Everyone’s worried about North Korea’s nuclear weapons and its long-range missiles to deliver them to the United States mainland. But just one month ago, a day before the Winter Olympics kicked off a period of inter-Korean rapprochement, North Korea held a military parade and showed off a new, likely non-nuclear missile, that is unnerving in its own way.
There’s something about this missile and its launch vehicle that’s weird at first glance. It looks an awful lot like a scaled-down version of Russia’s hyper-precise Iskander-M short-range ballistic missile. (That’s the one keeping NATO planners up at night thinking about scenarios in the Baltics.) If you squint watching the Feb. 8 North Korean parade footage, you might think the North Koreans had paraded a few Russian Iskander-M/9K720 launchers through Kim Il Sung square.
If this missile sounds fairly anodyne on paper compared to the intercontinental-ranged beasts North Korean leader Kim Jong Un oversaw launches for last year, that doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant. The missile has important use for North Korea on the battlefield—and also on the global market, where there’ll be no shortage of demand for a modestly priced, precise short-range ballistic missile.
So What Is This Thing?
Whatever this new North Korean missile is, it’s probably nothing like an Iskander, which is known for its exceptional terminal guidance and precision. That’s not to say that the North Koreans haven’t gone out of their way to try and let anyone looking at this system know that it probably has an Iskander-like role on the battlefield. A lot of the visual similarity, in this case, comes from the transporter-erector-launcher (TEL)—the truck that carries and launches the missiles—used for both systems.
Both use four-axle trucks, with the North Korean TEL even featuring the distinctive hinged top seen on the Russian system. Of course, adding the hinged top isn’t a particularly difficult technical accomplishment, but it suggests the North Koreans went out of their way to make this new missile appear as Iskander-like as possible. (A Juche-Iskander, if you like.)
In fact, those design choices and the physical size of the missile tell us quite a bit about what it might be—even before we’ve seen it flight-tested. All signs point to this being a new short-range ballistic missile, with possibly a new solid propellant engine, with a precision strike role on the battlefield. Solid propellants have advantages over their liquid counterparts; the missile’s fuel is simply cast into the airframe so the system is ready to go in a pinch. Liquid-fueled missiles (like North Korea’s big honking ICBMs) can take hours to fuel.
North Korea already has solid-fueled missiles with similar specifications. It’s had the KN02 “Toksa” for at least a couple decades now. It’s possible that this new missile is an indigenously modified and upgraded Toksa made to evoke an Iskander. An indigenous upgrade wouldn’t be out of the question; North Korea introduced several older missiles with new faces in 2017, including the KN18 and KN21, what Pyongyang has claimed are more precise Scud-B and Scud-C short-range ballistic missile, respectively. (It’s probably best not to take that claim at face value, given the record of Scud-class missiles.)
Pyongyang’s even getting better at indigenously modifying its reverse-engineered Russian systems with better guidance and upgraded seekers. It showed this off with its test of a new coastal defense cruise missile last year, based on its old Russian Kh-35 Uran missiles, which, like the KN02 Toksa, have been in North Korea’s possession since the 1990s. Moreover, North Korea tested a mysterious and unknown new type of solid propellant engine in October 2017; that engine may have been designed for this new missile.
So, this thing is new. But what good is it for North Korea? Quite a bit, it turns out.
North Korea Can Use It
North Korea has two overarching scenarios it seeks to avert with its disproportionately large conventional military forces and its burgeoning nuclear forces. The first is a decapitation strike on Kim Jong Un. The second is a sustained invasion of its territory by the United States and South Korea.
The new and shiny long-range missiles we saw last year play an important part in both those scenarios, but Pyongyang’s new and more precise short-range systems are the glue that’ll hold its warfighting strategy together. In the invasion scenario, in particular, more precise missiles will allow North Korea to saturate important U.S. Forces Korea and South Korean military targets, including command posts, in wartime.
