The DEFCON Warning System™

Ongoing GeoIntel and Analysis in the theater of nuclear war.  DEFCON Level assessment issued for public notification.  Established 1984.

A Review of the North Korean Missile Programme

The DPRK missile program and its dynamics have become one of the most urgent topics of world politics. In recent years, Pyongyang has been able to make a real breakthrough in the development and testing of new ballistic missiles, which changes the entire local strategy of nuclear deterrence.

At present, the military-political leadership of the DPRK is focused on solving several key problems:

First, the transition from “minimal” nuclear deterrence (when there is only a certain low probability of a nuclear response to an enemy attack) to a “reliable” (relatively high probability) or better yet “guaranteed” nuclear deterrence. Moreover, in the latter case, very high requirements exist for the survival and effectiveness of nuclear forces in the widest range of unfavorable military scenarios.

Secondly, the transition from indirect deterrence of the United States (the threat of attacks on US bases in the region and in the countries-allies) to direct (threat of attack targets in the United States, ideally – on the main continental territory).

Both problems can not be solved without the quantitative and qualitative improvement of national missile technology. And in this field truly revolutionary breakthroughs took place. So, only in 2016 North Korea carried out the first successful launch of two new ballistic missiles – “Hwasong-10” and “Pukukksong-1”. Also, the existence of the “Hwasong-9” missile (this is the mysterious SCUD-ER, which had been rumored for many years) was confirmed. And for the year 2017 (on July 21, 2017), four new ballistic missiles were launched: “Pukukksong-2”, “Hwasong-12”, “Hwasong-14” and a new “Hwasong”, the exact name of which has not yet been officially announced. At the same time, “Pukukksong-2” has already passed the qualification test, after which it was announced that it was put into serial production.

Survival and retribution

The problem of creating a system of “guaranteed” nuclear deterrence is quite large, and many of its aspects can not be considered here. However, in the context of nuclear weapons delivery systems, it is quite possible to assess the situation quite exhaustively.

In view of the rather small territory of the country and the considerably smaller potential of conventional weapons in comparison with the opponents, the most serious problem for Pyongyang is ensuring proper protection and survivability of its nuclear forces in the event of a first strike, as well as the emergence of a conflict in general.

Therefore, Pyongyang takes a variety of measures to improve the survivability of its missile systems in the war, as well as to develop measures to overcome missile defense.

First, we are talking about the quantitative growth of launchers. The more launchers – the harder it is to hit them all. Since Pyongyang is experiencing a deficit of specialized military offroads (like the famous “missile” MAZs), alternative options are being actively implemented. These are launchers on semi-trailers for conventional civil tractors, as well as self-produced tracked launchers

The successful launch of two different ballistic missiles from their caterpillar launchers has already been demonstrated, and the system on the semitrailer is still shown only at the parade. For a country that produces its own and mass-produced mass of complex caterpillar military equipment (including tanks), an increase in the park of caterpillar launchers is of no fundamental concern. Semitrailers are also easy to manufacture, and finding an ordinary civil car for them is not a problem.

It should also be noted that the use of such accommodation options simplifies imitation activities during the menacing period, as well as during the war. The fact is that a large number of caterpillar vehicles with a small “cosmetic” work will allow the Korean People’s Army to easily place missile models on it and reliably imitate caterpillar launchers. A similar situation with the civil fleet of trucks – the layout of the transport-launch container is not a problem. This will also complicate the search and defeat of real launchers.

Secondly, measures are being taken to expand the areas from which missile systems can operate. After all, for many long-armed missile systems, there are restrictions on the density of soils, on altitude differences, etc. For sites from which you can launch missiles. A significant part of the country is mountains in general, and missile installations, in fact, are clamped in previously known valleys.

There are several ways to solve this problem. And Pyongyang decided to go immediately for each path. The programs of both underwater-based ballistic missiles and new submarine-launched submarines are being conducted. This is a classic way to increase the survivability of nuclear forces – to hide part of them under water. And in the asset they already have one successful flight of medium-range ballistic missiles.

