North Korea’s Feb. 8 Parade Highlights ICBMs and Tactical Nukes

(Source: KCNA)

North Korea conducted a military parade on the evening of February 8 to mark the 75th anniversary of the Korean People’s Army. Television and press coverage showed four road-mobile launchers for a probable new solid-propellant intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), an unprecedented 12 mobile launchers for the large liquid-propellant Hwasong (HS)-17 ICBM, and 24 launchers for short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) and land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs) in what the North termed “tactical nuclear weapons operation units.”

On the ICBM front, there were a couple key takeaways:

  • North Korea’s pursuit of solid propellent for ICBMs comes as no surprise, as this goal has been indicated on several occasions. Solid-propellant ICBMs provide several operational benefits over liquid propellant ICBMs. They are “safer to handle in the field” and “have a much smaller logistical footprint,” making “units easier to conceal.” Although the parade might indicate that its first flight test could occur soon, the actual status of the ICBM’s development is unknown.
  • Displaying so many HS-17 launchers may be a sign that North Korea considers the system as operationally deployed. It may also mean that North Korean mobile ICBM deployments are no longer constrained by a shortage of large truck chassis, although we still do not know how many chassis Pyongyang can import from China and/or produce indigenously.

It has been suggested that the advent of 12 HS-17 launchers means the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) can now overwhelm existing US missile defenses and ensure US vulnerability. While a US planner would reasonably need to proceed on this basis, a North Korean planner would likely expect some ICBMs to be destroyed before launch and to experience technical failures, and for US defenses to be more efficient and effective. Even if able to be overwhelmed, US defenses will still have value against limited attacks, in complicating North Korean attack planning and limiting damage. Moreover, the US possesses an overwhelming nuclear retaliatory force that has to be factored into North Korean calculations as well.

Showing off a new solid ICBM and multiple ICBM launchers clearly signals North Korea’s ability to threaten the US homeland, its advancing technology and missile production capability and its intention to retain missiles; while parading “tactical nukes” highlights the nuclear threat it poses to South Korea. In underscoring both missile types, Pyongyang is sending a strong deterrence message while probably seeking to dissuade escalation from Washington in a crisis and erode Seoul’s confidence in US extended deterrence.

Underscoring Solid-propellant ICBM Development

North Korea paraded four nine-axle mobile launchers in the event’s finale, each carrying what appeared to be a transport launch canister for an ICBM. Interestingly, the North Koreans did not characterize the system beyond TV coverage, noting it is a “‘Hwasong’-class missile.” But outside analysts’ assessment that the canister represents a solid-propellant ICBM system is almost certainly correct. The canister resembles ones used for the Chinese DF-41 and Russian SS-27 solid ICBMs, and North Korea paraded a similar canister on a similar mobile launcher in 2017.

The canister appears to have a gas-generating launch assist device on the aft end for “cold-launching” the missile by creating gasses to pop the missile out before first-stage ignition to protect the launcher from damage by the exhaust plume. Kim Jong Un noted the existence of a solid ICBM development program in January 2021 and most recently mentioned “a task…to develop another ICBM system whose main mission is quick nuclear counterstrike” in his report to the December 26-31, 2022 meeting of the Korean Workers’ Party Central Committee.

Although some analysts regard the parade as an indicator that a flight test could occur soon or within the year, the actual status of the solid ICBM development program is unknown—as are the contents of the paraded canisters. Pyongyang has yet to flight test a solid ICBM. It announced last December a static (ground) test of a solid-propellant rocket motor large enough to serve as an ICBM first stage, although it did not attribute the motor to a given type of missile system, and commercial imagery analysts assess a similar test may have occurred in late January 2023. A new solid ICBM probably would have three booster stages, however, and ground tests of second- and third-stage motors (one or both of which may be smaller in diameter) have not been reported in open sources.

Beyond demonstrating North Korea’s technological prowess, solid-propellant ICBMs offer operational advantages over liquid ICBMs like the earlier HS-15 and HS-17. As noted in a previous 38 North piece, solid propellants “are safer to handle in the field than liquids (especially if deployed on mobile launchers) and have a much smaller logistical footprint that makes field-deployed mobile missile units easier to conceal.”

Displaying Multiple Hwasong-17 ICBMs

The four probable solid ICBM launchers were preceded in the parade by eleven 11-axle road-mobile launchers carrying HS-17 liquid-propellant ICBMs (with a 12th launcher nearby in case needed to fill in for a breakdown). Only four HS-17 launchers had been seen at one time previously. Moreover, the HS-17 and solid ICBM launchers (like that for the already-deployed HS-15 ICBM) are based on the Chinese WS51200 truck chassis, of which North Korea previously was known to have only eight and China was only reported to have supplied six. This indicates that China has been supplying additional such chassis and/or that North Korea has developed the capability to produce such chassis itself. Either way, it may be that obtaining additional large chassis is no longer a significant constraint on North Korean mobile ICBM deployments, although we still do not know how many chassis the DPRK can import from China and/or produce indigenously.