The KN18 and the KN21, as they are Scud-based, are perhaps most potent in this role, with a potential nuclear weapons delivery role, but a system like this new Juche-Iskander helps too. Being solid-fuel and road-mobile, these systems can emerge from hardened underground sites in wartime, launch nearly immediately at predetermined targets, and move, avoiding counter-strikes from the United States and South Korea (what’s known as shoot-and-scoot).
A missile this small is probably beyond North Korea’s current capabilities for nuclear miniaturization but could plausibly deliver chemical weapons payloads to South Korean cities and military targets too. Depending on its range, it may be able to cover targets across much of South Korea. (If it’s an extended-range or improved version of the Toksa, it may fall short.)
In any case, a weapon like this can seriously benefit the Korean People’s Army in wartime. Right now, the only weapons North Korea possesses are its older KN02s, but these older missiles are limited by their range. Meanwhile, North Korea has plenty of rocket artillery systems, including a 300mm system known as the KN09, but these lack the precision of either the Toksa or likely this new system. These types of systems are so useful in conventional warfighting that South Korea’s own series of Hyunmoo short-range ballistic missiles exhibit similar characteristics, with the newest variant exhibiting both precision and promptness.
If North Korea wants the flexibility and responsiveness of solid propellant missiles and precision, it’s got nothing better than this new missile.
North Korea Can Sell It
There’s also a sales angle to all this. North Korea is a notorious proliferator of everything from dual-use industrial components to off-the-shelf ballistic missiles. This new, presumably precise, solid-fuel missile should attract the interest of at least some buyers on the international market. In a way, the visual similarities to the Russian Iskander might even serve as a form of attractive “branding” by North Korea’s engineers. (Remember: The Iskander evokes awesome precision.)
With many of its homebrew systems—many of which modify or emulate Russian and Chinese weapons systems—North Korea has had a compelling sales pitch. It manages to offer prospective buyers a system with a “good enough” reproduction of the capabilities of a competing Russian or Chinese system at a fraction of the cost.
This new mystery missile, in fact, could be a capable competitor with something like China’s relatively low-cost, high-performance SY-400 short-range ballistic missile system, which is also designed for precision strike roles. One country with known military ties to North Korea, Burma, had reportedly been interested in purchasing the SY-400 from China.
If a deal was concluded, it hasn’t yet been made public, leaving Burma open as a prospective customer. The two systems can serve similar roles, but with some important differences (the SY-400 has two known launcher configurations). The Burmese have opted for North Korean takes on Russian and Chinese systems in the past; the Burmese Navy’s Aung Zeya frigate is equipped with modified launchers fielding the North Korean Kh-35 anti-ship cruise missile instead of the original Russian system.
So What’s Next?
The United States and South Korea begin their annual mass mobilization Foal Eagle exercises on March 31—rehearsal for an invasion of North Korea, in Pyongyang’s view. Kim, according to the South Korean government, said he’d understand if the exercises went forward on a similar scale as last year. But last year, when the allies conducted their exercises, North Korea conducted a warfighting drill of its own, firing five extended-range Scud missiles into the Sea of Japan. The idea was to show off to the alliance that North Korea was ready to salvo-fire missiles to make their invasion more difficult (and ostensibly to overwhelm the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile defense system the U.S. deployed in South Korea last year).
When the allies start their exercises this year, North Korea will likely need something to test to show that it’s watching and ready—even if we may be heading into a historic, third inter-Korean summit at the end of April. It may choose to forgo another ICBM or intermediate-range ballistic missile until later in the year, given the political and diplomatic costs and especially given that the big ticket item for Pyongyang—a summit with President Trump—hinges on freezing its missile testing.
Kim may calculate instead that flight-testing this new precision missile would send a measured and proportionate message to the U.S.-South Korea exercises. That alone could scuttle the Trump-Kim summit—if Kim calculates that this weapon wouldn’t violate whatever assurances on testing it gave South Korea. Either way, no doubt the North Korean missile engineers who worked hard on this Juche-Iskander are desperate for the inter-Korean détente to fall apart so they can see this missile fly.
The world might have missed the missile when it passed through Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang during February’s parade, but it’ll likely take note when it flies for the first time. That first test may not be far off.