Another way is the creation of new missile systems with increased cross-country capability and with less requirements to the terrain for launching. A vivid example of a new approach is the “Puukykson-2” rocket. The complex is made on a caterpillar base, which significantly increases the “freedom of maneuver” – that is, the areas for which it is able to move and from where it is capable of launching. At the same time, the missile itself is in the transport-launch container, which also allows it to be transported to the launch point along more difficult routes intact. Add to this the “cold start” system, when the rocket first does not rise on the jet of its engine, but is thrown out of the container vertically, and only then turns the engine on. This drastically reduces the requirements for the launch site. So, the rocket can be launched from a larger number of potential locations than were suitable for old missile systems.

Thirdly, reducing the time to prepare for launch and stay in position. Like the original Soviet rocket systems of the SCUD family, many North Korean missiles require a fairly labor-intensive set of operations before launching. This is due primarily to a large list of analog electrical and electromechanical subsystems that require activation and tuning performed by operator manually. Trained calculations can reduce time to a minimum, but it’s still very difficult.

Here Pyongyang also went in two ways. On the one hand, the creation of sufficiently powerful solid-fuel rockets. This makes it possible to improve the survival of missile systems due to a shorter time of finding a position both before and after launch. On the other hand, modernization of old missiles and launching units is being carried out. Thus, in the official materials on the trial of the new Hwasong on May 29, 2017, the following is said: “… the preparatory process for launching was automated at a higher level than the previous Hwaseong class missiles and the system was improved in order to shorten the starting time …”

Fourth, it was necessary to solve the problems of rapid transfer to the combat readiness of the fleet of missiles and, if possible, maintaining the readiness of as many of them as possible.

This is primarily a problem of maintaining a group of liquid-fueled missiles based on the technology of Soviet R-17 operational-tactical missiles in relatively high combat readiness: they are Hwaseon-5 missiles (more commonly known as SCUD-B missiles), Khwasong-6 (SCUD -C), Hwasong-7 (Nodong) and Hwasong-9 (SCUD-ER). Yes, contrary to the popular myth, such missiles can indeed be stored with fuel, and even for a long time to keep them mounted on the launcher in an upright position (with an attached warhead – on Soviet test sites, this was done experimentally). Nevertheless, even with this for many years, the DPRK had problems – because of the peculiarities of the purity and composition of additives from local fuel and oxidizer. However, according to the intelligence of South Korea, the progress of the chemical industry of the DPRK has led to the fact that now the storage of military missiles for a long time in a fueled form is not a serious problem.

But the labor and the need for a fleet of equipment, so that all this can work smoothly, by modern standards is still too large. And too much “tie” the groups of launchers to their support bases. This increases vulnerability. Therefore, the development and deployment of the solid-fuel rocket “Pukkuksong-2” has also greatly helped here.

Its important characteristics are simpler storage and short set-up time, as well as no need to work with liquid components (fuel and oxidizer), which are usually flammable, explosive and poisonous. This is even more critical when it comes to the deployment and operation of complexes on underground bases. Another advantage of the new missile is that, unlike liquid-fueled missiles, solid fuel does not require a lot of servicing machines, which simplifies both the operation of the complex, and the disguise, organizational and staff structures of the units.

Fifthly, the problem of overcoming the enemy’s anti-missile system is added to this. For if earlier even single, very simple and slow ballistic missiles were practically guaranteed to hit targets, now they will have to overcome a very real ABM.

Prospective deployment of missiles on submarines will allow attacking the covered areas not only from previously known narrow areas. So, if the majority of ground-based ABM systems (like THAAD) are oriented to the previously known ground positions , then it is guaranteed to close “tightly” all potential missile attacks from the sea in the foreseeable future at least problematic.

Especially it should be noted that one of the theoretical methods for overcoming missile defense built on modern anti-missile systems can be the launch of a missile on a target at high speed along a steep (non-optimal from the point of view of range) trajectory. In this case, the attacking warhead has a certain angle and speed, either greatly hampering or making it impossible to intercept. So, in 2014, the launch of the Hwasong-7 missiles was conducted along a hinged trajectory, sharply reducing the probability of successful interception by modern missile defense systems. Successful launches of the Hwasong-10, Hwasong-12 and Hwasong-14 missiles in June 2016 were also carried out on a hanging trajectory. On a hinged trajectory for a short range, the “Pukkuksong-1” and “Pukkuksong-2” rockets also flew on tests.

