A demonstration fire of tactical guided weapons last March at an undisclosed location in North Korea. Photo: AFP / Stringer / KCNA VIA KNS

SEOUL – North Korea’s ballistic missiles tested on March 25 were a new, advanced model that confounds defenses, state media revealed today.

The tests received a lukewarm reaction from US President Joe Biden and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. But the revelation about the missile’s new capability – notably, its unpredictable flight path – sparked fevered analysis in South Korea given the challenges and complications it presents for Seoul’s defense doctrines.

More worryingly for defense planners in Japan and the US as well as South Korea, maneuverable ballistic missiles were just one item on a long, ambitious list of new weapon systems North Korean leader Kim Jong Un announced were under development in January.

Thursday’s test suggests that the other capabilities Kim announced during the Workers Party Congress (WPC) must be taken seriously. This presents major problems for South Korea, and more distantly, Japan and the US.

Even if the new class of North Korean military assets are set to be used as bargaining chips in possible future negotiations, to be credible as leverage they must be credible as threats, which, in turn, requires credible defensive mechanisms.

The latter represent a steep, perhaps impossible, challenge for Seoul while adding yet further fuel to an ongoing regional arms race.

A screengrab taken from a KCNA broadcast on October 10, 2020 shows what appears to be new North Korean intercontinental ballistic missiles during a military parade marking the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party of Korea on Kim Il Sung square in Pyongyang. Photo: KCNA / AFP

North Korea’s Sunday test launch of cruise missiles, which fly on flat trajectories, raised few eyebrows. But Thursday’s test of ballistic missiles that fly in a parabola did. They represented the first such missile launches since March 2020 and so the first of the Biden administration. 

Though the missiles tested yesterday were short to medium range and thus lack the distance to hit the US mainland, their launch breaches UN Security Council resolutions. Pyongyang, however, has a long tradition of ignoring global censure.

Asked about the tests during the first press conference of his nascent presidency, Biden was measured, according to reports from Washington.

“We’re consulting with our allies and partners and there will be responses if they choose to escalate,” he said. “We will respond accordingly.” Biden also said that North Korea represents the greatest foreign policy threat to the US.

Across the Pacific, unlike Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga – who had immediately condemned the North Korean action – South Korean President Moon Jae-in has been low-key.

However, he addressed the issue today while speaking to veterans and family members of South Korean servicemen killed in a series of Yellow Sea naval clashes against North Korea between 1999 and 2010, including patrol boat skirmishes, the sinking of the corvette Cheonan and the shelling of a South Korean island.

“Yesterday, there was a missile test and many Koreans are very much concerned about it,” he said during a televised ceremony at Pyeongtaek Naval Base on the peninsula’s west coast. “This is the time North Korea and South Korea and the US should continue with dialogue.”

Though he declined to deploy harsh language against Pyongyang, Moon – speaking against a backdrop of patrol boats and warships – made clear that his government was tough on defense. Indeed, like China, Japan and North Korea, it is engaged in a major arms-building program.

Referencing record defense budgets, Moon spoke of a range of forward-defense assets: upcoming light aircraft carriers, amphibious-helicopter carriers and next-generation jet fighters.

“We are making uninterrupted efforts to equip ourselves,” he said. ”We will not allow any more sacrifices.”

Salvage operations underway over the grave of the South Korean corvette Cheonan which was sunk in 2010 by what Seoul claims was a North Korean torpedo attack, Pyongyang denies the charge. Photo: AFP / Kim Jae-hwan

New capabilities

According to Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency on Friday, the two missiles test-fired into the Yellow Sea on Thursday were “tactical guided projectiles.” 

The KCNA said that the solid fuel missiles boast a “low-altitude, gliding leap-type flight mode.” The latter appears to be a reference to so-called “pull up” capability in a ballistic missile’s downward trajectory. This and glide-type flight paths make the weapon unpredictably maneuverable and ergo survivable.

KCNA photographs showed a missile being launched from a transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) vehicle. This means that instead of being restricted to an easily targeted fixed firing point or base, it can move from place to place and hide from aerial observation in caves, tunnels or under bridges.

Experts quoted in South Korean media said the missile appears to be an upgraded version of the North’s KN-23, modeled after Russia’s “Iskander” (“Alexander the Great”) short-range, mobile ballistic missile. The Iskander travels at hypersonic speeds and is highly maneuverable, granting it the ability to evade defensive systems.

