Some Implications of North Korea’s July 28 Hwasong-14 ICBM Test

On July 28 North Korea test launched the Hwasong-14 (KN-20) ICBM, at about the time Pyongyang marks “victory” in the Korean War. According to the North Koreans the second test launch of the Hwasong-14 was brought forward. Reliability is essential for nuclear deterrence, and a credible long range missile developed for nuclear strike missions needs to have a mature research and development programme behind it to ensure reliability, hence credibility, during a conflict, but also during a military standoff short of war.

One test, even two tests, is not sufficient to ensure that one has a nuclear deterrent that can be, and perceived by the potential enemy to be, reliable. The statement regarding bringing forth the test suggests that North Korea has a considered scientific developmental programme which it will continue to carry out, so we should expect more tests.

The Hwasong-14, according to North Korean data, travelled a range distance of 998km and reached an apogee of 3725km.

Both figures are higher than for the first ICBM test, that is for the initial Hwasong-14 test, which were about range 938km and apogee 2,8000km.

The launch has been geolocated to 40.611208 latitude and 126.425743 longitude. Go plug those numbers into Google Earth, and see if you have as much fun as I had. The July 28 Hwasong-14 test was located in a valley in the mountainous northern province of Chagang, not far from the city of Jonchon.

A good portion of North Korea’s military industrial complex is situated underground in Chagang province, for instance in 2011 South Korean sources alleged that North Korea had developed new biological and chemical weapons facilities in the province. According to a KCNA press release the July 28 launch “demonstrated the capability of making surprise launch of ICBM in any region and place any time.” The location, and manner of launch, add further credence to the thesis that North Korea has adopted a “shooting a firecracker out the front door” launch strategy for its liquid fuelled ICBMs.

Because North Korea has invested much of its military-industrial complex in Chagang Province, it would be subject to overwhelming and prompt US military firepower in any conflict. Any liquid fuelled ICBMs located in the region would need to be launched quickly, given this attention and the time it takes to fuel a liquid propelled ICBM which can’t be fuelled prior to being placed on its mobile erector launch pad. This leads to a lose or lose them dilemma during a showdown.

The most important thing about the second test from a technical perspective is the range and the second stage. The numbers presented above are marginal improvements upon the original, so the second test isn’t any more significant from a Reentry Vehicle perspective than the first. The RV landed in Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone, which naturally leads to questions about guidance.

The week leading up to the test saw General Paul Selva relay publicly US intelligence estimates, which consider North Korea’s long range missiles (the Hwasong-12 and Hwasong-14) to be quite inaccurate. This can be compensated by increasing the yield of the missile’s payload, but cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco cover a large surface area. North Korea can conduct a nuclear test at its nuclear test site, at Pungyye-ri, at any time. The fact that it hasn’t, despite earlier preparations this year, has puzzled analysts.

Perhaps that is because North Korea doesn’t necessarily have to. It’s nuclear testing and missile development programme would have been tightly connected, and after 5 nuclear tests North Korea considers itself to have a reliable nuclear warhead of sufficient compactness to be delivered by the Hwasong-12 and Hwasong-14 boosters to a satisfactory range, in the first case against US bases at Guam, and nuclear deterrence in the latter case, that is at least against major cities on the US west coast.

Multiple nuclear detonations on the major cities of the West Coast would represent what McGeorge Bundy referred to as a disaster beyond history, which is not to take into account what would happen in North Korea.

North Korea, most likely, does not have a two-stage thermonuclear warhead capability and further testing could be conducted with development of just such a capability in mind, however it could well be the case that North Korean planners calculate that more advanced nuclear devices go beyond the long range throw-weight of the Hwasong-14. Perhaps it is a case of first things first.

If fired on a standard trajectory the Hwasong-14 launched on July 28 would have a range of 10,400km (6,700km for the first) and taking the Earth’s rotation in account if fired in an easterly trajectory (direction of US mainland from North Korea) it would have a greater range (8000km for the July 4 Hwasong-14 test parameters).

Taking the 1,300km difference for the July 4 Hwasong-14 (from non easterly to easterly direction) and using that as a rough guide we get a maximum theoretical range of 11,700km for the Hwasong-14 if launched on a MET trajectory on a true easterly direction. Considering the direction of major cities beyond the West Coast, which are not as relatively true East as Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego, lowers the maximum range. According to David Wright at the Union of Concerned Scientists, linked above, that puts Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago most certainly within range and Boston, New York likely (just) in range.

