Not So Squeezy: What to Make of North Korea’s Latest Round of Missile Testing?

Much water has flowed down the Kuryong since our last greeting on North Korea. Developments have been dominated by continued North Korean short range missile testing, although the enshrining of changes to the constitution of the DPRK (announced at a previous meeting of the North’s legislature, the Supreme People’s Assembly) giving Kim Jong-un more formal powers of state, the reappearance in the news of Pyongyang’s Romeo class modification ballistic missile submarine, and some stuff I’ve noticed on North Korea’s energy programme have also garnered interest. I’m thinking there may be a thread connecting these, which I’ll write about in a subsequent post.

Here we stick to the missile testing, which began with a KN-23 (Iskander like) SRBM test on May 4. The last test was of a large calibre MLRS system on August 24. I wanted to devote this post to a smaller one focusing on guidance alone, but the publication of the UN’s Panel of Experts report on North Korea related sanctions has scooped me.  In that report the PoE states the recent round of testing demonstrates North Korea has a “comprehensive and autonomous” missile programme. I concur with this conclusion, as I always have, yet the “bluff hypothesis” dies hard I notice. It is argued by Vann Van Diepen and Daniel Depetris at 38North the latest testing doesn’t fundamentally alter the deterrence equation on the Korean peninsula. True enough, a point to which we return, however notice the dilemma of deterrence exists in Pyongyang not necessarily Washington, Tokyo and Seoul. That dilemma partially underpins the latest round of ballistic missile testing, a good portion of which, for example, occurred from or near airbases (and terrain providing foliage and cover) which is an indication of the concerns North Korean planners have about Washington and Seoul’s decapitation capabilities and plans.

The formalisation of changes to North Korea’s constitution has come hot on the heels of the sabre rattling. There’s this general idea in analysis and commentary that everything North Korea does is related to external relations, especially those with the United States. But the August 24 date for the last test and the enacting of constitutional amendments thereafter might be an indication these have served an important domestic political function, namely they’ve supported the elevation of Kim Jong-un’s formal status akin to Kim Il-sung. The latest test and operational launches are neatly bookended by this process. The SPA announced the constitutional amendments just before the tests started and the last test occurred just before the formal enacting of these amendments. It’ll be interesting to see whether the tempo of testing continues after the formalisation of the constitutional amendments. Thus far we’ve had two Saturday’s missile free.

What does this portend for denuclearisation diplomacy? The tests have been accompanied by superheated, indeed at time graphic, rhetoric. That doesn’t look good, but then again North Korea has moved to negotiations in the past under a political shield provided by blood curdling rhetoric. We could get a repeat now. In the middle of this there have been statements from Pyongyang indicating North Korea will initiate working level talks with US officials. We shall have to see whether the tide turns, or better still we could get real and offer Pyongyang a strategic stability agreement (short of nuclear abolition) it can’t refuse.

Okay, back to the missiles. We’ve seen testing of the KN-23 Iskander like SRBM, a new large calibre MLRS best viewed as a missile, and an ATACMS like short range tactical missile. The nomenclature gets a bit confusing. The KN-23 (US IC designation) is clear enough, but in order of appearance (how the US IC sorts these things) you’d expect the large calibre MLRS system to be the KN-24 and the ATACMS like missile the KN-25. Yet a South Korean media report has the US designating the large calibre MLRS the KN-25. The new MLRS was the last system tested, and the KN-25 designation makes sense on the supposition that it’s different to the MLRS tested earlier in the latest round of missile launches. So, we’d have, presumably, the KN-23 (Iskander like SRBM,) the KN-24 (new MLRS system based on a guided tactical missile of longer range and larger calibre than the KN-09), the KN-25 (a longer length guided tactical missile than the KN-24), with the ATACMS presumably designated the KN-26.

A problem here is North Korea doctored the images of some MLRS tests.

I’m gonna stick to the following (tentatively until this shit gets sorted); KN-23 (Iskander like SRBM), KN-24 (large calibre MLRS), and KN-25 (ATACMS like missile). I’m going with this because that’s how the Centre for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies and Nuclear Threat Initiative North Korea missile testing database does it. Note that the database does not include the large calibre MLRS but does include the ATACMS like missile.