Thus, to overcome missile defense, missiles can be used that are designed for a much longer range than before the current attacked targets. So, for example, the rocket “Pukkuksong-2”, which has a maximum estimated range of 1250 km, with firing at a range of 500-510 km will fly with an apogee of 550 km. “Hwasong-10” when firing at 400 km can fly with the apogee at 1,400 km. Entering the target area at very high speeds and at an angle, extremely unsuccessful for interception.

Therefore, for attack targets in South Korea, you can use the hanging trajectories on missiles “Hwasong-7”, “Hwasong-9”, “Hwasong-10” and “Pukkuksong-2”. For the attack on targets in Japan – “Hwasong-10”, “Hwasong-12” and “Hwasong-14”. For the attack on the American island of Guam, the capabilities of the Hwasong-12 and Hwasong-14 missiles will suffice.

Another way to neutralize the missile defense is the use of missile salvoes to “saturate” ABM. A good example is the teachings of North Korean missilemen on September 5, 2016, during the publication of information about which the existence of a ballistic missile SCUD-ER (“Hwasong-9”) in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was confirmed, with a maximum confirmed range of up to 1000 km. The missiles themselves, by means of technical control of neighboring countries, were mistakenly identified as “Nodong” (“Hwasong-7”), and the launch of three missiles was carried out in a compressed time period, and two of them were launched almost simultaneously. So, to oversaturate the anti-missile defense cover in Japan can now be used and launched salvoes from numerous conventional SCUD-SCUD launchers SCUD-ER. They are many, they are well mastered in the troops, etc. And even if they themselves are unable to “drag” the nuclear charge to Japan, they will distract most of the interceptor missiles from the same “Nodon” (in whose ability to deliver nuclear warheads to Japan, few doubt it).

However, a real sensation in terms of the possibilities to overcome missile defense was the new missile tested on February 12, 2017. In a statement issued by the Central Telegraph Agency of Korea, the following is said about this: “Dynamic control characteristics of the position, guidance and maneuvering of a controlled warhead capable of carrying an improved nuclear charge in order to avoid interception at an intermediate site and at the entrance to the atmosphere after its separation were checked”. Indirect confirmation of this can be some oddities in the appearance of the head part of the “Pukkuksong-2”, which some observers interpret as the propulsion systems of the warhead itself.

At the same time, the availability of the propulsion system in the detachable head part was directly mentioned in the materials about the testing of the new high-precision version of SCUD, published on May 30, 2017. It was also reported about the apparent strangeness of flight – uncharacteristic for a simple ballistic trajectory. And in the photos published following the results of the tests of “Hwasong-12”, it was possible to notice small openings on the detachable head part, which had an external color marking identical to that for fuel and oxidizer on the other DPRK military missiles. Thus, in the DPRK, successful work is underway to create correction/maneuvering systems for detachable warheads. Including in the framework of projects on the modernization of old missiles. This also complicates their interception by missile defense systems.

Deterrence of the USA

In the past one and a half or two years, the authorities of the DPRK, as well as the policies of the countries-opponents and military experts, talked about the country’s exit to the finish line in the creation of intermediate-range missiles and intercontinental ballistic missiles. And this year North Korea showed the world the missiles “Hwasong-12” and “Hwasong-14”.

“Hwasong-12” is a single-stage liquid rocket capable of “reaching” the island of Guam (recalculation of the test hinged trajectory on May 14 to maximize the range, yields with the same payload of 4500-4800 km). What is worth mentioning in particular – South Korea’s reconnaissance confirmed the stable telemetry of the head part during the descent, and therefore, the verification of the safety of the payload was apparently successful. According to the materials published by the DPRK in July, the successful launch of “Hwasong-12″ was probably not on the first attempt, but with the third or fourth.

As noted above, this is a liquid single-stage missile with a detachable head part. Judging by the published materials, the system is used as the engine, whose successful tests were conducted on March 18, which were reported with undisguised joy and pride by the official media of the DPRK. An interesting feature is the procedure for preparing for launch. The missile can be transported to the launch site already filled by fuel. Then it is set to the vertical position, and the starting table is disconnected from the mobile unit. And it, in turn, is put on a certain construction, which is located on a special preparatory platform.

