“The United States and its Asian allies regard North Korea as a grave security threat,” opened a recent Council on Foreign Relations report on the DPRK’s military capabilities. These concerns are not entirely misplaced; North Korea is believed to own a stockpile of around sixty nuclear weapons, including a powerful and steadily growing arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM’s). This is what three of North Korea’s most powerful ICBM models—the Hwasong 14, 15, and 16—are capable of doing.
Hwasong-14 is a two-stage, liquid-fueled mobile ICBM, first test-launched in the summer of 2017. Hwasong-14’s single liquid-fueled engine seemingly bears wide-ranging similarities to its Hwasong-12 predecessor. North Korean authorities claimed the missile could “strike anywhere on earth”—although an obvious exaggeration, the Hwasong-14 does manage to set an important precedent. At a likely range of around 10,000 kilometers, it is the first North Korean missile capable of reaching mainland North America. This new range estimate is significantly revised from initial projections, which pointed to a significantly lower range of around 7,000 to 9,500 kilometers. The Hwasong-14 can deliver a payload of approximately 500-600 kilograms, according to the spectrum of western expert consensus. Though Hwasong-14 is a major leap forward for North Korean ICBM capabilities, the missile’s reliability has been called into question. As noted by the CSIS Missile Defense Project, “debate continues over the Hwasong-14’s reentry vehicle and whether it is capable of surviving the stresses associated with ICBM distance.”
Hwasong-15 shares many technical characteristics with its Hwasong-14 counterpart—in particular, they appear to use similar propulsion systems. Still, the Hwasong-15 dwarfs its predecessor in most performance areas. It boasts a significantly greater range of around 13,000 kilometers and is capable of delivering a 1,000-kilogram payload; it also offers a substantially improved control system, allowing a greater degree of precision. Partly as a result of these performance upgrades, the missile is both larger and heavier than the Hwasong-14. It requires a nine-axle transporter erector launcher (TEL), as opposed to the eight-axle TEL of its predecessor.
North Korea unveiled its new “monster ICBM,” sometimes referred to as the Hwasong-16, at an October 2020 military parade commemorating the seventy-fifth anniversary of the North Korean Workers’ Party. At first glance, the missile appears to be a bigger and more capable successor to the Hwasong-15. In particular, the DPRK’s newest missile appears to support a much greater payload of around 2,000 to 3,000 kilograms. But the Hwasong-16 is, in some key ways, an apparent step backward for North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. The new missile’s colossal size requires a similarly large TEL—it can’t travel very far and only has a small number of available travel paths, making its movements more predictable. By comparison, the Hwasong-15 is markedly more mobile and is still perfectly capable of delivering catastrophic damage with its 1,000-kilogram payload—it has also been successfully tested at least once. Hwasong-16 is, like all its predecessors, liquid-fueled, defying the widespread expectations of western experts that North Korea is finally ready to make the leap to solid-fueled ICBM technology. Whereas a solid-fueled ICBM can be launched nearly at a moment’s notice, deploying a liquid-fueled missile can take as long as eighteen hours. This gap makes liquid-fueled missiles less survivable and limits their value as second-strike nuclear weapons.