North Korea on October 10 published the first direct commentary on its ballistic missile activities in over six months, focusing on the period between September 25 and October 9 and including a score of photographs. The statement had four main points:
- Foot-stomping “tactical nukes.” The bulk of the statement makes the case that Pyongyang has an operationally deployed, reliable, and varied delivery capability for “tactical” nuclear weapons—now including the KN-23 and KN-25 short-range ballistic missile (SRBMs). We still do not know the size, yield, or number of the “tactical nukes” being touted, but the North clearly sees substantial propaganda and deterrent value in brandishing them.
- Deterring preemption by threatening a new basing mode. The most unexpected reveal in the statement was that the SRBM launched on September 25 was a KN-23 fired from an “underwater silo” located “under” an inland reservoir. Most likely, the launch came from a submersible barge/platform containing the “silo” that was submerged beneath the waters of the reservoir. It remains to be seen whether such a capability actually is deployed as it makes little sense for SRBMs. While technically it may show more promise for longer-range missiles or as an alternative to submarines, it is more important in the near-term as another demonstration that North Korean missiles can survive against revived South Korean threats of “decapitation” and “preemption.”
- Revealing a “new-type” Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM). The statement and photos also revealed that the missile launched over Japan on October 4 was a “new-type” IRBM. It currently is unclear whether the missile is a modified version of the previously-tested Hwasong-12 or entirely new, but the launch underscored North Korea’s ability to target Japan and Guam.
- Making a “strong military reaction warning” to the Alliance. The statement puts the recent missile activities squarely in the political and deterrent context of purportedly reacting to a series of recent and ongoing US-ROK combined military drills. The North is making clear that it is not intimidated by, and wants to show it has a credible deterrent against, the alliance’s military moves and capabilities.
Unlike North Korean statements on missile activities earlier in the year, which focused largely on technical issues rather than policy/political ones, the October 10 statement had substantial political and deterrent content and its technical details were intended to convey such messages. As the statement itself notes, North Korea clearly is not interested in negotiations on its nuclear or missile programs anytime soon.
Foot-Stomping “Tactical Nukes”
The bulk of the North Korean statement is devoted to making the case that Pyongyang has an operationally deployed, reliable, and varied delivery capability for “tactical” nuclear weapons. It pointedly described the missile launches from September 25 to October 9 as “military drills” of “units for the operation of tactical nukes…under the simulation of an actual war at different levels.” The North previously had only associated the new, small SRBM first tested in April 2022 with “tactical nukes. The October 10 statement and accompanying images now also so associate the KN-23, the larger KN-23 variant, and KN-25 SRBMs, all of which Western analysts previously assessed were nuclear-capable. (Interestingly, the North did not acknowledge any further launches of the new, small SRBM as part of the drills, or any of the nuclear-capable KN-24 SRBM last known to be tested in January.)
We still do not know if the “tactical nukes” Pyongyang is touting are similar in size and yield to those intended for its longer-range systems, just deployed on shorter-range systems, or if it seeks or possesses much smaller-yield warheads akin to US and Soviet/Russian “tactical nuclear weapons.” (The latter probably would require additional nuclear explosive testing.) Nor do we know how many nuclear weapons are or will be allocated to “units for the operation of tactical nukes.” What is clear is that North Korea’s SRBMs will continue to have important conventional warfighting missions, which will require arsenals of several hundreds of missiles to be effective.
North Korea clearly sees substantial propaganda and deterrent value in brandishing “tactical nukes,” whatever their actual number and capabilities. This is further underscored by the North linking the test of two long-range land-attack cruise missiles on October 12 to “the units of the Korean People’s Army for the operation of tactical nukes.” Such weapons uniquely threaten South Korea. At the same time, Pyongyang probably relishes the common perception that “tactical” nukes imply more technical sophistication. The North probably also hopes that touting a substantial tactical nuclear capability, in concert with its capability to threaten the US homeland with strategic nuclear weapons, will help dissuade US escalation in a crisis or provocation and erode Seoul’s confidence in the credibility of US extended deterrence.
Deterring Preemption by Threatening a New Basing Mode
The most unexpected aspect of the October 10 statement was its revelation that the SRBM launched on September 25 came from an “underwater silo” located “under” an inland reservoir. The accompanying photographs showed a KN-23 SRBM launching out of an inland body of water, akin to the previous launch of this system from the submerged Gorae-class submarine off North Korea’s east coast in October 2021. The new “missile launching drill” was said to have confirmed “the orientation of building a planned silo beneath the reservoir.”
The statement could be interpreted as claiming the North had, or will, dig a missile launch silo into the lakebed of the reservoir. Much more likely, however, is that the September 25 launch came from a submersible barge/platform containing one or more missile launch tubes (the “silos” referred to in the statement) that was emplaced on the surface of the reservoir, submerged beneath the waters of the reservoir (rather than beneath the reservoir itself), conducted the launch, and then surfaced for reuse or removal. North Korea and other countries use such barges as part of their submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) test programs to develop the ejection and launching of SLBMs to the point where testing from an actual submarine is deemed safe.
