A North Korean ballistic missile is fired from the bed of a train on September 15, 2021. Photo: KCNA via AFP

SEOUL – North Korea test-fired two short-range ballistic missiles from a railroad launch platform into the Sea of Japan on Wednesday, state media revealed on Thursday.

While the unusual nature of the platform drew the attention of military pros, its contravention of United Nations resolutions also drew condemnation from the UN Security Council. The test-firing on Wednesday followed the North’s test-launch of cruise missiles over the weekend.

However, the North is not the only Korean state that is accelerating its missile programs.

Also on Wednesday, South Korea conducted the latest round of intense tests of its submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) program – the fruits of the recent lifting of a US cap on the kinds of missiles it is permitted to develop – with President Moon Jae-in present in person.

While North Korean strategic weapons deter attack and grant international relevance, Moon has sought to upgrade his military in order to win “OPCON Transfer” – that is, the wartime operational control of his own forces – from the United States.  

Missiles on a train

In recent years, North Korea has not only been developing various forms of missiles, it has also been expanding its mix of delivery platforms.

The most notable are giant, multi-wheeled TELs (transporter-erector-launchers) for intercontinental ballistic missiles, which have been showcased in military parades, and various multiple-launch rocket systems, such as those that fired the cruise missiles last weekend. The country also has an SLBM program, though the exact status of that is unclear.

The ability to disperse assets, rather than anchoring them to fixed base, grants them survivability against an enemy first strike. The latest addition to North Korea’s armory of launch platforms, trialed on Wednesday, is novel, if not quaint.

“The railway-borne missile regiment took part in the drill with a mission to strike the target area 800 kilometers away from its location after moving to the central mountainous area at dawn on September 15,” Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said, according to reports monitored in Seoul on Thursday.

A KCNA photo showed a missile being fired from the bed of a train amid forested, hilly terrain. It is not clear if the train was in motion or was stationary.

Rail-borne artillery is not new: The first such weapon was used during the American Civil War, and as late as World War II, the German army deployed heavy siege artillery via train.

Such weapons fell out of use post-1945, but the concept was resurrected during the 1980s, when both Moscow and Washington drew up plans for rail-born ICBMs.

“The idea was, instead of putting all ICBMs in a fixed silo where the enemy could pre-empt them, they would be on these extensive rails and constantly move and it would be impossible to destroy all of them,” said Chun In-bum, a retired South Korean general.

In the event, neither superpower executed the plan, but North Korea appears to be doing so – albeit on a smaller scale. And leveraging an existing civilian transport net offers some advantages.

A weaponized train could feasibly be disguised as a passenger train, providing camouflage against satellite identification. And given the large number of rail tunnels in North Korea’s mountainous terrain, a missile-carrying train parked inside could be protected by what is, in essence, a ready-made bunker.

As far back as summer 1950, in the early days of the Korean War, North Korean forces, facing US air superiority, used caves and tunnels as top cover for their self-propelled artillery. And today, its long-range artillery regiments are dug into casements in hills just north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

However, tunnels have tactical cons as well as pros.

A key disadvantage has been pointed out by military observers who have commented on North Korea’s airbases dug into tunnels in the sides of mountains: In the event of hostilities, enemy fire directed above the entrance to the tunnel could cause a landslide, blocking egress.

Another issue is that the rail network in North Korea is both limited and mapped.

“The USSR and US are huge territories,” said Chun, referring to the 1980s plan. “But North Korea is small and predictable, and the rail net is not that complex.”

South Korea’s SLBM tests bear fruit

While North Korea is banned by UN Security Council resolutions from owning or testing ballistic-missile technologies, South Korea is not.

However, South Korea historically had a ceiling placed on the types of missiles it can develop by its ally the United States. That ceiling, which dates back to the 1960s, was lifted after the summit between Presidents Joe Biden and Moon Jae-in in Washington in May.

Seoul tested an SLBM from an underwater barge in August, then from a submerged submarine on September 7, and yet again on Wednesday, with Moon present. South Korea is the first country in the world to deploy home-grown SLBM technologies despite not possessing nuclear warheads.

