North Korea’s KN-23 SRBM and Strategic Stability

North Korea’s test of the KN-23 SRBM has provoked some pretty good discussion and analysis as to its origins, its capabilities especially with reference to ballistic missile defence, and its impact on strategic stability. I’m interested in all three here, but I’m really interested in the impact on strategic stability. The KN-23 bares a resemblance, both physically and in terms of its quasi ballistic trajectory, to the Russian Iskander-M SRBM.

The debate on the origins of the KN-23 concerns the indigenous nature of the missile. Did the North Koreans illicitly procure an Iskander or its components and reverse engineered the missile or is it a home brewed missile that North Korea’s defence science and engineering complex developed on its own?  That resemblance has seen more than a few observers, especially early on, conclude that the KN-23 is a replica of the Iskander-M and so therefore more likely based on illicit procurement than indigenous research and development. Straight after the May 9 test (the first was on May 4) I had stated here in a previous posting that the evidence does not necessarily support a finding of illicit procurement or reverse engineering.

“The NK-Iskander is envisaged to play a similar operational role to the Russian Iskander and the South Korean Hyunmoo-2 SRBM, and so the physical and engineering problems faced by North Korean scientists would be no different to their Russian and South Korean counterparts hence their solutions likely wouldn’t be too different either. To cite the physicist Julian Schwinger, in an entirely different context, “gentleman we must bow to nature” and she is the same in North Korea as she is elsewhere.”

The most detailed case that it does rest on illicit procurement rather than indigenous research and development can be found in this article by Michael Elleman at 38North.

Elleman writes that the external physical characteristics are very similar to the Iskander-M, the Hyunmoo-2 SRBM of South Korea which, we know, does have Russian origins, and the Ukrainian Grom SRBM currently in development. Elleman writes,

“All four missiles appear to share the same external dimensions and features, with only minor differences in the shape of the nose cones. Iskander is known to be equipped with at least three different nose cones, so the variations across the four missiles may not be determinate.”

Elleman goes on,

“The more likely explanation relates to the direct import of Iskander from either Russia or a third party. Pictures from the test launch support this explanation. As shown in Figure 5, and highlighted originally by German missile-specialist Markus Schiller, the debris generated by the launch in North Korea is a virtual match of a launch of Iskander conducted by Russia. This coincidence is compelling and fully consistent with the importation of a Russian-produced Iskander.”

However, researchers at the Centre for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies have developed a model of the KN-23, based on analysis of imagery from the North Korean tests, that demonstrate important physical differences compared to the Iskander-M. Jeffrey Lewis of MIIS has published the findings of the CNS-MIIS model building emphasising that it supports the view that the KN-23 was indigenously developed. Two features that Lewis points to are obviously there and the significance that Lewis attaches to them is also well supported by the evidence provided. The first is an elongated cable raceway that extends beyond the top of the solid fuel motor and the second are differences in the jet vanes at the bottom which enable the KN-23 to be manoeuvred in flight. Have a look and see for yourself. The evidence is pretty strong in my opinion. The cable raceway is interesting because

“The most likely explanation is that the guidance system is forward of a payload with a fixed diameter that the cabling must bypass externally, such as a nuclear warhead. The KN-23 may, therefore, be a designed as a dual-capable system of delivering conventional and nuclear payloads.”

The cable race way shows that the KN-23 is modular, that is it’s not designed just for one strategic mission like BMD busting. The KN-23 supports the mission set of just about the entire Iskander missile series. That’s important, as we shall see below when we look at the matter of strategic stability.

The modelling also supports the conclusion that, according to Lewis, “overall, the KN-23 appears to be indigenous, although its design appears to have been inspired by the Iskander-M and other, similar missiles, such as South Korea’s Hyunmu-2B.” Have a look at the evidence that Lewis identifies and describes of the jet vanes in this context. It’s pretty compelling.The modelling also is suggestive of the KN-23’s performance characteristics

“Initial modeling of the missile’s performance using three programs—AGI’s Missile Tool Kit, Missile Flyout, and a CNS-developed program—suggests that it should be able to deliver a 500 kg payload to approximately a maximum range of about 450 km on a minimum energy trajectory.”

Elleman has also stated that,

“The missile tested last week, if domestically designed and produced, even with extensive foreign assistance would be in an early development phase, years away from operational deployment, and years removed from being a precision-guided missile.”

