North Korea’s latest missile launches, including the launch of an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) over Japan on October 4 and two short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) on October 6, provide a stark reminder of the numerous missile programs it is pursuing. This year alone, despite a short summer respite, Pyongyang has launched 43 missiles through October 6, including two unspecified cruise missiles and 41 ballistic missiles from short range up to intercontinental range. Although a great deal about North Korea’s missile program remains unknown—particularly the numbers of new missiles to be deployed and their accuracy—there are two key security implications for the United States, the Republic of Korea (South Korea or ROK) and Japan.
- The resumption of IRBM and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) testing underscores how the North’s nuclear threat against the US homeland bolsters its ability to deter a US-initiated attack and dissuade US escalation in a provocation or conflict initiated by North Korea; and
- This year’s tests provide further evidence that North Korea’s new, solid-propellant short-range missiles have the potential to substantially improve Pyongyang’s conventional warfighting capabilities if deployed in sufficient numbers.
However, despite these improvements, the fundamental military and strategic situation remain: the US-ROK alliance retains clear conventional military superiority on the peninsula, the US retains overwhelming nuclear superiority over North Korea, and both of these things will almost certainly remain the case. Maintaining this situation, however, will require continued efforts to uphold US military and political credibility, alliance solidarity and South Korean and Japanese conventional military capability. It also will require ongoing efforts to blunt the effectiveness of North Korean missile attacks through active and passive defense measures.
Missile Activity to Date
Thus far in 2022, we have seen 22 North Korean ballistic missile launch events involving the launch of 41 ballistic missiles—the most ballistic missile launch events and launches detected in any year to date, and it’s only early October. These include:
- Thirty-one launches of solid-propellant short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs), probably including the previously-tested KN-23, KN-24 and KN-25, as well as a new-type, smaller missile linked by the North Koreans to “tactical nukes.”
- Two launches of a new maneuvering reentry vehicle (MaRV) on a liquid-propellant medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) booster first tested in 2021; the North touted this as a second type of “hypersonic missile” that it claims has completed development.
- Two tests (one probable) of the Hwasong-12 liquid-propellant IRBM, the first since 2017, with the North now claiming that series production and deployment of the system is either imminent or underway and a probable full-range (4,600 km) test in October.
- Most significantly, the resumption of ICBM testing after more than four years, with two apparent full-up tests (one successful), and up to four apparent scaled-down component tests (three successful), for the new, very large Hwasong-17 liquid-propellant missile.
In addition, North Korea showcased a new, solid-propellant submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) even larger than the Pukguksong-5 missile in its 2021 military parades, which also has not yet been flight tested.
Key Unknowns Remain
Assessing the cumulative impact of this series of activities is complicated by the fact that a great deal about North Korea’s missile program remains unknown. Moreover, most of what we think we know from open sources about North Korean missiles—especially the newer systems—comes from what the North Koreans themselves say and the photos and videos they release. (Interestingly, the North has not provided any information on the ten launch events, involving 24 missiles, since April 16. On October 6, it did characterize recent launches as “the just counteraction taken by the Korean People’s Army against south Korea-U.S. joint drills escalating the military tensions on the Korean peninsula.”)
Among the key unknowns are:
- The number of launchers and missiles that have been and will be produced/deployed for each type of missile system;
- System accuracy;
- Warhead weights and types;
- The role North Korea intends for each type of missile system in its military strategy; and
- The extent to which the North chooses to retire, retain, or improve its large existing force of legacy systems as new systems come online.
The overall dimensions of the threat posed by North Korea’s missile force are difficult to judge in the absence of this information, especially how many targets can be engaged (especially in the US homeland) and the full conventional warfighting effectiveness of Pyongyang’s theater missile force.
Implications for Alliance Security
Considering the available information and North Korea’s large, longstanding legacy missile force, this year’s missile activity demonstrates two major strategic-level issues for the United States, South Korea and Japan.
- Underscores a growing nuclear threat to US territory.
The resumption of IRBM and ICBM testing underscores the importance of North Korea’s relatively recent capability to deliver nuclear warheads against Guam, Hawaii and North America. In conjunction with its 25-year-long ability to threaten South Korea and Japan with nuclear weapons, this bolsters North Korea’s ability to:
- Preserve the existence of the regime;
- Deter any US-initiated attack; and
- Dissuade US conventional or nuclear escalation in a provocation or conflict initiated by Pyongyang.
The testing seen this year also reminds us, however, that while the North probably regards its ICBMs as sufficiently reliable for the above purposes, they are not highly reliable. This is due to:
- The lack of flight testing since November 2017 of the apparently already-deployed Hwasong-15 ICBM (assuming the missile tested successfully on March 24 was a Hwasong-17);
- The two failures out of this year’s six apparently ICBM-related tests; and
- The lack of any full-range ICBM flight testing to successful reentry.
As the threat to the US homeland increases, the risk increases that (a) the North could perceive it has increased freedom of action; and (b) Japan or South Korea can perceive the US nuclear umbrella is no longer sufficiently credible and decide they need an independent nuclear force.
- An improving conventional warfighting capability.
This year’s tests provide further evidence of three attributes of North Korea’s new, solid-propellant SRBMs that collectively have the potential to substantially improve Pyongyang’s conventional warfighting capabilities. If deployed in large numbers, the four types of new missiles together will allow more intense conventional missile attacks, and the ability to tailor particular types of attacks to particular missile types.