I should stress that these range estimates are subject to the payload of the missile, which could be heavier than the dummy RV’s employed in testing which would lower actual combat range. According to North Korea they did employ a “heavy” warhead, but what that means is not clear. We don’t have any reason to doubt, with information currently publicly available, the ability of the Hwasomg-12 and 14 to deliver North Korea’s nuclear warhead to their maximum ranges.

There appears to be no significant modification to the Hwasong-14 from July 4 to July 28. The image below shows the same, single, March 18 Revolution engine, and the accompanying four steering verniers.

Externally the second stage and RV for the July 28 test appears the same as for the July 4 test. Michael Elleman at 38North has suggested that the extra range comes via the second stage, that is that the July 4 Hwasong-14 employed an Unha space launch vehicle third stage for the second stage, and that the July 28 Hwasong-14 employed a new second stage engine configuration. This appears unlikely. I look forward to reading John Schilling’s analysis. According to the KCNA statement

The test also reconfirmed the specific features of the rocket system such as the rocket’s separation from its launching pad, stage-separation, structural system, etc. which were confirmed at the first test-fire, and confirmed the performing features of motors whose number has increased to guarantee the maximum range in the active-flight stage as well as the accuracy and reliability of the improved guidance and stability system

The reference to “performing features of motors whose number has increased” suggests that the performance parameters of the Hwasong-14 first and second stage engines were deliberately higher for the July 28 test, and so thereby the improved demonstrated capabilities. This could have been achieved through higher, maximum design, pressure in the combustion chamber of the March 18 Revolution engine, which would provide more thrust.

The assessment from most analysts, including US intelligence, still is that North Korea has not demonstrated that it has mastered a reentry vehicle able to withstand the high accelerations and high vibrations of launch, and the high temperatures, shocks and high G’s of reentry for a minimum energy trajectory long range ICBM. The reentry parameters are higher for an MET than a lofted trajectory because of the increased time duration involved. However, two successful tests of an ICBM that has a theoretical true east range of 11,7000km means that estimates of when North Korea would have deployed and reliable nuclear armed ICBM need to be lowered, perhaps as early as 2018.

Reports indicate that South Korea seeks to revise an agreed payload limit for its own missiles that it has with the United States, from 500kg to 1,000kg. That increase accommodates a nuclear payload. The Hwasong-14 does not appreciably add any extra nuclear danger that South Korea already faces from North Korea. The only context in which it does, so necessitating a felt need to increase the permissible throw weight of its own missiles, is that of extended deterrence.

Would the United States be prepared to risk losing Los Angeles and San Francisco to ensure the security of Seoul? It would appear that the South Koreans have their doubts, and may well be seeking to develop a ballistic missile capability with a latent nuclear weapons character of its own.

This issue is important. The credibility of extended deterrence, so far as Washington is concerned, is a central pillar of the post World War Two system of world order. The United States takes this quite seriously, and any perceived weakening of extended deterrence would be of great concern to planners in Washington.

We have here an emerging nuclear dynamic, which isn’t too pretty.

North Korea could use the “stability-instability paradox” of the “nuclear revolution” to present a “threat that leaves something to chance” in order to develop a path toward a permanent presence in the Northeast Asian political, strategic and economic architecture. Continued external pressure provides North Korea with an incentive to present such a threat, to change the way external actors think of its role in the world both now and in future.

On the other hand, the US needs to ensure the continued credibility of its extended deterrence not only toward South Korea but also, crucially, Japan.

That’s an explosive mix that easily could get out of control.

For many years I have been writing of nuclear affairs, and for all of those years I have argued that we are sleep walking toward catastrophe on the Korean peninsula. I submit that I was right about that, and that we’ve come to a critical phase in the nuclear standoff.

The Trump administration shows little to no sign of reversing the disastrous policies of George W Bush and Barack Obama, indeed placing sanctions on Russia and China, which the US has just effectively done, whilst North Korea’s nuclear programmes advance is the height of hubris. Russia, again, underreported the apogee of the Hwasong-14 and a second under reporting has little to do with the capabilities of Moscow’s sensors. That is a signal that it won’t play ball on the Korean peninsula with Washington.

Putting sanctions on Russia because of, frankly, laughable accusations regarding its role in the US presidential elections whilst the Geiger counter in Northeast Asia goes off the scales is manifestly absurd.