Displaying so many HS-17 launchers may also be a sign that North Korea considers the ICBM to be operationally deployed, although it has only gone as far publically to characterize the most recent flight test in November 2022 as the final developmental test. (By North Korean standards, it is plausible the HS-17 would be deployed based only on its one or two successful launches to date.) Interestingly, an apparent missile unit flag with an illustration of an HS-17 and the partially legible date “2022.11” was seen at the parade and in photos of a February 6 meeting of the Central Military Commission attended by Kim Jong Un, suggesting that an HS-17 unit was established in November 2022. Unit creation does not necessarily mean operational deployment; for example, on these same occasions, there was also an apparent unit flag for the untested solid-propellant ICBM and an unidentified third type of missile.

Overmatching US Missile Defenses…Maybe Not Yet

It has been suggested that, by revealing 12 HS-17 launchers, North Korea has now shown that it can overwhelm existing US homeland missile defenses and ensure US vulnerability to missile attacks. This contention is based on the US using four of its current 44 long-range missile interceptors against each of the first 11 incoming single-warhead HS-17s to have the greatest probability of warhead destruction. (The possibility of the HS-17 carrying multiple warheads has also been noted. However, while 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 it is developing or testing them.)

  • A conservative US planner would reasonably need to proceed on the basis that a 4-on-1 missile defense engagement would exhaust the current supply of interceptors, especially since a number of HS-15 ICBMs have probably been deployed since 2017 as well.
  • A conservative North Korean planner, on the other hand, would likely expect that some proportion of the ICBM force would have been destroyed in the conventional phase of a war prior to nuclear use, that some of the surviving ICBMs would fail to launch or reach reentry due to technical problems (perhaps a substantial number, given flight test results to date), that the US might use fewer than four interceptors per incoming warhead (particularly if the first, second or third interceptor had been seen destroying a given warhead), and that US defenses are more effective than many Western academics conclude.

Thus, it is far from clear that some magic threshold has now been reached regarding North Korea’s ability to overwhelm US missile defenses. On the other hand, it is reasonable to presume that North Korea seeks to deploy, and eventually will deploy, enough ICBMs and warheads to overmatch current and programmed US national missile defenses. But even then, such defenses will still have value against accidental/unauthorized launches and limited attacks, in complicating North Korean attack planning and limiting damage to the US. Moreover, even if US missile defenses are overmatched, the US has and will retain an overwhelming nuclear retaliatory capability that it makes clear will “end” the North Korean regime—and thus a powerful deterrent to North Korean nuclear attack.

Showing Off “Tactical Nuclear Operations Units.”

Parading before the HS-17s were six 4-tube KN-25 and six dual-missile KN-23 SRBM launchers, six 4-tube launchers for the small SRBM flight tested in April 2022, and six 5-tube LACM launchers. The North Korean press collectively referred to these as “tactical nuclear weapons operation units.” Pyongyang has previously indicated that the KN-23, KN-25 and LACM were operationally deployed; the new small SRBM is only known to have been tested on one occasion (two missiles), and it is unclear if parading some four launchers signifies its deployment.

This highlighting of “tactical nukes” is consistent with North Korean efforts since Kim first mentioned such weapons in January 2021, especially with the regime’s emphasis on them in October 2022. North Korea clearly sees substantial propaganda and deterrent value in brandishing “tactical nukes,” which uniquely threaten South Korea. It probably also relishes the common perception that “tactical” nukes imply more technical sophistication.

Letting the Missiles Do the Talking…to Washington and Seoul

The lack of detailed public statements about missiles in conjunction with the parade is notable and consistent with the spare treatment of missiles in Kim’s late-December report to the Central Committee. Nonetheless, by parading an unprecedented number of ICBM launchers, including components of a new solid missile system, North Korea was clearly signaling its ability to threaten the US homeland, its advancing technology and substantial missile production capability, and its intention to retain its missile programs despite international sanctions and hopes Pyongyang can be induced to trade them away.

Parading “tactical nuclear weapons operation units” highlights the nuclear threat to Seoul and US forces on the peninsula in addition to furthering the other objectives noted above, and probably also seeks to foment tensions in the Alliance. In underscoring both ICBMs and “tactical nukes” together, Pyongyang is sending a strong deterrence message while probably seeking to dissuade American escalation in a crisis or provocation and erode Seoul’s confidence in the credibility of US extended deterrence.

Stay informed about our latest
news, publications, & uploads:
I'm interested in...
38 North: News and Analysis on North Korea