So KN-23 (tested to 690km range, 50km apogee, 0.9m diameter)

KN-24 (wheeled and tracked TEL versions tested to 250km range, 0.4-to-0.6m calibre)

New large calibre MLRS test prior to August 24
New large calibre MLRS test prior to August 24
August 24 large calibre MLRS test
August 24 large calibre MLRS test
August 24 large calibre MLRS test

KN-25 (tested to 400km range).

The last North Korean missile test (yes I’m calling the KN-24 MLRS system missile not rocket based) was on August 24. That was after the Alliance 19-2 US-South Korea command post exercises that attracted Pyongyang’s wrath, a point emphasised by commentators. North Korea’s recent spat of sabre rattling was considered largely a response to Alliance 19-2 (and the delivery of some F-35A Joint Strike Fighters to South Korea) and Pyongyang’s (my view credible) claim that President Trump promised Kim Jong-un at Panmunjom a suspension of military exercises. The North Koreans in their statements did little to disabuse us of this, often alluding to both sometimes with pretty graphic rhetoric as noted. The last KN-24 test did come after Alliance 19-2 (ended August 20), however August 25 is Songun Day in North Korea. This marks Kim Jong-il’s August 25, 1960 visit to the Seoul 105th Guards Tank Division (a Guards unit in the Soviet nomenclature is a famed unit; the 105th Tank Brigade took Seoul when thereafter it was elevated to a division hence “Seoul” and “Guards” much like the 1st Guards Tank Army of Stalingrad, Uranus, Kursk and Berlin fame), seen as the first step in KJI’s “Songun” (or military first) policy of the 1990s. The August 24 KN-24 MLRS test could have been Songun Day related hence the post Alliance 19-2 date.

I suspect there were both internal and external political reasons, on top of the military operational related, for the latest round of missile launches.

There are two things of a technical nature I’d like to focus on. That being the calibre and guidance of the KN-24 and KN-25 (the US ATACMS like SRBM), before concluding with some remarks on strategic stability implications.

The KN-24 and KN-25

The KN-24 is depicted as a large calibre and long range multiple launch rocket system, and it sure looks like one. However, the fins on the payload section suggest we have ourselves here more than a free rocket over ground. The fins indicate the KN-24 is guided, hence is best viewed as a missile. According to a Japanese assessment North Korea’s new relatively shorter range (for South Korea none of these are really “short range”) missiles (the KN-23, KN-24 MLRS, and KN-25 ATACMS like) are designed to evade and suppress missile defence. Those fins on the KN-24 MLRS feature as important empirical evidence supporting that view. As does the apogee of all three, which sits in a sweet spot above the maximum interception altitude of PAC-3 BMD and the 50km minimum interception of THAAD and Aegis based BMD. The BMD related contention on the strategic-operational front is surely correct.

The KN-24 has been compared to Pakistan’s Nasr MLRS system, and Pakistan has stated Nasr was developed, in part, to counter India’s growing interest in missile defences. The Nasr, according to the Pakistani’s, is capable of inflight and terminal manoeuvring. That’s consistent with an anti BMD mission profile. There’s been some confusion during the recent tests, especially early in the day, as to what North Korea was precisely testing. We really knew after KCNA released images. That’s not just because some of the ranges and apogees for the KN-23 and KN-24 have been similar. Some reports have suggested similar, therefore pseudo ballistic, flight profiles. Perhaps that’s an indication the KN-24 MLRS guided missile also is capable of inflight manoeuvre.    