It remains to be seen whether North Korea continues to develop and deploy a submerged inland-water launch capability. It has long deployed SRBMs much more cost-effectively, with high survivability, on road-mobile launchers. As with the earlier effort to deploy the KN-23 from a rail-mobile launcher, the submerged inland-water launch capability may have more promise for IRBMs and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that are larger and harder to move around on land-mobile launchers. Even rail-mobility would be more cost-effective for such systems while still being survivable. A submerged inland-water launch capability would, however, be more cost effective than building ballistic missile submarines—which the North has seemingly been working on for a few years now without producing any—much less lake-bed silos, and immune from anti-submarine warfare attacks. It would, however, still potentially be vulnerable to detection and attack when surfaced or by spotting any associated land-based infrastructure/activity.
In the near term, the revelation of this new SRBM launch mode is more important politically and in deterrence terms than technically or operationally as it reflects how the North Koreans are trying to demonstrate that their missiles are survivable and signal to the South Koreans that strategies to “decapitate” or “preempt” North Korean forces in a crisis or conflict are doomed to fail. It reinforced messaging in the North’s new law “on the state policy on the nuclear forces” announced on September 8 that contained repeated references to the will to use nuclear weapons if an attack “on the state leadership and the command organization of the state’s nuclear forces was launched or drew near.” The October 10 statement likewise emphasized “that our nuclear combat forces holding an important mission of war deterrent maintain high alert of rapid and correct operation reaction capabilities and nuclear response posture in unexpected situation at any time.”
Revealing a “New-Type” IRBM
The North Korean statement also revealed that the missile launched over Japan on October 4 to a range of about 4,600 km was a “new-type” IRBM. The associated photographs showed a missile with: 1) a different engine configuration and thrust-vector control (steering) system than the previously-tested Hwasong-12 IRBM, 2) a differently-shaped and possibly shorter nosecone or reentry vehicle, and 3) possibly a slightly longer second stage.
That said, it currently is unclear whether the missile or its propulsion system are a modification of the Hwasong-12 or entirely new. Although the new-type missile flew farther than the previously longest-range Hwasong-12 flight of 3,700 km (already sufficient to hit US bases in Guam), the Hwasong-12 was assessed to be capable of 4,500 km, which does not add much in the way of new targets.
In addition to proving out a new or modified missile type, the launch served to underscore North Korea’s ability to target Guam—significant both as US territory and as a key hub for projecting US military power against the Peninsula, especially during a conventional conflict. Overflying Japan also was significant as an act of political defiance and as emphasizing the ability to strike Japanese and US forces there as well. Interestingly, the October 10 statement also included the IRBM launch as one of the “seven times of launching drills of the tactical nuclear operation units” conducted from September 25 to October 9. It is unclear whether the North Koreans regard IRBMs as “tactical” or if they inadvertently swept the new-type missile up into their ballyhooing of “tactical nukes.”
Making a “Strong Military Reaction Warning” to the Alliance
The October 10 statement puts “tactical nukes” and all of the recent missile activities squarely in the political and deterrent context of purportedly reacting to the “ongoing dangerous military drills” of the US and South Korea and their “steady, intentional and irresponsible acts of escalating the tension.” Pyongyang’s steps are “an obvious warning and clear demonstration of informing the enemies of our nuclear response posture and nuclear attack capabilities.” The North is making clear that it is not intimidated by, and wants to show it has a credible deterrent against, US-ROK alliance military moves and capabilities. Although statements from US and ROK officials and Western press coverage have portrayed the North’s recent flurry of activities as intending to “raise the stakes in future negotiations,” the October 10 statement reiterated the notion that Pyongyang has no inclination to do so.
“Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un Guides Military Drills of KPA Units for Operation of Tactical Nukes,” Rodong Sinmun, October 10, 2022. http://www.rodong.rep.kp/en/index.php?strPageID=SF01_02_01&newsID=2022-10-10-0004
Photo, Rodong Sinmun, October 10, 2022. http://www.rodong.rep.kp/en/index.php?strPageID=SF01_02_02&newsID=2022-10-10-0004_photo
“Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un Guides Test-Fire of Long-Range Strategic Cruise Missiles,” Rodong Sinmun, October 13, 2022. http://www.rodong.rep.kp/en/index.php?strPageID=SF01_02_01&newsID=2022-10-13-0001
“Law on DPRK’s Policy on Nuclear Forces Promulgated,” KCNA, September 9, 2022. http://kcna.kp/en/article/q/5f0e629e6d35b7e3154b4226597df4b8.kcmsf