First, this year’s tests underscore that these missiles are reliable and making progress toward deployment. For instance:
- Only one of the 31 SRBM launches detected this year seems to have failed—the first known failure of the KN-23 out of at least 19 probable launches since 2019; and
- This year the North claimed that the rail-mobile version of the KN-23 was operational, and that the ATACMS-like KN-24 SRBM is in the process of deployment.
Second, the tests continue to imply that these systems have improved accuracy compared to the earlier Scud-class and KN-02 SRBMs, thus allowing more effective strikes against US and ROK targets on the peninsula with fewer missiles per target, and allowing more targets to be attacked for a given force size.
Third, the testing also emphasizes that the new SRBMs use flight profiles that provide more options to evade and attack US and ROK missile defenses, and allow the North to do so with fewer missiles (thus making more missiles available for other targets).
Implications for Overall Military Balance
Recent improvements in North Korea’s missile force capabilities, however, are not enough to change the fundamental military and strategic situation regarding the peninsula. This is for several reasons, including:
- North Korea has had such a large SRBM and MRBM force for so long, as well as an overwhelming artillery capability against Seoul and other targets within range of the DMZ, that its new solid-propellant SRBMs will add only incrementally to its theater threat.
- North Korea has long had many avenues to evade and penetrate theater missile defenses—including defense saturation, defense suppression, early-release submunitions and penetration aids. The new low-trajectory SRBMs and even “hypersonic missiles,” therefore, will provide additional options rather than “change the game.”
- Although the North Korean ICBM threat to the US homeland is recent and important, the alliance retains clear conventional military superiority on the peninsula, the US retains overwhelming nuclear superiority over North Korea, and both of these things will almost certainly remain the case.
The Bottom Line
Thus, despite North Korea’s missile threat to the US homeland and improving conventional SRBM capabilities, the US-ROK alliance is still able to deter North Korea—just as the US and its allies successfully deterred the Soviet Union under conditions of US conventional inferiority and nuclear parity. Maintaining this deterrence, however, will require continued efforts to uphold US military and political credibility, alliance solidarity and South Korean and Japanese conventional military capability. It also will require ongoing efforts to blunt the effectiveness of North Korean missile attacks through active theater and homeland missile defenses, as well as passive defense measures such as hardening, dispersal, mobility, decoys and camouflage.
James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, “The CNS North Korea Missile Test Database,” Nuclear Threat Initiative, https://www.nti.org/analysis/articles/cns-north-korea-missile-test-database. All launch-related data drawn from this source unless otherwise indicated.
See Colin Zwirko and Jeongmin Kim, “North Korea fires short-range ballistic missile toward East Sea, Seoul says,” NK News, September 25, 2022, https://www.nknews.org/2022/09/north-korea-fires-ballistic-missile-toward-east-sea-south-korean-military; Hyung-Jin Kim and Kim Tong-Hyung, “NKorea test launches missiles on eve of Harris trip to Seoul,” AP News, September 28, 2022, https://apnews.com/article/kamala-harris-seoul-south-korea-north-joint-chiefs-of-staff-d281b4dc04219c0d85713f3cf15cb7ba; Chris Megerian and Kim Tong-Hyung, “North Korea fires missiles after Harris leaves South Korea,” AP News, September 29, 2022, https://apnews.com/article/japan-asia-tokyo-kamala-harris-seoul-388f6a766cf95995096d261444c612c6; Hyung-Jin Kim and Mari Yamaguchi, “North Korea conducts 4th round of missile tests in 1 week,” AP News, October 1, 2022, https://apnews.com/article/japan-kamala-harris-north-korea-sea-of-government-and-politics-3ebe2e4bf519fc11a68e2e3071860e08; Joseph Dempsey, Twitter Post, May 12, 2022, 8:19 a.m., https://twitter.com/JosephHDempsey/status/1524726012529065986; Hyung-Jin Kim and Kim Tong-Hyung, “N.Korea flies warplanes near S.Korea after missile launches,” AP News, October 6, 2022. https://apnews.com/article/japan-seoul-south-korea-north-joint-chiefs-of-staff-6cbb36c582a09b7c9b6005ebdaa863d6; and Vann H. Van Diepen, “North Korea’s New Short-Range Ballistic Missile,” 38 North, April 25, 2022. https://www.38north.org/2022/04/north-koreas-new-short-range-ballistic-missile.
See Vann H. Van Diepen, “Burying the Lede: North Korea Conceals That “Spy Satellite” Tests Are First Launches of New Large ICBM,” 38 North, March 16, 2022, https://www.38north.org/2022/03/burying-the-lead-north-korea-conceals-that-spy-satellite-tests-are-first-launches-of-new-large-icbm; Joseph Dempsey, Twitter Post, May 4, 2022, 6:37 a.m., https://twitter.com/JosephHDempsey/status/1521801097685438464; Jonathan McDowell, Twitter Post, May 4, 2022, 1:32 a.m., https://twitter.com/planet4589/status/1521724313182871552; Michael Duitsman, Twitter Post, May 4, 2022, 1:46 p.m., https://mobile.twitter.com/DuitsmanMS/status/1521909116041523201; and Yoonjung Seo, Gawon Bae, Junko Ogura and Barbara Starr, “North Korea tests presumed ICBM and two other missiles, South Korea says,” CNN, May 25, 2022, https://www.cnn.com/2022/05/24/asia/north-korea-missile-intl/index.html.
“DPRK Foreign Ministry Issues Press Statement,” KCNA, October 6, 2022, http://kcna.kp/en/article/q/80eafd5238eebdf01f9489f46322435d.kcmsf.