Assessment by independent analysts of North Korea’s missile programme can be, roughly, divided into two periods. The first, when state officials exaggerated Pyongyang’s missile programmes especially in justification of ballistic missile defence, most analysts, correctly, tended to downplay North Korea’s missile capabilities given that it was based on Scud technology. Now we see analysts tending to point to the relatively advanced nature of North Korea’s missile programme, especially regarding an ICBM, and there is a discernible sense of alarm among some analysts regarding Pyongyang’s advancing capabilities.
The latter was well exhibited through some analysis of North Korea’s Hwasong-12 IRBM test on May 14. The focus here very much was placed upon the engine. Now Paul Savelsberg has some pretty interesting analysis at 38North suggesting that the Hwasong-12 engine basically is a Musudan MRBM engine with added vernier engines. The Musudan engine is based on the 4D10 engine used in the Soviet R-27 seal launched ballistic missile.
The Musudan was always paradoxical. It didn’t have the range to strike Guam so many wondered what it was for. The Hwasong-12, however, can strike Guam. With a 650kg payload it would have a range of 3,700km. a nice fit for Guam (3,400km) and a mission set that many felt the Musudan was supposed to fill, but its capabilities clearly precluded this. Don’t forget that the Hwasong-12, a modified KN-08, was paraded on a Musudan TEL at the Day of the Sun parade and we didn’t see any Musudans on the tarmac at that parade.
That would make the Hwasong-12 a medium range ballistic missile, not an intermediate range ballistic missile, from an operational, as opposed to theoretical, perspective that is. It’s the operational perspective that counts.
Regarding the ICBM angle much trades on the engine. Many have argued that the Hwasong-12, the North Koreans themselves have stated this, is a new indigenously designed high thrust engine with obvious ICBM implications. If so, that would be the engine statically tested earlier in the year. Silverberg argues that the Hwasong-12 engine could well be an R-27 engine, so not the engine statically tested earlier in the year, and so it’s potential ICBM implications are not as serious as first thought. 4D10 engines would need to be clustered for an ICBM. To cite Savelsberg from the above
Some experts speculate that the engine used in this test was the new engine North Korea tested in March, but it is difficult to confirm this based on the photographs alone
One of the things I noticed regarding the Hwasong-12 was not done with the sense of sight, rather with the sense of sound. The Hwasong-12 *sounds* like the Musudan. Listen to these two videos. The first is of the Musudan lofted trajectory launch in 2016. The second is of the May 14 Hwasong-12 test. Now my hearing is notoriously bad, but I’m thinking they sound kind of similar.