North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capabilities have developed significantly in recent years, and North Korea now likely possesses the capability to strike the entirety of the U.S. mainland. North Korea’s success in developing its ICBMs is due in large part to the success that North Korea has had in developing its ballistic missile arsenal as a whole. Indeed, the foundations for North Korea’s ICBM program were built upon the successful development of earlier missiles, and in particular on the development of the Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM).
Hwasong-12 Development and Capabilities
The Hwasong-12 was first unveiled during an April 2017 military parade but was at the time believed to be a modified variant of North Korea’s KN-08 ICBM. To date, the missile has been tested a total of six times. The first three tests were unsuccessful, and at the time were believed to have been tests of a variant of the DPRK’s arsenal of Scud missiles. The Hwasong-12 was test-fired twice – once on April 4 and again on April 16 – from the port city of Sinpo, with the first test ending with the missile spinning out of control and the second with the missile exploding shortly after launch. The missile would be tested again on April 28, this time from the Pukchang airfield.
The first successful test of the Hwasong-12 took place on May 13, 2017, with additional successful tests taking place in August and September of that year. As part of these two subsequent tests, North Korea launched the Hwasong-12 in such a way that the missile flew over a portion of the Japanese island of Hokkaido, contributing to the heightened tensions between the United States and North Korea that characterized 2017. The Hwasong-12’s third test launch marked the first instance in which the missile was fired directly from a transporter-erector launcher (TEL) as opposed to a concrete launching platform, demonstrating the DPRK’s growing confidence in the missile’s capability.
The Hwasong-12 is a single-stage, liquid-fueled missile powered by a single-engine accompanied by four steering engines. The missile’s engine represents the first use of what is possibly a domestically designed and produced engine first tested by North Korea in March 2017. Based on assessments of the missile’s performance during testing, the Hwasong-12 likely has a range of up to 4,500 km, allowing it to strike U.S. military facilities on the island of Guam.
The Significance of the Hwasong-12
Given its ability to range Guam, the Hwasong-12 offers North Korea some operational benefit. Indeed, during the showdown between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump in 2017, Kim specifically mentioned Guam as a North Korean target. Despite this, the Hwasong-12’s primary significance can be found not in its military utility, but in how it has enabled North Korean development of more powerful ballistic missiles.
Following the Hwasong-12’s first successful test, analysts pointed to the potential implications for the development of a North Korean ICBM, highlighting a range of developments associated with the Hwasong-12 relevant to ICBM development, including the improved engine and better propellants along with a lighter airframe. Sure enough, the Hwasong-14, North Korea’s first successfully tested ICBM, clearly built on the Hwasong-12’s success: its first stage was identical to the Hwasong-12, utilizing the same engine and stabilizers.
The Hwasong-12 also likely contributed to the development of North Korean ICBMs simply by virtue of itself not being an ICBM. Successfully testing and launching the Hwasong-12 afforded Pyongyang greater confidence when testing its ICBMs. Given that ICBM launches are both more costly and far more provocative, North Korea likely saw the benefit of working out the kinks with the Hwasong-12 as opposed to conducting repeated ICBM tests. This logic may also have factored into North Korea’s decision to fly the missile over Japan. North Korea may have been hoping to establish a norm of testing missiles over Japan without provoking a U.S. response – which would have been unlikely to succeed had the tests involved an ICBM – while also testing the missiles under operational conditions, a prerequisite for full deployment of the weapon system. Given the similarities between the Hwasong-12 and the Hwasong-14, North Korea may have felt that it could check this box for the ICBM without having to conduct a highly provocative test.
Accurately assessing the development of North Korea’s ICBM capabilities requires reference to the successful development of the Hwasong-12 IRBM. That the Hwasong-12 served as the foundation for the emergence of North Korea’s ICBM arsenal should further serve as a reminder about the importance of preventing future North Korean ballistic missile testing.
Eli Fuhrman is an Assistant Researcher in Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest and a current graduate student at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, where he focuses on East Asian security issues and U.S. foreign and defense policy in the region.