That’s on a par with recent statements from US planners at the annual Shangri La Asia-Pacific security dialogue in Singapore that North Korea is “close” to acquiring the capability to strike the continental United States with a nuclear warhead. What we see is a persistent denial of North Korea’s scientific and technical capabilities, which is odd and something that requires explanation. A further reminder of this came quite recently with a geological analysis of the available data on North Korea’s September 2017 thermonuclear weapon test or hydrogen bomb test if you will. The analysis increases the yield estimate from those commonly used in popular discourse (themselves based on reported intelligence community analysis).

Let me put the explanation bit aside for now. I would argue that this discounting of North Korea’s technological capabilities, once again evident with the KN-23 as shown, in itself is deleterious for strategic stability. That’s because the denial of North Korea’s technical abilities provides support for those arguing, both within and without the Trump administration, that disarming military strike options exist for dealing with the strategic nuclear threat posed by North Korea. President Trump’s former national security adviser, General McMaster, still publicly says such options feasibly exist. This is a dangerous delusion for North Korea’s demonstrated scientific and technological capacities demonstrate that it can make its hydrogen bomb reach its designated targets like right now (note the 500kg payload estimate for the KN-23 above). The other thing is that the delusion also provides a measure of succour for the “we can wait out the North Koreans” position regarding the stalled, if not collapsed, denuclearisation talks. North Korea’s growing technical capabilities, rather, support the view that if there’s a rational time to talk it is now. Not only that but Pyongyang’s growing technical capabilities also suggests that the more rational goal of denuclearisation diplomacy should be achieving strategic stability rather than wholesale dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes.

The speed and quasi ballistic flight profile of the Iskander-M are designed to defeat ballistic missile defence. Analysis of the KN-23 supports the contention that this is a salient factor that applies here too. Elleman wrote of two important aspects at play, firstly

“In-flight maneuverability, in addition to substantially enhancing accuracy, also complicates and compromises ballistic-missile defenses. Defenses can no longer precisely predict Iskander’s post-boost flight path, making it more difficult for the fire-control radar to calculate an anticipated interception point, without which the interceptor cannot be aimed with precision.”


“Finally, Iskander can exploit gaps in South Korean and American missile-defense coverage. While the exact numbers are secret, Patriot missile-defense interceptors are believed to have an engagement ceiling of about 40 km. The upper-tier or exo-atmospheric interceptors employed by THAAD and Aegis missile defenses have an engagement floor of roughly 50 km attitude. This creates a 10-km interceptor effectiveness seam at altitudes between 40 and 50 km. The seam almost perfectly coincides with Iskander’s flight path prior to its sharp dive toward ground-based target.”

Recall that the KN-23 has an apogee of 50km.

Both points certainly apply to the Iskander-M and there’s strong evidence to suppose that the KN-23’s flight and performance characteristics were chosen by North Korean planners so that it could perform the same missile defence busting mission as the Iskander-M. I would suggest that this design feature demonstrates the extent to which missile defence is strategically destabilising, a point scientific, strategic, and arms control analysts have been making for decades now. That analysis doesn’t somehow apply everywhere else but mysteriously ends when we turn our gaze to the Korean peninsula. There’s a certain a intellectualism at work here, likely borne of ideological and power considerations. Secondly, missile defence is really a first strike weapon and that also applies in the Korean context as missile defence is integrated into a war planning system that emphases preemptive strikes such as South Korea’s Kill Chain and Korean Air and Missile Defence (KAMD) concepts. Missile defence is there for any residual and poorly coordinated and executed second strike. Let us recall that the Hyunmoo-2 is a key part of South Korea’s decapitation strategy as exemplified by Kill Chain. That is, missile defence is supportive, and is meant to be supportive, of preemptive strikes.

However, the strongest statement on the deleterious impact of the KN-23 on strategic stability comes from Duyeon Kim and Melissa Hanham in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The article, frankly, is horrid. Kim and Hanham write that several characteristics of the KN-23, such as survivability and mobility, demonstrate the destabilising impact of the missile. For example, they write

“South Korea and the United States have to use a lot of resources to continuously monitor the locations of these mobile missiles, which are inherently more difficult for the United States to preemptively strike.”

Now previous to that line they wrote,

“Indeed these may be the first weapons used in a large scale conflict that could pull allies in. They cannot be regarded simply as part of a sovereign country’s right to develop arms.”

