North Korea recently displayed its new “Pukkuksong-5” (Korean for Polaris-5) submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) for the first time, in a mid-January parade marking the conclusion of its Eighth Party Congress. Though this missile appears to be only an incremental change from the “Pukkuksong-4” displayed in October 2020, and we cannot even be sure this design is ready for its first test, it is a sign of continuing progress in North Korea’s missile programs. If this new missile or a similar model is flight-tested—a very real possibility in the coming months—it is likely to enable North Korean progress on two important pathways: toward a solid-propellant intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that could reach the United States, and toward missiles that can deliver multiple nuclear warheads with a single launch.
Given how relatively little progress North Korea has made in its nascent ballistic missile submarine program, it is wise to be skeptical of the military significance of a new SLBM. North Korea has not yet deployed its first ballistic submarine with more than a single ballistic missile launch tube. Even once it added a new submarine with a few launch tubes to its fleet, this would still represent only a tiny fraction of North Korea’s launchers in comparison to the huge investment. However, this missile’s importance clearly extends far beyond its potential use from a submarine.
Though most missiles in the Pukkuksong series are billed as SLBMs, as is the Pukkuksong-5, the distinguishing feature of this series appears to be increasingly large solid-propellant motors—which are not confined to use at sea. The Pukkuksong-2 is the largest land-based solid-propellant missile ever launched by North Korea, twice tested from a tracked vehicle in 2017.
Given the military advantages of solid propellant, the progression and testing of the Pukkuksong series probably will prove much more important to the future long-term growth in North Korea’s capabilities than the liquid-fueled Hwasong series that garnered so much attention from launches in 2017. Missiles using solid propellant are superior for most military uses than their liquid-fueled equivalents.