North Korea Emphasizes Theater Strike Missiles in the First Third of 2024

(Source: Korean Central News Agency)

All of North Korea’s known missile activities during the first four months of 2024 have involved theater strike systems. This included two flight tests in January and April of the new, solid-propellant Hwasong-16 intermediate-range ballistic missile,[1] and the reported test in January of the “Haeil-5-23” theater-range unmanned underwater vehicle intended to carry a nuclear payload.[2] However, the bulk of missile activities involved theater-range land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs) and the KN-25 short-range ballistic missile (SRBM).

The LACM activities thus far have included the unveiling of a new variant of the Hwasal-1 system with a “super-large” warhead (almost certainly conventional and probably reducing significantly the missile’s range), a “rapid counterattack” drill for the improved Hwasal-2 that underscores the system’s continued deployment, and the unveiling of a new “Pulhwasal-3-31” LACM characterized as submarine-launched but probably destined for other basing modes as well. These launch activities underscore the importance of LACMs in supplementing North Korea’s much larger force of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, in both nuclear and conventional roles.

The KN-25 was used in two drills supervised by Kim Jong Un in March and April. The first was a “salvo drill,” apparently including six launchers, each firing a KN-25 simultaneously, as well as a probable simulated nuclear airburst. The second drill simulated a rapid “nuclear counterattack” by four KN-25 launchers, each firing one missile simultaneously while using the North’s “nuclear counterattack commanding system” with the newly revealed name of “Nuclear Trigger.” These drills demonstrate the nuclear role of the dual-capable KN-25, and are consistent with the North’s emphasis on “tactical nukes” in recent years. This emphasis serves both propaganda and deterrence purposes, highlighting South Korea’s vulnerability to such weapons, and is intended to drive wedges between Seoul and Washington. In spotlighting the “nuclear strike control system,” Pyongyang shows that its tactical nuclear weapons remain under centralized control even when dispersed and field-deployed, while also remaining ready to launch on short notice if needed.

This emphasis on theater strike systems coincides with Pyongyang’s changed stance toward South Korea, in which it now rejects the premise that peaceful reunification can be achieved and designates the South as its primary enemy. Whether motivated by this policy shift or not, the North’s missile activities are consistent with the idea that its conventional and nuclear strike capabilities against South Korea need to be bolstered, exercised and advertised.

Improving the LACM Force

Most of the missile launch events reportedly conducted by North Korea in the first four months of 2024 involved LACMs. These include:

  • The introduction of a “super-large” LACM warhead, a “power test” of which reportedly occurred on February 2. “Several” missiles may have been involved, according to the ROK military. Given the diameter of the Hwasal-series LACMs, the “super-large” warhead—which presumably could be fitted to any of the Hwasal types—is almost certainly conventional rather than nuclear. The size limits of the Hwasals’ fuselages also indicate that the additional volume such a warhead requires would have to come at the expense of fuel, meaning a Hwasal carrying this warhead would have significantly reduced range.
  • The introduction of a new Hwasal-1 variant. Another “super-large” warhead test occurred on April 19, which North Korean media reported was designed for the “Hwasal-1 Ra-3” strategic cruise missile. This is presumably a new version of the Hwasal-1, which was shown being fired from a road-mobile launcher. The announcement indicates that the Hwasal-1 continues to have a role in the LACM force despite the advent of later systems.
  • A “launching drill” for the Hwasal-2 LACM on January 30, characterized by Pyongyang as testing the military’s “rapid counterattack posture and improving its strategic striking capability.” Associated photos depicted the use of a road-mobile launcher. According to the ROK military, the drill involved “several” cruise missile launches. The Hwasal-2, which apparently has an improved propulsion system over the Hwasal-1, previously has been reported to have flown 2,000 kilometers (km). This test underscores that the Hwasal-2 remains operationally deployed.
  • The introduction of a third type of LACM, the “Pulhwasal-3-31,” which, according to the North, was launched for the first time on January 24. Two more of the new LACMs, characterized as “submarine-launched strategic cruise missiles,” were reportedly launched on January 28 in a test supervised by Kim Kong Un. Photos associated with the later test showed a LACM emerging from underwater at an angle consistent with being launched from a torpedo tube rather than a vertical launch tube, although the launch platform was not identified. The new LACM was also associated by the North with nuclear weapons, although a conventionally armed version is also likely. The reported flight times for the January 28 tests were consistent with a range of about 1,500 km, akin to that claimed for the first flight test of North Korea’s first LACM, the Hwasal-1. It remains to be seen how the “Pulhwasal-3-31,” which is likely to be deployed in additional basing modes, differs from the earlier Hwasal-1 and -2 LACMs.

Implications. These launch activities underscore the importance of LACMs in supplementing North Korea’s much larger force of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, in both nuclear and conventional roles. Basing the bulk of the LACM force on road-mobile launchers while deploying some missiles on submarines (the North first claimed to have launched LACMs from a submerged sub in March 2023) and surface warships (from which Pyongyang claimed to have launched LACMs in August 2023) adds to the survivability of the North’s overall missile force, as well as its diversity and flexibility. Low-flying, maneuverable LACMs will further complicate Allied regional air and missile defense efforts—especially in attacks coordinated with ballistic missiles.