But this is where the comparison gets really interesting. Nasr is seen as nuclear capable, and as a response to India’s Cold Start Doctrine. Whether India can pull off Cold Start and whether it even exists is hotly debated. The Cold Start Doctrine, reportedly, calls for India to develop combined arms (armour, mechanised infantry, artillery and aviation) strike groups nimble enough to rapidly assemble, deploy, and manoeuvre into Pakistan, blitzkrieg like, during a crisis to coerce Pakistan to cede to Delhi’s terms.  Nasr, then, is for laying area suppression fire against combined arms battle groups and not just with conventional firepower either. Nasr, which has a 70km range and an approx 0.4m diameter, is also regarded as being capable of delivering a tactical nuclear warhead (of some 0.5-to-5 kilotonnes TNT yield). The KN-24, which Pyongyang has characterised as a large calibre tactical guided rocket, is assessed (preliminary) by analysts as having an approx. 0.6m diameter. As noted the KN-24 has at least a 250km range. The Nasr has a 400kg throw weight, which is not to say the KN-24 does also. If there are two new MLRS tactical guided missiles, the first (recall pixelated imagery for the earlier tests), we would have an approx 0.4m calibre for the first and 0.6m calibre for the second.

Now North Korea in its nuclear testing has demonstrated greater capabilities than Pakistan (after all Pakistan didn’t test an H-bomb in 1998). So, does North Korea have a nuclear warhead compact enough to be delivered by a 0.4m diameter KN-24 MLRS tactical guided missile? We don’t know. Comparing North Korea’s nuclear test programme with Pakistan’s gives us no reason to rule it out a priori.  Fissile materials, however, could be a constraining factor. Compact low yield nuclear weapons require more plutonium than their larger volume versions. I assume plutonium for the fissile core for mass reasons (a greater mass of HEU would be needed for the same volume). It is generally recognised North Korea has developed composite pit warheads, but still the low annual plutonium production capability of the 5MWe plutonium production reactor limits what Pyongyang can do with plutonium. Should the denuclearisation talks fizzle to nothing (high cross section there I’m afraid) the completion of the experimental light water reactor at Yongbyon gives North Korea more options.

The KN-25 is North Korea’s latest missile system. It very much resembles the US ATACMS short range ballistic missile. Is it an entirely new system? I’m not so sure it is. The booster shares features with the booster of the KN-23 (Iskander like) SRBM. A North Korean press statement emphasised that it was designed and developed very recently, which further suggests it is based on the KN-23 rather than being designed and developed from the ground up (as it were). Analysis (again preliminary) suggests the KN-25 payload section has a diameter (calibre) of 0.6m. That’s more than the calibre of the KN-24 MLRS guided tactical missile but less than the KN-23 SRBM (which is widely assessed as nuclear capable). But do bear in mind our little nomenclature kerfuffle.

The thing is what Cold Start is for Pakistan, OPLAN-5015 is for North Korea. This is the reported US operational plan for a second Korean War, which (again reportedly) features preemptive strike options and enveloping Pyongyang with combined arms pincers. While there is debate about whether India can pull off Cold Start, there isn’t any doubt US (and ROK) forces can deploy combined arms operational units exhibiting mass, manoeuvre, speed, and lethality across the battlefield.  North Korean planners have long been animated by what Desert Storm showed US forces are capable of. The Desert Storm ground campaign consisted of Schwarzkopf’s famous “left hook” enveloping Iraq’s forces in the Kuwait Theatre of Operations (XVIII Airborne Corps featheriest to the west into southern Iraq and VII Corps with its heavy armour smashing into the Republican Guards divisions northside of the KTO, whilst a Marine Expeditionary Force marched from the south on Kuwait City). Reports of OPLAN-5015 are a bit similar in that, reportedly, a US-ROK combined force pushes from the south whilst a right hook from Wonsan completes the envelopment of Pyongyang and ensnares the vast bulk of the Korean People’s Army armour and mechanised infantry corps. The hook through Wonsan cuts off Pyongyang from Beijing. Then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell, stated the plan for Saddam’s army was simple; “first we’re gonna cut it off, then we’re gonna kill it.” Thus it transpired. So it appears with OPLAN-5015 where the plan for the North Korean regime seems equally simple in the event of a second Korean War; “first we’re gonna cut it off, then we’re gonna kill it.”

