On the 28th of November North Korea conducted the fourth flight test of the KN-25 (US designation) multiple launch rocket system. This is the super-large calibre (600mm) MLRS that I have written of previously, for example in my preceding post.
North Korea’s press agency, KCNA, released a statement after the test as it regularly does.
“The volley test-fire aimed to finally examine the combat application of the super-large multiple launch rocket system proved the military and technical superiority of the weapon system and its firm reliability.“
As can be seen the flight test had a robust research and development focus to it. That did not prevent the media, and the relied upon think tank experts that it uses to buttress the prevailing conclusions of the moment, from saying the test was North Korea “signalling” to the US what might entail in 2020 should Washington and Pyongyang not reach a deal at the negotiating table. To be sure the test was on Thanksgiving Day, and North Korea has a history of giving “gift packages” on days of significance to Americans. However, it is possible to show that the test was primarily R&D in nature. Indeed, Pyongyang doesn’t need to “signal” its intentions. They have been clear since the Pyongyang Declaration was issued following the 2018 Pyongyang summit meeting between Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in. They have been made clearer since through various and sundry statements, declarations and speeches.
The real “signal” wasn’t to be found in the test. That came not long thereafter, as I will explain a bit later.
There have been four tests of the KN-25 MLRS system. After the first test Pyongyang stated that the system required further perfection, strongly implying further flight tests in the near future. After the 31st of October KN-25 test North Korea stated it was meant to “verify the security of launcher’s continuous fire system.” One can see that this has indeed been the key R&D consideration in the four tests. I have developed a series of tables below demonstrating the time differential between the launch of the first and second missiles in each of the multiple launch rocket system tests
|23 August||9:45pm||97km Apogee||380km Range|
|23 August||10:02pm||97km Apogee||380km Range|
|Time Differential||17 Minuets|
|9 September||9:53 pm||50km Apogee||330km Range|
|9 September||10:12 pm||50km Apogee||330km Range|
|Time Differential||19 Minuets|
|31 October||7:35am||90km Apogee||370km Range|
|31 October||7:38am||90km Apogee||370km Range|
|Time Differential||03 Minuets|
|28 November||7:59am||97km||380km Range|
|28 November||7:59:30am||97km||380km Range|
|Time Differential||30 Seconds|
This data is provided by the James Martin Centre for Nonproliferation Studies and the Nuclear Threat Initiative North Korea missile test database. The significantly decreasing time differential supports North Korea’s contention that the KN-25 tests have been concerned with perfecting the continuous fire system. The 28 November test, with a time differential between missile firings of 30 seconds, supports North Korea’s assertion made in the relevant KCNA press release as cited above regarding finally testing the combat applicability of the system.
This aspect to the KN-25 MLRS tests have been widely interpreted, and widely reported in the media, as steaming from North Korea’s desire to develop a “shoot-and-scoot” capability to evade counter-battery fire. This is surely correct, but I contend it is actually a secondary consideration. The continuous and rapid fire of multiple rockets is intrinsic to any MLRS system because such systems are designed for area suppression fire. An example of this is provided by the following drone footage of a Russian MLRS strike.
However, the KN-25 is not your run of the mill MLRS system. It features fins on the payload section of the rocket, which strongly suggests that the KN-25 rockets are guided hence really ballistic missiles rather than free rockets over ground. The KN-25 could even have a tactical nuclear mission given its calibre (600mm). But even here area suppression is primary (concentrations of maritime amphibious landing craft and combined arms manoeuvre units) and shoot-and-scoot secondary.
Notice that for the 28 November KN-25 test Kim Jong Un was accompanied by the Chief of the General Staff of the Korean People’s Army “and commanders of the large combined units of the KPA” (KCNA statement linked above). I have consistently, in each and every post on the KN-25 emphasised that the system appears designed to prevent the combined arms operational level units of the South Korean and United States armies from manoeuvring to pincer Pyongyang as reportedly called for by OPLAN 5015. The commanders of the large combined arms units of the KPA are the men to whom this task would fall in the event of war. I believe it to be significant that they accompanied Kim Jong Un to the November 28 test. That’s a ‘signal” if you will, but lost in all the noise about phantom signals which did not convey information (in the sense of information theory).
To return to the signalling and the guided missile aspects. The signalling, and in a big way, came after the test in response to remarks of Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Abe’s comments were overdrawn, but they were on the money when Abe characterised the KN-25 as a missile rather than an MLRS free rocket over ground. That, correct, contention drew North Korea’s ire and a vice director general of the Department of Japanese Affairs of North Korea’s Foreign Ministry issued a strongly worded statement that included this; “Abe may see what a real ballistic missile is in the not distant future and under his nose.” Now that’s a signal. What missile, we cannot know, and by “under his nose” we also cannot be certain but it does suggest something overflying Japan.
Finally, Ri Tae Song, the Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs in charge of US affairs at the foreign ministry issued a statement carried by KCNA on 3 December which stated
“The DPRK has done everything transparently and openly so far. It feels no need to hide what it will do from now on and therefore, reminds the U.S. once again that the year-end time limit comes nearer.“
That’s a curious statement, and one that has gone unparsed by both the media and analysts alike. The statement did attract widespread attention from both quarters but not because of this passage. The two sentences above are, firstly, contradictory, and secondly, the first is false. Consider the contradiction. The first sentence states that North Korea has been transparent thus far. The second states from “now on” North Korea will be transparent. A clear contradiction. Moreover, we have good reason to believe that North Korea has not been transparent thus far; about its fissile material production capabilities and stockpile, about the true status of its solid fuel missile programme, about the production and assembly of existing ICBMs and IRBMs. Pyongyang was not transparent about the true nature of what it did at the nuclear test site in Punggye-ri (closed the tunnels rather than collapsed them). All are clouded in secrecy and doubtless many of these activities continued throughout the Singapore process from early 2018 onward.
The statement by Ri can be parsed as North Korea saying it would shed light on some or all of these aspects to its nuclear programme upon the collapse of the Singapore process. The suspected clandestine uranium enrichment plants might come out of the closet. The solid fuel IRBM and ICBM programmes might also.
What did garner widespread attention was Ri’s saying; “it is entirely up to the U.S. what Christmas gift it will select to get.” What did the media and the erstwhile think tank experts read into that? You guessed it, “signalling” through ICBM testing about Kim Jong Un’s end of year deadline for diplomacy to bare fruit. To that matter we return in a post to follow upon this one (hopefully over the next few days).