North Korea conducted two intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launches in November: an apparent Hwasong-15 on November 3, which failed, and the larger Hwasong-17 on November 18, which succeeded. Both missiles had modified boosters; the Hwasong-15 also had a modified payload section, but the failure of its test flight obscured the true impact of those changes.
These tests show that North Korea is continuing to improve its capability to deliver nuclear warheads against the continental United States and underscore the political and deterrent importance of that capability to Pyongyang. The nature of the modifications to both missiles suggests the North recognizes the need to improve their reliability, and thus bolster the credibility of its ICBM capabilities. We can expect Pyongyang to continue testing both modified systems, although it claimed the November 18 test was the final developmental launch, and expect continued launches of the original Hwasong-15 if it is to remain deployed.
Mid-size Hwasong-15 Clearly Reemerges
North Korea launched an ICBM on November 3 to an altitude of about 1,920 km and a range of about 760 km, according to South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff. The first stage reportedly operated and separated normally, but the missile failed during second stage flight.
On November 7, North Korea released a statement commenting on an extensive series of missile launches conducted from November 2 to 5. The statement did not acknowledge the ICBM test explicitly, but referred to an “important test-fire of ballistic missile to verify the movement reliability of a special functional warhead paralyzing the operation command system of the enemy.” One of the accompanying photographs showed the early flight of what appeared to be a modified version of the Hwasong-15 ICBM.
This was the first launch of the Hwasong-15 North Korea has acknowledged conducting since the system’s initial flight test in November 2017. Earlier this year, on March 24, North Korea reported it had conducted a launch of its Hwasong-17 ICBM, but South Korean intelligence claimed it was actually a Hwasong-15. Neither claim has been confirmed, but there are aspects of the latest Hwasong-17 launch that lend support to the North Korean claim. (A failed Hwasong-17 launch was also conducted on March 16.)
The Hwasong-15 has probably been operationally deployed since 2017, consistent with Kim Jong Un’s 2018 claims of an ICBM capability against the US, the apparent assessment of ICBM deployment by the US Defense Intelligence Agency in October 2021, and the Foreign Ministry’s February 2022 claim that the Hwasong-15 has the “ability to strike the US mainland.” (As noted below, the November 18 North Korean statement on the Hwasong-17 launch also referred in passing to “ICBM units,” and a statement on November 27 noted that the armed forces had been “equipped with” Hwasong-15s.) From an operational standpoint, testing the reliability of an already deployed system should have been a priority for the North Koreans once they made the political decision to resume ICBM testing.
Interestingly, the missile shown in the November 7 photo had some significant modifications: a shorter first stage, an apparently shorter second stage, and a longer and more tapered payload section. Because the test flight failed, the effect of these modifications on the Hwasong-15’s range and payload capability is unclear. The North’s reference to “a special functional warhead paralyzing the operation command system of the enemy” also is unclear. Possibilities include a North Korean threat to use nuclear weapons to generate electromagnetic pulse (EMP) effects to damage command, control, and other electronics; another hint at developing multiple warheads; or a smokescreen to obfuscate a failed ICBM launch.
Without understanding the differences between the original and modified missiles, we cannot assess the implications of this failed test for the reliability of currently deployed Hwasong-15 ICBMs. The apparent success of the first stage (particularly if the engines in the two versions are basically the same), staging, and second stage ignition all would appear to be good news for the currently-deployed force. But the failure of the second stage after ignition would be an obvious concern, and the failure also foreclosed any ability to test the payload.
It is highly likely that North Korea will conduct additional tests of the modified Hwasong-15 until it is satisfied with its performance. If the original version is intended to remain in the deployed inventory, we can expect additional launches of it as well.
First (or Second?) Successful Test of the Hwasong-17
On November 18, North Korea launched an ICBM into a highly lofted trajectory with an altitude of about 6,000 km to a range of about 1,000 km, according to the South Korean and Japanese governments. That same day, North Korea released a statement reporting a successful test launch of the “new-type” Hwasong-17 ICBM. According to the statement, “The test-fire clearly proved the reliability of the new major strategic weapon system to be representative of the DPRK’s strategic forces and its powerful combat performance as the strongest strategic weapon in the world.” Kim Jong Un reportedly “urged the national defense scientific research sector to put more vigorous spurs to the development of Juche-based strategic weapons of Korean-style and the ICBM units…to intensify their training with high vigilance so as to perfectly discharge their important strategic duty in any situation and at any moment.”