Highlighting the Nuclear Role of the KN-25

The only SRBMs known to have been launched by Pyongyang in the first four months of 2024 were KN-25s, dual-capable solid-propellant systems referred to by the North Korean media as “600 mm super-large multiple rockets.” North Korea announced two firing drills involving KN-25 units during the spring of 2024:

  • A March 18 “salvo drill” that was supervised by Kim Jong Un. Accompanying photos suggest six road-mobile launchers each fired one KN-25 missile simultaneously. The missiles flew to a range of about 350 km, according to the Japanese government. A few minutes later, a KN-25 was launched “to simulate an air explosion…at a preset altitude above the target,” as one would expect for a simulated nuclear airburst. The KN-25 unit reportedly used an “automatic fire control system”—not unusual for modern artillery systems—and Kim stressed that “the modernization of the artillery forces should continue to be stepped up on the basis of” the KN-25.
  • An April 22 “combined tactical drill simulating a nuclear counterattack,” also overseen by Kim, apparently involving four KN-25 road-mobile launchers each firing simultaneously one missile “tipped with simulated nuclear warheads” to a range of 352 km. The drill reportedly focused on: 1) having the KN-25 unit “rapidly switch over to [a] nuclear counterattack” (possibly in the course of a simulated ongoing conventional conflict) “at a time when the [‘Volcano Alarm’] system, the state’s greatest nuclear crisis alarm, is issued;” and 2) using “the state’s nuclear weapon combined management system [called ‘Nuclear Trigger’]” also described as the “nuclear counterattack commanding system.” This is the first publication of the “Nuclear Trigger” name. Although the North Korean press statement could be understood as saying this drill was the first use of the “Nuclear Trigger” system, it probably was calling the drill the first use of that system by the KN-25 unit in question. (The “Nuclear Trigger” is probably the same as the “nuclear strike control system” the North reported using in conjunction with a “combined tactical drill for nuclear counterattack” overseen by Kim Jong Un in March 2023.)

Implications. North Korea may have refrained from launching any of its modern, solid-propellant KN-23 or KN-24 SRBMs during this period because it has reportedly been exporting such missiles to Russia for use against Ukraine. Some 50 North Korean SRBMs have been used by Russia between late December 2023 and mid-March 2024, according to US and Ukrainian officials. Pyongyang’s other modern SRBM, the smaller solid-propellant missile first tested in April 2022 and apparently designated Hwasong-11D by the North,[3] may have too short a range (some 110 km) for the deep-strike missions Russia apparently has assigned to SRBMs in Ukraine—especially given the likely need to stand well back from the battlefront to avoid being attacked by Kyiv’s drones. Although there were no launches of the Hwasong-11D in this period, North Korean media provided photos in conjunction with Kim Jong Un’s inspection of major munitions factories on January 8 and 9 that showed some 45 road-mobile launchers for that missile system under construction.

North Korea has been consistently emphasizing “tactical nukes” in the past few years, such as in its announcement of extensive drills in September and October 2022 involving KN-23 and KN-25 launches; its February 2023 military parade; and the previously mentioned March 2023 counterattack drill. Pyongyang clearly sees substantial propaganda and deterrent value in brandishing “tactical nukes.” Advertising these weapons, which uniquely threaten South Korea, underscores the ROK’s vulnerability to such weapons and helps drive wedges between Seoul and Washington. The North probably 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. Pyongyang probably also relishes the common perception that “tactical” nukes imply more technical sophistication.

At the same time, in depicting again the use of the “nuclear strike control system” with such weapons, Pyongyang is emphasizing that its “tactical nukes” remain under centralized control even when dispersed and field-deployed while also remaining ready to launch on short notice if needed. This was made most explicit in the March 2023 exercise, during which the North stressed that its nuclear command and control system included: 1) a “launch approval system,” along with “procedures of issuing and receiving an order of nuclear attack” and “final nuclear attack order authentication”; and 2) “technical and mechanical devices” apparently governing nuclear weapons control, including “nuclear explosion control devices and detonators fitted in the [mock] nuclear warhead” (possibly referring to Permissive Action Links [PALs] or other means of preventing unauthorized arming or launch).

Part of A Bigger Picture?

It is interesting to note that Pyongyang’s apparent focus on theater strike systems in the first four months of 2024 coincides with the ongoing implementation of North Korea’s “fundamental turnabout” in its attitude toward South Korea, in which the ROK is now regarded as “our most dangerous and first enemy state and invariable archenemy that stands in our way” and with which negotiated reunification “can never be achieved.” While averring that the North would be “completely occupying, subjugating and reclaiming the ROK and annex[ing] it as a part of the territory of our Republic in case of a war breaks out on the Korean peninsula,” Kim Jong Un also claimed that this new policy is not intended as “a means of preemptive attack for realizing unilateral ‘reunification by force of arms’ but the capabilities for legitimate self-defense,” and that “we will never unilaterally unleash a war if the enemies do not provoke us.” Whether motivated by this policy shift or not, the North’s missile activities in the first few months of 2024 are consistent with the idea that its conventional and nuclear strike capabilities against South Korea need to be bolstered, exercised and advertised.

  1. [1]

    See Vann H. Van Diepen, “North Korea Tests New Solid IRBM With MaRV Payload,” 38 North, January 18, 2024.; and Vann H. Van Diepen, “Second Flight of North Korea’s Solid IRBM Also Second Flight of HGV,” 38 North, April 5, 2024,

  2. [2]

    “Spokesman for Ministry of National Defence of DPRK Issues Press Statement,” Korean Central News Agency, January 19, 2024, For more information on the “Haeil,” see Vann H. Van Diepen, “North Korea’s New “Unmanned Underwater Nuclear Attack Craft”: Red October or White Elephant?,” 38 North, April 6, 2023,

  3. [3]

    Colin Zwirko, “North Korea reveals internal names for several missile systems: Analysis,” NK Pro, April 3, 2023, The missile is not yet known to have a US “KN”-series designator.

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