In late March, North Korea launched two short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) towards the East Sea, marking the country’s first ballistic missile launch since President Joe Biden assumed office. According to regime officials quoted in DPRK state media, the launch was of a “new-type tactical guided projectile.”
While concrete details about the new system remain scarce, if North Korean assertions about the new missile are true then the launch is significant because of both the potential technical enhancements and associated military benefits, and because the launch demonstrates continued North Korea commitment to the pursuit of recently declared objectives with regards to improvements in North Korean military capabilities.
North Korea has in recent years made substantial progress in improving the capabilities of its SRBMs. Newly developed SRBM variants – including the KN-23, KN-24, and KN-25 – are believed to be both significantly more accurate than their predecessors and are also capable of posing a serious challenge to regional ballistic missile defense systems in both South Korea and Japan.
North Korea’s recently tested missile appears to strongly resemble its KN-23 SRBM. Based on previous North Korean tests of the KN-23, the missile possesses a maximum range of 690 km and an effective range of 450 km while carrying a 500-kilogram payload. In addition, the KN-23 flies on a quasi-ballistic missile trajectory, and its low flight altitude and capability for in-flight maneuverability complicate interception.
According to senior military and party official Ri Pyong Chol, who oversaw the recent launch, the new missile carried a larger 2,500-kilogram warhead while utilizing previously developed technology. A statement by the North Korean Academy of National Defense Science declared that the new missile demonstrated both continued reliability of North Korean solid-fuel motors, as well as key characteristics of North Korea’s advanced SRBMs including low-altitude flight and the ability to perform a skip or “pull-up” maneuver during the missile’s final phase of flight. According to the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff, the missiles flew to a range of 450 km.
The Significance of the Launch and the Missile
In one respect, the significance of the North Korean test lies with North Korea’s decision to launch a ballistic missile and the international response to that decision.
Following the 2018 and 2019 summit meetings between former President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the Trump administration repeatedly downplayed or even dismissed the significance of North Korean testing of short-range missiles. In essence, this gave North Korea a free run to test and develop its short-range missile capabilities.
The recent launch may have been motivated at least in part by a North Korean desire to probe and test the limits of the international community’s tolerance – and that of the new Biden administration in particular – for similar North Korean missile development moving forward. While going further than the Trump administration by at least condemning the launch as “a serious threat,” – with the President himself declaring that the United States would “response accordingly” should North Korea escalate further – the current administration has yet to move beyond simply chastising the North.
The international community has also not taken any action in response to the launch, with a recent U.N. Security Council meeting resulting in not even a statement. North Korea is likely to view the recent test as a success insofar as it failed to elicit any meaningful response from the United States or its allies, and will feel confident in its ability to safely carry out similar tests in the future. North Korea may also look to test larger weapon systems as it continues to test and challenge the boundaries available to it.
The new system itself is also significant. Some analysts have argued that the new missile is of little military value, with the 2,500-kilogram warhead proving to be unnecessarily large for the purposes of fitting a nuclear warhead onto a short-range missile; instead, any military benefit will derive from the possibility of improved conventional effects associated with a larger warhead. Others disagree, however, and point to the implications of the new missile for the development of North Korean tactical nuclear weapons, while also arguing that the new missile’s larger warhead allows North Korea to fit less-compact and easier-to-design nuclear warheads onto a short-range missile.
The missile’s significance can also be seen in the extent to which it demonstrates North Korea’s continued commitment to advancing specific military capabilities and its progress in meeting those goals. Most notably, during the Eighth Party Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea in January, Kim Jong Un identified the development of tactical nuclear weapons as a military priority. This new missile reveals that such a statement was not just an empty threat, but a clear policy objective that is nearing competition. In addition, North Korea’s continued development of solid-fuel motors for its ballistic missiles remains a concern given the possibility that this could eventually result in the development of a solid-fuel motor for an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
The recent launch of a North Korean SRBM, and the missile itself, should be seen as significant. The launch confirms that North Korea is once again utilizing short-range missile launches as a means to test and push the limits of international tolerance for the development of its strategic weapons program. The missile itself has implications for the future of the North Korean nuclear weapons arsenal, in particular the development of tactical nuclear weapons and the continued development of expertise with regards to solid-fuel motors.
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.