Accompanying photos and a video showed the launch of a Hwasong-17 from an 11-axle transporter-erector-launcher (TEL)—consistent with what was seen in a video claiming to be from the March 24 launch, but more likely was from the failed March 16 test of the Hwasong-17. The latest images also reveal that the missile had a number of modifications compared to the March launch(es):
- A shorter first stage;
- A longer cable raceway along the second stage (which may mean the second stage propellant tanks have been lengthened);
- A wider interstage section between the two stages (which may mean the second stage rocket engine nozzles have been lengthened);
- Amall solid-propellant rocket motors apparently added to the second stage (probably to facilitate stage separation); and
- A rearrangement of the small motors on the payload fairing (probably to improve fairing separation).
In light of the original Hwasong-17’s substantial range and payload capability, these changes will probably not have a substantial effect on the missile’s performance. They likely reflect lessons learned from previous launches and may be more geared toward improving the system’s overall reliability.
A number of analysts noted the similarities in flight time and trajectory between the November 18 Hwasong-17 launch and the successful March 24 ICBM launch. This adds weight to (but does not prove) the case that the latter launch was a Hwasong-17, despite South Korean claims otherwise. If the March 24 launch was a Hwasong-17, then the November launch represents the second—rather than the first—successful launch of the system.
By North Korean standards, one or two successful tests could be enough testing to permit operational deployment of the system. Although the North Korean statement on November 18 did not mention the new ICBM’s operational status, it did refer in passing to “ICBM units,” and the November 27 statement characterized the November 18 launch as “the final test-fire for the development of [the] new-type ICBM.” If the modifications to the missile since March were extensive enough, additional testing may occur prior to deployment.
The real significance of the Hwasong-17 results from the potential its large diameter and propulsion capability provide to accommodate multiple warheads, especially multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs). This potential has been recognized since the missile was first in October 2020, and underscored when Kim Jong Un claimed in January 2021 that the North was in the final stage of “perfecting the guidance technology for multi-warhead rocket.” There is still no direct evidence, however, that North Korea is developing or testing multiple warheads—despite frequent press claims that the Hwasong-17 “is designed to carry” them. The missile may well end up carrying multiple warheads, but the technology (especially for MIRVs) is challenging and probably requires more than North Korea’s usual amount of testing. If the North intends to deploy the Hwasong-17 with multiple warheads, additional Hwasong-17 launches should be expected.
The Bottom Line
The November tests show that North Korea is continuing to improve its capability to deliver nuclear warheads against the continental United States and underscore the political and deterrent importance of that capability to Pyongyang. We still do not know how many ICBMs it has deployed, although it probably has fielded some Hwasong-15s since 2017, or how many more it will deploy in the future. We also do not know if it will deploy the Hwasong-17 with multiple warheads, although such deployments are the most sensible reason to have developed that large of an ICBM in the first place, or if any such warheads will be shotgun-style multiple reentry vehicles (MRVs) or the more technically demanding and capable MIRVs. The nature of the modifications to both the Hwasong-15 and -17 seen in the November tests suggests the North recognizes the need to improve their reliability, and thus overall credibility of its ICBMs. We can expect Pyongyang to continue tests of both modified systems and launches of the original Hwasong-15 if it is to remain deployed. As of now, it would not appear that Pyongyang sees any substantial political impediments to further launches.
“Report of General Staff of KPA on Its Military Operations Corresponding to U.S.-South Korea Combined Air Drill,” KCNA, November 7, 2022.
“Kim Jong Un Makes New Year Address,” KCNA, January 1, 2018. According to Kim, “In no way would the United States dare to ignite a war against me and our country. The whole of its mainland is within the range of our nuclear strike and the nuclear button is on my office desk all the time; the United States needs to be clearly aware that this is not merely a threat but a reality.”
“North Korea Military Power: A Growing Regional and Global Threat,” Defense Intelligence Agency, October 15, 2021, https://www.dia.mil/Portals/110/Documents/News/NKMP.pdf. For example, page 20 of the report refers to “ICBMs now in the North Korean inventory”; page 22 states that “The Strategic Force includes units operating…ICBMs…” and that “This force also is responsible for the…Hwasong-14 ICBM, capable of reaching the continental United States”; and page 41 states that “North Korea’s ballistic missile units control a wide selection of SRBMs, MRBMs, IRBMs, and ICBMs.”
