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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

KN-22 / Hwasong 15 ICBM

The first official assessment from US Forces in South Korea that the North has a missile that can reach any part of the U.S. mainland - the Hwasong-15 ICBM. US Forces Korea [USFK] released the annual Strategic Digest on 11 July 2019. It said North Korea had 3 types of ICBMs the Hwasong-13, 14, and 15 and of these, the Hwasong-15 flies nearly 13,000 kilometers, putting any part of the continental U.S. in range.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis said 15 December 2017 he does not believe that North Korea's current intercontinental ballistic missiles are capable of hitting the continental US. North Korea's November ICBM "has not yet shown to be a capable threat against us right now," Mattis said during an off-camera briefing with reporters. He added that the United States was assessing the situation. "We are still examining the forensics, we're still doing the forensics analysis, it takes a while," he said.

"I'm highly suspicious about the capability of the Hwasong-15," retired Gen. Patrick O'Reilly, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and expert in aerospace and missile defense, said in an email to CNN. O'Reilly and other missile experts noted that the North Koreans keep shooting the missile almost straight up, and not in the parabolic arc of a standard missile trajectory, which is harder to achieve. "There are some really ill-informed technical suppositions that have been made," O'Reilly said. "When I hear in one or two years they could have an operational capability that could hit Washington ... people are making very, very aggressive assumptions. There's a lot left to be done before you can assess a credible threat."

In 2010, North Korea imported six WS51200 heavy-duty trucks from China and modified them with hydraulics to turn them into transporter erector launchers (TELs). The DPRK has built up their manufacturing sector to indigenously modify and produce their own missile launchers.

North Korea said 29 November 2017 it succeeded in launching a new Hwasong-15 class intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). In a statement on the North's state-run KRT, the North said the missile precisely hit its target in international waters in the East Sea [aka Sea fo Japan]. It said the projectile is capable of targeting any place on the US mainland. It said the latest missile is more technologically advanced than the Hwasong-14 class test launched in July 2017.

The North Korean Embassy in Moscow stated that North Korea's Hwasong-15 ballistic missile is "equipped with a system of weapons capable of loading an extremely large heavy nuclear warhead and striking the entire mainland part of the United States."

"Personally watching the successful test of the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile, comrade Kim Jong Un expressed high appreciation for the test, saying that today a historic success was achieved in the completion of the state's nuclear armament," North Korean state television relayed.

About a day after the launch, the first pictures emerged, depicting a rocket substantialy larger than the Hwasong-14. One notable improvement is the increased diameter of the second stage, which has the same diameter as the first stage. The diameter of the nose cone is also accordingly enlarged. The overall diameter is increased, clearly greater than the 2 meters of the Hwasong-14 [equal to the SS-11], but possibly not quite the 2.5 meter diameter of the Soviet SS-19, probably closer to the 2.25 meter diameter SS-17. The length is accordingly enlarged, as well. Charles Vick believes it has a new cluster of two new 80 metric tons thrust engines with four Verniers, for a total thrust in excess of 160 metric tons launch thrust.

North Korea's state media is continuing to praise its latest ICBM test, calling it a "historic completion" of its nuclear weapons program and proof of its mastery in missile technology. A large rally was held in Pyongyang and celebratory remarks delivered by top regime officials to commemorate this self-proclaimed milestone. Analysts said this is a political move aimed at pressuring the U.S. to recognize the North as a nuclear power for use an important bargaining chip before a possible return to dialogue.

South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said 05 December 2017 that the DPRK had developed its nuclear missile capability at a faster-than-expected pace but has yet to master the technology. In a CNN interview, when asked if the regime appears to have made significant progress in its weapons program, Kang said "Yes, they have. And at a pace that's far faster than many of us have expected."

But she noted there is still a ways to go before North Korea completes the technology. "TThere is no concrete evidence that they have mastered the technology that is required to be able to put a nuclear device on a long-range nuclear missile," she said, citing re-entry capability, remote targeting and miniaturization of a nuclear warhead. "They have not yet reached the final, final completion stage yet. I think that would be the shared view of all the technical expertise around this program."

The North’s state-run television KRT reported on 03 December 2017 that the missile's warhead could withstand the pressure of re-entering the earth’s atmosphere. Experts had cast doubt on North Korea’s ability to master the technology needed to design a warhead capable of withstanding the enormous pressure of re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere and suggested the isolated country may still be years away from developing a credible delivery vehicle for a nuclear weapon.