Recall the point about the Hyunmoo-2, which is directly derived from the Iskander-M.

When the United States and South Korea plan, long before the KN-23 mind you, preemptive strikes as part of their strategic concepts for a second Korean war and, further, seek to develop a capability to do precisely so that’s not strategically destabilising. That’s a right too, presumably. What’s destabilising is making it more difficult for the United States to preemptively strike.

Kim and Hanham argue that the solid fuelled KN-23 is destabilising because that means, relative to liquid fuelled missiles, that the KN-23 is mobile and it also has a lower footprint on the ground which both complicate the task of US planners. There have been arguments made previously that the solid fuelledPpukguksong-2 MRBM is destabilising also on account of its being propelled by solid fuels.  But not many would say in other contexts, for example with SSBNs on patrol with solid fuelled SLBMs or the Topol road mobile solid fuelled ICBMs, that mobility and survivability are destabilising. To the contrary, traditional deterrence and arms control theory associates both with stability precisely because stability arises, according to the theory, when both sides are denied preemptive strike options. But for Kim and Hanham instability on the Korean peninsula comes about when the United States is denied a preemptive strike option.

There’s a sense in which this denial of a US preemptive strike option appears to underpin the KN-23’s rationale. The US strategic posture, not just with regard to Korea, is based upon the idea of dominance across the full spectrum of operations known as “full spectrum dominance”. There’s a sense in which full spectrum dominance merges with the cold war era concept of dominance on all the rungs of the escalation dominance. The May 4 and May 9 KN-23 tests were accompanied by test firing of two distinct Multiple Launch Rocket Systems and, definitely on May 9, with firing of self propelled artillery to boot. This suggests a measure of operational integration or jointness to use Pentagonese. Both occurred on distinct, East and West, possible axes of the pincers of OPLAN 5027, the US operational plan for a second Korean war. That plan, reportedly, envisages pincering Pyongyang in offensive operations to end the North Korean regime and, presumably, the North Korean state. First a Blitzkrieg and then an Anschluss as it were.

Preemptive strike options in a crisis would, presumably, feature in such a plan. We know of South Korea’s Kill Chain and KAMD concepts, for instance. The KN-23 could well be Pyongyang’s way of saying that in this spectrum of conflict Washington does not have a viable preemptive strike option. That is on this rung of the escalation ladder North Korea can go toe-to-toe with Washington and Seoul so thus denying the Pentagon full spectrum dominance. The KN-23 might also be concerned with Anti Area/Access Denial, through attacks on massed land and maritime forces, so complicating the drawing of the pincers of OPLAN 5027. My reading of the KN-23 goes something like this; the United States wants to retain escalation dominance on the Korean peninsula and North Korea wants to deny Washington that capability.

It’s that mutual dynamic that is destabilising not North Korean actions alone. The conception of stability that Kim and Hanham have is the standard, widely shared, imperial one that equates stability with the ability of Washington to engage in escalatory strikes of its own so that it might impose its will upon an adversary at low cost.

Consider the policy recommendations that Kim and Hanham make. They call for,

“While it will be challenging to garner Chinese and Russian support, the Council should now take a stronger stand, strengthening enforcement of existing sanctions (including coal, petroleum, seafood, textiles, minerals, and overseas labor) because of the threat posed by these missiles.”

There are parts of North Korea not far from famine, and the food situation in the country is not what is to be associated with human dignity. Yet Kim and Hanham’s suggestion would make that situation worse, note the part about seafood which calls for tightening restrictions on food explicitly. I’ll leave it to the reader to consider further the moral odiousness of a call to make life for hungry North Koreans tougher because their government has developed a missile which makes it “inherently more difficult for the United States to preemptively strike.”

It is obvious to anyone that has been paying a milliseconds worth of attention to the situation on the Korean peninsula that a further tightening of sanctions will only escalate the current standoff. That is, Kim and Hanham’s suggestion will increase instability and in itself is destabilising. However, on the operative concept of stability which equates that concept with US freedom of action then what Kim and Hanham are calling for makes perfect sense. It’s long been a staple of US imperial power that from time to time Washington needs to create instability in order to create stability. By stability of course is meant in the operative, not literal, sense.

If you want what Kim and Hanham call “a great big nuclear war” just follow their recommendations, you can’t go wrong.

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