We should remember Kim Jong-un has stated flatly should there be no progress in diplomacy with the United States by the end of the year, Pyongyang may resume nuclear and long range missile testing in 2020. If North Korea hasn’t developed a workable tactical nuclear weapon like that reportedly launched by Pakistan’s Nasr the resumption of testing at Punggye-ri gives the North’s nuclear scientists something to aim for. The standard assumption has been North Korea is not building the type of nuclear weapons suitable for battlefield use. During 2017 I had written some posts here questioning that assumption. I had argued North Korean strategic planners would want to give Kim Jong-un a “theory of victory” not just a strategic deterrent. Korea is not a desert, indeed it’s quite hilly, and that gives large scale enveloping operations less battlespace to manoeuvre through. Concentrations of armour, mechanised infantry and artillery would be susceptible to low yield tactical nuclear attack.  Even better would be striking against maritime forces at sea preparing to embark in and around Wonsan for the drive to Pyongyang. North Korean planners are assumed to have learnt an important lesson from both Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom, namely don’t let the US mass its forces unopposed. The relatively long range of the large calibre MLRS and the KN-23 SRBM (over the INF floor) give KPA commanders the ability to target not just the southern front, but also the eastern front including off the cost of Wonsan. To do this properly, given the relative low yield of the nuclear systems, requires accuracy.

There’s a certain logic here. Should Pyongyang seek to self-reliantly not just deter a US attack but to defeat one, tactical nuclear weapons designed to break apart the pincers of OPLAN 5015 makes sense. In the KN-23, KN-24, and KN-25 missile systems Pyongyang is building a theoretical means to deliver tactical low yield nuclear weapons, even if they don’t already possess weapons of sufficient compactness for them. At a bare minimum the ATACMS like missile system and the large calibre MLRS give KPA ground forces the ability to subject enemy ground forces to conventional area suppression fire beyond the counter battery fire of opposing artillery. However, these systems would be deployed on a battlefield characterised by US-ROK air superiority. That provides an incentive to add a nuclear dimension.

Okay, So What of Guidance?

A good part of attention has been focused on what the KN-23, KN-24, and KN-25 testing might indicate regarding North Korea’s solid fuel missile production capacities. That’s a thing. But there’s also the question of guidance. In 2017 the dominant view was that North Korea’s long range missiles, the Hwasong-12, 14, and 15, were significantly inaccurate perhaps beyond the 10km CEP mark. I was sceptical about that, as readers would know. One of the KN-23 tests was fired from the west, over the Pyongyang area, and struck an islet in the East Sea (August 06 from Kwail Airbase, South Hwanghae Province 38.421522, 125.024421). That indicates both confidence in reliability and accuracy. The UN Panel of Experts report made interesting remarks about guidance, as noted, and although errors in inertial guidance systems accumulate, nonetheless it’s hard to believe the capabilities North Korea has showed off recently won’t be reflected in better guidance for its entire missile fleet including the longer range systems. As stated, this was to be a major focus of this post. That’s important because greater accuracy for its long range systems translates into greater assurance Pyongyang’s hydrogen bombs will hit urban-industrial targets on the continental United States. The PoE report stated

“According to another Member State, the DPRK has achieved indigenous capabilities in the production of guidance systems…According to the first Member State, the DPRK has upgraded its SCUD-D missile systems with better guidance and electronics…systems integration and internal synergies ensure that developments on the SRBM programme benefit MRBM/IRBM and ICBM programmes…DPRK procurement agents procured high-tech communication equipment for missile-to-ground communication that can operate at very high altitudes. The DPRK regularly procures Glonass/GPS sensors at intervals of around two months.”

With regard to solid fuel development the PoE report states

“According to one Member State the DPRK is actively engaged in indigenous R&D and the production of missiles with solid propellant, inter alia at the industrial complex of Hamhung. According to another Member State, there is a clear development progression from propellant for artillery rockets/SRBMs to solid propellant for ICBMs…according to one Member State, the DPRK’s current goal appears to be to develop a solid-fueled first stage for its ICBM.”

The report contains imagery of similar white container activity at North Korea’s solid fuel facility and solid motor casing facility.