As it muscles up to counter North Korean assets in the wake of the May summit, South Korea has also announced the development of large ballistic missiles with 3-ton conventional warheads. And in July, it tested solid-fuel boosters for space vehicles – widely seen as dual-use technologies.

But despite these impressive capabilities, it looks highly unlikely that Moon will gain OPCON Transfer before he leaves office next spring, meaning that it will more likely be his successor who earns this high-profile political win.

UN Security Council convenes

However, it was the North Korean test that refocused the attention of the security and diplomatic communities from Afghanistan back to perennial boogeyman North Korea.

The UN Security Council held a 45-minute emergency meeting behind closed doors to discuss the test.

“Everyone is very concerned about the situation,” France’s ambassador to the UNSC, Nicolas de Riviere, told AFP. “This is a major threat to peace and security, it’s a clear violation of the Council’s resolutions.”

North Korea is currently heavily sanctioned by the global community. However, it routinely defies UNSC resolutions that ban it from owning or testing ballistic-missile technologies.

“It’s a threat to the non-proliferation regime, it’s a threat to the world, it’s a threat to the neighbors of North Korea,” de Riviere said.

Provocations and messages

Chun argues that Pyongyang always has a dual domestic/overseas purpose in conducting weapons tests: to check the status of new military technologies, and to send a message to the global community.

When South Korea and the US held military drills in August, North Korea vowed to respond – and this week’s launches may be a belated response, delayed because of technical or weather conditions, suggested Go Myong-hyun, a research fellow at Seoul’s Asan Institute.

But it may also be a signal to the Biden administration: Significantly, Kim Jong Un himself has not personally attended the latest launches.

“They are doing these events in a low-key manner,” Chun said. “I think they are saying, ‘OK we are having a hard time but it is not stopping us developing WMD capability, but we are still open to talks if you surrender to our demands.’”

When it comes to demands, North Korea has made clear that it wants sanctions relief, and is willing to give up certain elements of its WMD (weapons of mass destruction) programs to earn this. But experts are divided over how much priority North Korea accords to an end to the Korean War, or to the establishment of diplomatic relations with the US.

Very, very few experts believe the Kim will ever give up his entire WMD arsenal.

But North Korea’s weapons are not merely deterrents; weapon tests also win attention.

“This is classic North Korea, there is nothing new about this, their strategy is always the same: They alternate between dialogue and provocation phases,” Go said. “They want to create a new framework for negotiations now that Biden is in power. He does not seem to be paying attention, so they are showing that they can be troublemakers – ‘If you want to be free to focus on China and other matters, you have to talk to us.’”

It is unclear if the tests will be enough to put North Korea at the top of Biden’s agenda. While the UNSC met and condemned the launch, this week’s tests are not top-tier provocations – the last of which took place in 2017.

That year North Korea detonated what it claimed was a hydrogen bomb and test-launched an ICBM that analysts assessed could hit anywhere in the continental US. Amid soaring tensions, Kim Jong Un and then-US president Donald Trump engaged in a high-profile war of words that included talk of nuclear buttons.

Pundits fretted, sources close to the US military in South Korea told Asia Times, off the record, that they anticipated action, and the US Army put in orders for new stocks of artillery ammunition, suggesting a potential conventional battle.

That high-tension atmosphere was defused in 2018 when – in a surprise move – Kim came out of his self-imposed isolation to summit with a succession of world leaders: Chinese President Xi Jinping, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and then US president Donald Trump.

However, the promise of those engagements fizzled in 2019, when Trump walked out of his second summit with Kim, in Hanoi. Since then, working-level talks have gone nowhere.

Even so, the Biden administration has reached out to North Korea publicly.

Most recently, Sung Kim, the US special envoy for North Korea, met with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts in Tokyo on Tuesday. According to the US State Department, the three reaffirmed their commitment to the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” – the wording agreed between Trump and Kim Jong Un at their first summit in Singapore, in 2018.

Beyond the public space, there have also been meetings behind closed doors – a protocol favored by North Korea. Asia Times understands that working-level discussions between the US and North Korea have taken place in Europe.