The” Hwasong-14″ rocket was tested on July 4, the US Independence Day. Start, as usual, was carried out along a trajectory optimized for maximum altitude, and not range. Pyongyang needs such trajectories for a number of reasons.

First, geography: North Korea is not a very large country (and it does not have overseas landfills) to freely test rockets of all classes only over its territory. Therefore, you have to use neutral water.

Secondly, several major powers are side by side with the DPRK. The fall of the missile into the territorial waters of neighbors is unacceptable, which also forces the Koreans to shoot as short a distance as possible. Finally, the need to control the flight of the missile without providing a fleet and a satellite constellation capable of tracking the parameters of the product out of sight from the territory of the DPRK.

“Hwasong-14” is a two-stage ballistic missile. At least the first stage is equipped with liquid engines. The second, apparently, too.

The rocket is transported on a special multi-wheeled chassis of high cross-country capacity with lifting mechanisms for its installation in an upright position. After the rocket is lifted, the starting table is disconnected from the mobile unit and placed on a supporting structure located on the prepared site. Established is a method or temporary, taken only for testing – it will become clear to us only after new launches.

The procedure of prelaunch preparation is not completely clear. In particular, can the missile be transported with fuel to the launch site or it is refueled only in an upright position on the launch pad. In the photos, personnel with personal protective equipment can be seen only in the hangar, before the vehicle leaves the rocket. And also there is something that looks like a gas station. At the subsequent stages of preparation for launch (including on the site), nothing similar was noticed.

In some photographs, even in the hangar, one can consider that something has been attached to the rocket – just where specialists in protective clothing stand, but it is definitely impossible to say whether the fuel hose is an electrical cable or not. The rocket is taken to the start very carefully. The overall geometry of the product does not imply excessive brittleness and a tendency to deform during transport. On the other hand, in many stages of testing, Kim Jong-Un walks around the rocket freely, including when it is placed in an upright position. It looks rather risky, assuming that the rocket is already fueled.

As reported later by the US intelligence, the rocket stood vertically on the position for about an hour, but this, too, does not say much. This test launch – so everything is checked many times, and no one is in a hurry.

The exact maximum range of this missile can not yet be named. One can confidently say only that it precisely falls under the definition of intercontinental (ie, more than 5,500 km). The closest to the DPRK is the continental target in the US – Anchorage, 5,400 km from the possible launch site. This target is within range even at the most modest estimates of the range of the new missile. If the maximum range is 8000 km, then the island state of Hawaii, as well as Seattle (7900 km from the possible start position), is in the affected area. Actually, up to now the expansion of estimates, depending on the chosen model of calculations, varies from 5,500 to 9,500 km, although the majority of estimates are in the region of 5,500-8,000 km.

The shape of the head, camera shots sent by telemetry, published after the tests, and many other things also hint at the fact that there are some surprises ahead of us with combat equipment. North Korea clearly plans in the future more interesting payload options than just a single heavy monoblock warhead, and nothing else. Most likely, further work is underway to miniaturize nuclear weapons, to develop relatively simple means of overcoming missile defense, and so on. But these are only the first steps. Like the Hwasong-14 missile, which has only one flight in its assets.

What does all this mean in practice?

Pyongyang has taken the most important step toward acquiring the potential of direct nuclear deterrence of the United States. For many years, the DPRK could restrain the Americans only by threatening to inflict losses on them through attacks on American bases in the adjacent region, as well as on their regional allies.

Now, before our eyes, the DPRK is gaining opportunities for “reliable” nuclear deterrence at regional ranges, and in relation to the United States it is able to have a “minimal”, but direct nuclear deterrence.

While maintaining the current pace, the solution of this problem is very likely already very soon.

Author: Vladimir Khrustalev, expert on the North Korean nuclear missile program, author and editor of the project “”

Ongoing Geointel and Analysis in the theater of nuclear war.


© 2024 The DEFCON Warning System. Established 1984.

The DEFCON Warning System is a private intelligence organization which has monitored and assessed nuclear threats by national entities since 1984. It is not affiliated with any government agency and does not represent the alert status of any military branch. The public should make their own evaluations and not rely on the DEFCON Warning System for any strategic planning. At all times, citizens are urged to learn what steps to take in the event of a nuclear attack.