The Hwasong-15 missile could have the capability to carry decoys due to its increased size. According to Michael Elleman, a senior fellow for missile defense at International Institute for Strategic Studies, the enlarged Hwasong 15 has a warhead and the second stage propeller, which is considerably bigger than the previously tested missile, leading to concerns that the Hwasong-15 could carry simple decoys to deceive the US missile defense system. However, Elleman further claimed that it was uncertain whether North Korea tested its ability to avoid the THAAD defense system in the first missile test. He emphasized that Hwasong 15 was not a modified version of Hwasong 14, but a completely new weapon.

After the launch on 28 November 2017, the official DPRK release stated : "Today has finally witnessed the accomplishment of the historic cause of the national nuclear programme, the cause of building a missile power, Kim Jong Un said proudly after viewing the whole process of the test-fire. The resounding success of the test-fire of Hwasong 15 is a priceless victory achieved by the great, heroic Korean people who have faithfully supported the Party's line of pushing economic construction and nuclear buildup simultaneously–with no vacillation despite the vicious challenges of the US and its lackeys and a multitude of difficulties."

Some observers suggested that this suggested a possible diplomatic opening, as the North seemed to be signalling an end to its missile test program. This is a reasonable reading of this rather uncharacteristic rhetoric.

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace fellow Zhao Tong said that Pyongyang's achievement may very well force Washington into negotiations. Tong, an expert at the Nuclear Policy Program at Carnegie's Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing, outlined why North Korea's achievements on the path to creating a viable nuclear missile capability could become a powerful argument pushing Washington into talks on ending the regional crisis.

"This new Hwasong-15 ICBM appears to represent a further improvement in DPRK's ballistic missile capability, potentially including the entire continental United States within its range," the analyst said. "As the DPRK stated very clearly recently, their nuclear weapons are only meant to retaliate against the United States, and are not aimed at anyone else. So, yes, it is part of their response to the perceived U.S. threat."

"It could potentially be very important that they just announced the completion of their missile program and even the final realization of the historical goal of achieving a nuclear weapon state," Tong stressed.

This "could mean that DPRK thinks it has achieved all the basic technical capabilities of a credible nuclear force and therefore no major missile tests are needed anymore. If this is the case, this could potentially open a window to de-escalate tension in the near-term future and may increase the chances of diplomatic engagement with North Korea" (on Washington's part).

"Their lack of missile launch activity over the past two months and their test today could be more driven by technical reasons rather than political reasons. They have an incentive to complete their development as soon as possible. So I think they did the test today because they just built a new missile," the analyst concluded.

But the North is unlikely to be content with a clunker like the Hwasong-15, highly vulnerable to a pre-emtive attack. A new generation of solid propellant missiles of the Pukguksong family has entered testing, and an ICBM-sized variant was paraded in early 2017. The North is like to continue testing these missiles [either in the DPRK or in program-partner Iran] until satisfied of their operational readiness.

On 04 April 2022 South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff announced in a text message to reporters that North Korea fired a ballistic missile toward the East Sea. "Our military detected one ballistic missile that was fired toward the East Sea from the North's Sunan area this afternoon." That's the same area in Pyeongyang where the North on March 24th conducted its first full ICBM test since 2017. The South Korean military said the missile flew about 470 kilometers at an altitude of around 780 kilometers. An official from the Joint Chiefs of Staff told reporters that it flew at a speed of up to 11 times the speed of sound.

One expert said it's likely that it was an ICBM possibly a Hwasong-15. "North Korea cannot send a strong message through launching a mid-range ballistic missile like the Hwasong-12. So they may have launched the Hwasong-15 and by doing this before Joe Biden visits Seoul, the North probably wants to find more negotiating power with the U.S. or South Korea."

North Korea announced that it carried out a test launch of the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile on 18 February 2023. State media said that the launch was part of a training conducted by what it calls a newly-founded "missile general bureau." North Korea fired an ICBM from the outskirts of Pyongyang on Saturday evening. The announcement is believed to refer to this missile. Japanese defense officials said the missile is believed to have fallen into Japan's exclusive economic zone after reaching a maximum altitude of about 5,700 kilometers.

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Page last modified: 14-04-2023 18:21:33 ZULU