The North Korean missile’s reported 2.5 ton payload is more than double the weight of the KN-23’s previously known one-ton warhead. The new model had been showcased during a military parade held in Pyongyang in January.

As Kim announced that month that one of the new asset classes being developed was tactical nuclear weapons, South Korean experts assume that the new missile could be used to deliver such a warhead.

Unlike strategic nuclear weapons, used to obliterate distant enemy cities, tactical atomic arms are shorter in range and designed for battlefield use. They include bombs, mines and even torpedoes, but in ground warfare are typically fired from artillery or carried on short-range missiles.

One usage, in NATO doctrine, is “grid-square removal” – ie denying the enemy chunks of terrain by irradiating it, thereby channeling enemy forces into easily defended zones.

Few believe that tactic makes sense on the constricted geography of the Korean peninsula. However, a second use for a tactical nuke – point attack – is feasible.

Key targets could be the series of massive US bases on South Korea’s West Coast, which would become organizational and reinforcement hubs on the peninsula in the event of hostilities.

While North Korea has not yet detonated a small, tactical nuclear warhead, its missiles can almost certainly carry one. Tactical nukes developed for the US military weigh as little as 220 pounds (99 kgs).

The exact thinking behind North Korea’s development of the capabilities announced in January – including a super-large hydrogen bomb, a nuclear submarine and military satellites as well as tactical nuclear weapons and hypersonic missiles – is unknown.

Mobile multiple-launch rocket systems during a recent after-dark parade in Pyongyang, North Korea. Photo: AFP

Impossible challenge?

Not only does the entire Korean peninsula lie within the range of North Korean missiles, but ballistic missiles with unpredictable flight paths are also more difficult to defend against than conventional assets, one expert told Asia Times.

“At the terminal stage, it can change course which makes it difficult to shoot down, so the defender must put extra effort to find ways to defend,” said retired South Korean General Chun In-bum. “It is going to be much harder than previous ballistic missiles that had predictable trajectories – harder but not impossible.”

An added difficulty is that the new type of missile could be launched amid a swarm of more conventional weapons.

“What is concerning is that they could shoot them with other missiles and at an early stage, we won’t know which missiles are maneuverable and which are not,” Chun said.

North Korea has made huge investments in its missile force to compensate for weaknesses elsewhere in its military portfolio.

“At some point, they made a decision that, because they had an inferior air force, to deep strike their opponents in the South they would invest their resources in missiles, not their air force,” said Chun.

He also noted that the current generation of North Korean missiles, which range from multiple launch rocket systems to intercontinental ballistic missiles, are far more sophisticated than their first-generation stocks of “Frog-” and “Scud”-class weapons.

So how to counter?

The South’s first line of defense is the ”Korea Missile Defense” system. Observant South Koreans will be able to see Patriot defenses in plain sight in such locations as an army base set on a hillside behind the presidential mansion, or just inside the gates of the huge US Army base near Pyeongtaek, Camp Humphreys.

But the sheer size of the North Korean rocket-artillery force, and the target-rich environment that densely populated South Korean cities represent, means the only real solution is not defense but attack.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watches the launch of a Hwasong-12 missile in this undated photo released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency on September 16, 2017. Photo: KCNA

Given this, Seoul’s anti-missile doctrine relies heavily on “Kill Chain” (also known as “Strategic Target Strike”) – a combination of early warning systems, aircraft air-to-surface missiles fired from within South Korean airspace, surface-to-surface missiles and commando units. The aim would be for these assets to take out the North’s missiles on the ground before they could go into action.

A related doctrine, “Massive Punishment and Retaliation” (or “Overwhelming Response”) would aim to decapitate North Korea’s leadership with missiles and commandos.

But experts say that, even in combination, the situation looks precarious. On the one hand, odds are against the South due to the size of the North’s rocket fleet, the maneuverability-survivability of many assets and the requirement for highly dependable early warning and targeting systems.

“There is probably a much higher probability of hitting North Korean fixed-place missiles than something on a mobile launcher that [SouthKorea] had not had a chance to work all the data up for in their computers,” said Steve Tharp, a retired US Army lieutenant colonel who resides in South Korea.

On the other hand, pre-emptive strike options would require a South Korean general or president to take the monstrously perilous decision to strike North Korea.

“I think that would be an incredibly brave decision, because once a conflict starts, it is too late to stop it,” said Tharp. “It is my belief that the North Koreans don’t want a war, but if something happens, we would have one.”