See Ankit Panda, Twitter Post, November 6, 2022, 6:05 p.m., https://twitter.com/nktpnd/status/1589393599883796480; Nathan J Hunt Twitter Post, November 6, 2022, 11:47 p.m., https://twitter.com/ISNJH/status/1589479581698117634; and the comparison drawings at Nathan J Hunt, Twitter Post, November 8, 2022, 7:48 a.m., https://twitter.com/ISNJH/status/1589962948424130560.
See Joseph Dempsey, Twitter Post, November 6, 2022, 7:00 p.m., https://twitter.com/JosephHDempsey/status/1589407305027964928 and Ankit Panda, Twitter Post, November 6, 2022, 6:05 p.m., https://twitter.com/nktpnd/status/1589393599883796480.
“WPK Solemnly Declares Its Immutable Will to React to Enemy’s Nuke and Full-frontal Confrontation in Kind; Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un Guides Test-fire of New-type ICBM of DPRK’s Strategic Forces,” Rodong Sinmun, November 18, 2022.
See Nathan J Hunt, Twitter Post, November 19, 2022, 1:16 p.m., https://twitter.com/ISNJH/status/1594032003196022784; and Tianran Xu, “Brief on DPRK ICBM launch on 18 November 2022 – Updates, 21 November 2022,” Open Nuclear Network, November 21, 2022, https://opennuclear.org/publication/brief-dprk-icbm-launch-18-november-2022-updates-21-november-2022?language_content_entity=en.
See Jeffrey Lewis, Twitter Post, November 17, 2022, 10:40 p.m., https://twitter.com/ArmsControlWonk/status/1593449060932804608 on the flight time. See Jeongmin Kim and Shreyas Reddy, “North Korea fires intercontinental ballistic missile ‘eastward’: Seoul,” November 18, 2022, NK News, https://www.nknews.org/2022/11/north-korea-fires-suspected-intercontinental-ballistic-missile-eastward-seoul/; Marco Langbroek, Twitter Post. November 18, 2022, 4:54 p.m., https://twitter.com/Marco_Langbroek/status/1593724237256470528; and Jonathan McDowell, Twitter Post. November 17, 2022, 10:49 p.m., https://twitter.com/planet4589/status/1593451256764583940 regarding the trajectory.
For additional factors weighing in favor of the Hwasong-17 case, see Vann H. Van Diepen, “Revisiting the Hwasong-17/15 Controversy: What if North Korea Had Launched a Hwasong-15?,” 38 North, April 27, 2022, https://www.38north.org/2022/04/revisiting-the-hwasong-17-15-controversy-what-if-north-korea-had-launched-a-hwasong-15.
That statement also referred to the “preparation of underground launching pad” while lauding Kim Jong Un’s purported personal decision to make the Hwasong-17’s launching vehicle “self-propelled.” This could suggest the missile also will be deployed in silos, or at least that silo deployment had been contemplated. Unless successfully concealed, however, Hwasong-17 silos would be extremely vulnerable to conventional and nuclear attacks.
See Vann H. Van Diepen and Michael Elleman, “North Korea Unveils Two New Strategic Missiles in October 10 Parade,” 38 North, October 10, 2020, https://www.38north.org/2020/10/vdiepenmelleman101020; and “On Report Made by Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un at Eighth Party Congress of WPK,” KCNA, January 9, 2021.
The US has revealed that North Korea conducted launches in February and March 2022 that “involved” the Hwasong-17, probably to test unspecified “elements” of the system. These tests (which apparently succeeded), as well as two apparently similar tests in May 2022 (one of which failed), probably used the first stage of the ICBM. Although North Korea claimed the first two launches were testing reconnaissance satellite components, one possibility is that these launches are related to the development of post boost vehicles (PBVs) to dispense MIRVs. 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://mobile.twitter.com/planet4589/status/1521724313182871552; 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; and Open Nuclear Network, Twitter Post, May 25, 2022, 12:42 p.m., https://twitter.com/OpenNuclear/status/1529503300797726722.
For example, see Michelle Ye Hee Lee, “North Korea’s leader showed off his daughter. What could it mean?,” The Washington Post, November 21, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/11/21/north-korea-kim-daughter-succession.