That paints a picture not unlike 2017 and liquid propelled long range missiles. Before we saw the Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15 we saw the Hwasong-12 IRBM, based on the same booster stage as the Hwasong-14 and the same liquid propelled engine system as the HS-14 and HS-15 booster. The PoE report could be alluding to work on a solid fuelled Hwasong-12 equivalent, which forms the basis for a subsequent solid fuelled ICBM. In which case, 2020 could look a lot like 2017.

An Arms Race and Strategic Stability

As North Korea tested away South Korea announced a major strategic build up, in many respects designed to enhance its capacity for preemptive decapitation strikes and ballistic missile defence which are of a piece. BMD should be regarded as a first strike weapon. It was announced also that Japan would acquire the SM3-BlockIIA missile defence interceptor, the most capable US missile defence interceptor. The South Korean strategic build up is planned to include two more ground based radars (the current THAAD radar does not provide all azimuth coverage), three Aegis equipped destroyers and the introduction of the SM-3 missile interceptor, and new PAC-3 interceptors. All of this augments KAMD (Korea Air and Missile Defence). The build up is also planned to include enhancing South Korea’s “strategic strike capabilities” using precision guided missiles launched from the ground, the sea from surface vessels, submarines under the sea, and the air. According to Seoul’s ministry of defence,

“South Korea is superior to North Korea in short-range ballistic missiles qualitatively and quantitatively… We will secure ample interception capabilities against new types of ballistic missiles North Korea has recently test-fired”

This walks and talks like an arms race.

Recall the point about plutonium production constraints. We have a fairly good idea such constraints don’t affect the North’s uranium enrichment programme, which broke out long ago. In his 2019 New Year address Kim Jong-un spoke of investing in nuclear power to help alleviate North Korea’s energy crisis. Don’t be surprised if we see signs Pyongyang is rejigging its abandoned large gas cooled, graphite moderated, nuclear reactor programme. Such reactors might produce electricity, but fuelled by natural uranium they also make for an ideal plutonium production reactor. North Korea did begin, but abandoned following the Agreed Framework, a 200MWe graphite moderated reactor at Taechon which would have been able to produce 220kg of plutonium annually. There have been signs of low level activity at the Taechon site this year, but notice after Kim’s 2019 new year address.  There are parallels here to Chernobyl and Windscale, which would add another dimension to the North Korean nuclear crisis. Enhanced plutonium production would enable North Korea to do something the US and the Soviet Union did; produce both strategic and tactical nuclear weapons.

We have ourselves the trappings of an arms race, and one which could lead to a Chernobyl style nuclear accident and inadvertent nuclear weapons use. So, although I’d agree with the characterisation the latest North Korean testing does not alter the deterrence calculus on the Korean peninsula in a major way, it may well, nonetheless, detract from strategic stability. That’s because tactical nuclear weapons (but also the Pukukgsong-2 SLBM for the Romeo Class Mod SSB) might pose command and control dilemmas for Pyongyang during a crisis. Furthermore, we don’t know much about the efficiency of North Korea’s early warning system. Even if the weapons system we have been discussing are limited to the conventional sphere, an exchange of conventional strike systems could escalate or be mistaken for the opening salvo of a nuclear attack. Strategic stability is not just a function of deterrence. In 1983 the US deterred the USSR, and the USSR deterred the US, but that didn’t prevent the Able Archer crisis of 1983 or other close shaves. The problem with deterrence theory is though rational it is not realist. Nuclear weapons deter a rational actor, but states, much less human beings, are not necessarily rational actors. To recognise this is to be a realist. That’s why Kenneth Waltz, when discussing nuclear proliferation specifically, wasn’t a realist even though he claimed to be one (I’d argue this applied to his theoretical work given its positivist basis).

We have similar dynamics elsewhere. What we observe on the Korean peninsula we have observed in South Asia. We see the same with respect to the central strategic balance between Russia and the United States. There appears to be a desire to suck China into a similar dynamic, that is to compel its reversal of minimum existential deterrence. The Cold War exhibited only one strategically destabilising nuclear relationship. Now we see multiple versions, with more on the horizon (think Middle East). To be a realist is to recognise this is not the way to ensure the world’s security. Reason has its charms and its faults, but our ideological construal of it may yet prove fatal and not just in the nuclear domain.

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