North Korea launched a Hwasong-17 (HS-17) large, liquid-propellant intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on a lofted trajectory on March 16. This was the second or third successful launch of the system, and included a small change to the missile’s aft end that may slightly increase its range/payload capability. The North’s portrayal of the launch underscores that it considers the HS-17 to be operationally deployed. Any deployed missiles almost certainly carry a single warhead, although the HS-17 remains the best candidate for a future multiple-warhead ICBM, given its large diameter and range/payload capability.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) has not yet flown an ICBM to full range on an operational trajectory. However, Pyongyang evidently regards the lofted-trajectory flights conducted thus far as good enough to warrant deployment and certainly has accumulated enough expertise over a 40+ year missile program to be able to field reentry vehicles robust enough to survive an operational trajectory. It is unclear why North Korea has not conducted operational-trajectory ICBM testing, but it is technically capable of doing so at any point it regards as politically expedient—as it threatened to do last December.
The messaging around this launch highlights the deterrent and political purposes Pyongyang sees for its ICBM force. As such, further ICBM launches should be expected.
Information to Date
On March 16, Japan and South Korea reported the launch of an ICBM from the Sunan area of Pyongyang. The missile reportedly flew for about 70 minutes on a lofted trajectory to the northeast at a range of about 1000 km and a maximum altitude of over 6000 km.
The next day, North Korean media announced that “a launching drill of the ICBM Hwasongpho-17” had occurred with essentially the same parameters reported by Japan and South Korea. Accompanying photos and video footage also depicted such a launch. The North reported that Kim Jong Un had “guided the launching drill of an ICBM unit on the spot,” that the purpose of the drill was “confirming the mobile and normal operation and reliability of the DPRK’s nuclear war deterrent,” and that the drill also served “as an occasion to give a stronger warning to the enemies intentionally escalating the tension in the Korean peninsula…and to more clearly show the practical will of the Party and government of the DPRK to counterattack with overwhelming offensive measures anytime.”
In a separate press commentary, North Korea cited the HS-17 launch as “clear evidence” that “our nuclear forces are not for advertisement,” but that “they can be used anytime, if necessary… and they should be preemptively used anytime according to the strategic plan, if a conflict with possibility of dangerous escalation occurs.” The commentary claimed that “the situation in the Korean peninsula is inching closer to an uncontrollable and dangerous state,” which is “entirely attributable to the reckless and tyrannical moves of the U.S. and its followers to stifle the DPRK;” that “in case such conflict occurs in reality, the U.S. security, to say nothing of the regional stability, will face an uncontrollable, catastrophic phase;” and, therefore, “the U.S. should stop at once the reckless military provocations and war drills against the DPRK.”
This is the second—or third—successful launch of the HS-17. Its flight parameters were almost the same as the previous launch in November 2022 and similar to the March 24, 2022 launch that North Korea claimed was an HS-17, but South Korea claims was actually an HS-15. (The first full-up HS-17 launch on March 16, 2022 was a failure.) The latest missile appears to have a more streamlined aft end than seen in previous HS-17 launches, which may represent an effort to increase streamlining and reduce structure weight to permit slightly greater range/payload performance.
The references in the North Korean announcement to an “ICBM unit” and the unit’s “readiness” further suggest that Pyongyang regards the HS-17 as operationally deployed. All HS-17 launches thus far have occurred from the same special facility at Sunan Airport, suggesting to some analysts that a launch from the field may be an unmet deployment milestone. North Korea may well not have such a prerequisite for “deployment,” akin to other historic differences in its missile development practices. Moreover, it may regard the Sunan facility as an operational base to which the HS-17 has has been deployed; if so, however, there are highly likely to be other bases in more remote locations. Regardless, the demonstrated ability to launch from Sunan makes it almost certain that the HS-17 can be launched from other locations able to physically accommodate the size and weight of the fully loaded 11-axle mobile launcher—making a field launch demonstration unnecessary.
If the HS-17 has been deployed, it almost certainly carries a single warhead; there remains no open-source reporting of any testing of the full-up missile with multiple warheads. Similar Chinese and Soviet/Russian missiles have been deployed in both single- and multiple-warhead versions, however, and the HS-17 remains the best candidate for a future North Korean multiple-warhead ICBM given its large diameter and range/payload capability.
Like the HS-15, which probably has been deployed since 2017, the HS-17 has not yet been flown to full range on an operational “minimum-energy” trajectory. Although the lofted flights of both missiles to date do not subject their reentry vehicles to the full duration of stresses and temperatures imposed by an operational trajectory, Pyongyang evidently regards them as good enough to warrant deployment of both systems.
Both ICBMs have enough range/payload capability to deliver, to targets throughout the US, reentry vehicles like the US and USSR used in the 1950s and 1960s that are large and robust enough to be highly likely to survive reentry even without full-range testing. Although we do not know if North Korea uses them, it has accumulated enough expertise and experience over the 40+ years of its missile program to be able to field such old-style reentry vehicles and have substantial confidence in their performance.
It is unclear why Pyongyang has not conducted operational-trajectory ICBM testing. Some possible reasons include wanting: to avoid the potential political blowback; to avoid a test failure that could undermine the image of ICBM capability and reliability it has been consistently seeking to project (including in their statements about this launch); or to avoid the possibility of a US interception attempt. It may also be avoiding this kind of testing because it is unable to collect reentry data without having instrumentation ships in view of the splashdown (which it may not currently possess or may not want to deploy prior to a test and tip its hand). All that said, however, the North is technically capable of conducting ICBM tests on operational trajectories at any point it regards as politically expedient, as it threatened to do last December.
North Korea’s messaging around this launch highlights the deterrent and political purposes it sees its ICBM force as serving. As a means to promote those purposes, further launches of the HS-15 and -17 are likely in order to demonstrate missile and unit reliability, as well as to prove out further incremental technical changes. Initial test launches of a new solid-propellant ICBM and an eventual multiple-warhead version of at least the HS-17 are also likely once Pyongyang believes they are technically and politically warranted.
See Taepodong. Twitter Post, March 16, 2023, 6:21 p.m., https://twitter.com/stoa1984/status/1636492999684128774; and Open Nuclear Network. Twitter Post, March 17, 2023, 7:35 a.m., https://twitter.com/OpenNuclear/status/1636692824283561984.
See Nathan J Hunt. Twitter Post, March 16, 2023, 6:27 p.m., https://twitter.com/ISNJH/status/1636494487210868736 and Open Nuclear Network, March 17, 2023, 7:35 a.m., https://twitter.com/OpenNuclear/status/1636692824283561984.
See Vann H. Van Diepen, “The Next Big Thing? North Korea Ground Tests ICBM-sized Solid Rocket Motor,” 38 North, December 21, 2022, https://www.38north.org/2022/12/the-next-big-thing-north-korea-ground-tests-icbm-sized-solid-rocket-motor; and Vann H. Van Diepen, “North Korea’s Feb. 8 Parade Highlights ICBMs and Tactical Nukes,” 38 North, February 15, 2023, https://www.38north.org/2023/02/north-koreas-feb-8-parade-highlights-icbms-and-tactical-nukes