Korea Launch a Hwasong-15 Instead of Another Hwasong-17?
The South Korean Ministry of National Defense reportedly assesses that the short period between the March 16 failed launch of the Hwasong-17 and the March 24 launch was insufficient for North Korea to have diagnosed the cause of the earlier failure. Therefore, instead of launching another Hwasong-17, Pyongyang launched a Hwasong-15, which the Ministry suggested provided the North with higher confidence of success than retesting the Hwasong-17, given its previous performance. This is certainly plausible.
On the other hand, while most countries’ missile programs would wait to diagnose and fix the cause of an in-flight failure before conducting another launch of an important missile system, North Korea does not have a “normal” missile program. For example, it conducted its second test of the Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) just 11 days after the failure of the first; a third test 13 days after the failure of the second; and a fourth (finally successful) test 15 days after the failure of the third.
More so than in other countries, Pyongyang’s missile testing is almost certainly driven primarily by political over technical considerations—if Kim Jong Un wanted another test of the Hwasong-17 eight days after the failure, he would surely get one. By that same token, if he wanted a Hwasong-15 test to make it look like there was a successful test of the Hwasong-17 just eight days after the failure, it would be done as well.
That said, the Hwasong-15 has only been tested once, and that was more than four years ago. Realistically, that performance would only provide slightly higher confidence in a successful flight than the newer Hwasong-17. If the North launched a substantially modified Hwasong-15 on March 24, that missile would be even less likely to succeed on its first try.
What Would Be the Military Significance of Such a Hwasong-15 Launch?
The Hwasong-15 has probably been operationally deployed in North Korea since 2017. So, if that missile was launched on March 24, it would not represent any increase in Pyongyang’s threat. The launch would, however, maintain or bolster North Korea’s confidence in the performance and reliability of its deployed Hwasong-15s, associated production line and its nuclear deterrent threat against the US homeland. This is because of the apparent success of both booster stages and stage separation during the March 24 launch, the areas where the bulk of missile reliability problems tend to occur. But North Korea’s confidence would not extend to the payload portion of the system, given the likely need to have used a much smaller payload than in the deployed force to achieve the kind of performance the March 24 launch demonstrated.
If that launch used an upgraded Hwasong-15 booster, its military significance would depend directly on the nature and extent of the modifications—about which we currently have no information. Since the original Hwasong-15 is already capable of reaching targets throughout the continental US, the most militarily significant improvement that a modified booster could demonstrate would be the capability to deliver more payload weight to the same range. If a modified Hwasong-15’s payload capability was substantially greater (say, by a few hundred kilograms), it could deliver a larger-yield single nuclear warhead than the original version or perhaps make it easier for the missile to carry multiple warheads. We do not know how much or what type of payload was carried on the March 24 launch.
What Else Would North Korea Gain by Portraying a Hwasong-15 Launch as a Hwasong-17?
North Korea would almost certainly expect, based on over 30 years of experience, that US intelligence would be able to determine the true identity of the missile launched on March 24. Moreover, on March 10, the US had just exposed Pyongyang’s attempt to conceal the Hwasong-17 ICBM association of the February 27 and March 5 launches, which it claimed were for testing reconnaissance satellite components. Therefore, North Korea is highly unlikely to have expected a Hwasong-15/-17 ruse to have fooled or to have gone unexposed to the outside world.
That would seem to provide a powerful reason for the March 24 launch to have in fact been of the Hwasong-17, with the North’s deception limited to portraying images of the March 16 Hwasong-17 launch (prior to its in-flight failure) as being of the later launch. Perhaps the angle or quality of coverage was better during the earlier test. If, however, Pyongyang did try to portray a March 24 Hwasong-15 launch as a Hwasong-17, it presumably:
- calculated that the positive effects of underscoring its ICBM capability to the outside world and raising concerns about a “big new missile” would outweigh the downsides of later being exposed;
- was messaging to a domestic audience, not worrying about being exposed in a lie to the outside world; or
The North clearly received a huge foreign media boon from reporting on its March 25 announcement (with images) of the previous day’s test of a Hwasong-17. The groundwork had already been laid for this to be widely accepted, given previous reporting of the Hwasong-17’s use in the February 27 and March 5 launches and the foreign reporting of the March 24 test demonstrating greater flight time and boost capability than previous ICBMs. The sheer size of the Hwasong-17, and its suitability for carrying “scary” multiple warheads, added to the appeal of such media coverage. If this was a Hwasong-15 launch rather than a -17, Pyongyang may have calculated that the propaganda, prestige and deterrence effects of promoting it as a -17 were substantial enough to offset any negative publicity of the deception being revealed, particularly since the North had demonstrated an ICBM capable of striking the entire US either way.
The South Korean Defense endorsed the idea that the ruse was domestically focused, especially since residents of Pyongyang reportedly witnessed the missile explosion on March 16. (It should be noted that Seoul might have its own domestic political reasons for being so insistent that the March 24 launch was a ruse.) There was clearly an important domestic dimension to North Korea’s claims about the March 24 launch and the associated video featuring Kim Jong Un. Kim certainly could have staged a “big lie” for domestic political purposes, but this hypothesis raises a number of key questions that make it an unsatisfying explanation, even if it ends up being true. These include:
- Was Kim so concerned for his domestic credibility and prestige that he felt the need to quickly kludge together a reduced-payload Hwasong-15 launch that has no other evident programmatic or operational purpose, or the first launch of modified Hwasong-15, along with an elaborate cover story?
- If so, why could Kim not regain the same amount of domestic prestige and credibility by accurately acknowledging the successful launch of a Hwasong-15 ICBM or new variant demonstrating greater range capability?
- Couldn’t he have instead just ignored the failure, which North Korea still has not acknowledged (while actively denying “loud sounds and flashes” over Pyongyang), as it apparently ignored the US exposure of the “satellite components test” fraud?
- Or, if this was truly for a domestic audience, why didn’t he simply stage a propaganda event claiming a successful Hwasong-17 launch on March 24, using the March 16 images, which the North Korean population would have no way to refute?
Can’t We Find Out the Truth?
North Korea is unlikely to admit to a Hwasong-15/-17 ruse if it perpetrated one; and if the March 24 launch really was a Hwasong-17, Pyongyang has already acknowledged that fact. In theory, we do not have to rely on North Korea’s claims. The US government almost certainly knows what was tested, while South Korea and Japan are unlikely to be able to determine this without US data. South Korean sources claim the US agrees that a Hwasong-15 was tested on March 24, and one US source quotes an unnamed US official to that effect. On the other hand, Japan has continued to maintain publicly that a “new type” of ICBM was launched (although, to be fair, it has not said “Hwasong-17”), and US officials were unwilling to privately provide another media outlet with information on what was tested. One US government source was even quoted saying, “Washington is unlikely to make its findings public due to the split views held by Seoul and Tokyo.” To date, the US Department of Defense Press Secretary John Kirby has only said:
I will just tell you that we assess that that launch was a probable ICBM. And we continue to analyze the test in close coordination with our allies and partners to include the South Koreans. I don’t have an update for you beyond that.
Hopefully, at some point, we will find out from the US, either officially or otherwise, what actually was launched on March 24. Indeed, if North Korea did perpetrate a ruse in this case, one would think the US would be as highly motivated to expose the fact and show up Pyongyang as it was in the “satellite testing” case. In the meantime, further testing of either the Hwasong 15 or 17 remains possible, although Hwasong-15 ICBMs are likely already operationally deployed.