N. Korea’s ICBM launch aimed at increasing nuclear capability

KCNA via Reuters
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects an intercontinental ballistic missile in a photo released on Saturday by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency.

SEOUL — North Korea appears to be racing to increase the nuclear payload capability of a multiwarhead intercontinental ballistic missile, as indicated by its launch on Friday of an ICBM that a South Korean official said was thought to be a new Hwasong-17.

Friday’s launch follows one that failed on Nov. 3, which was also a Hwasong-17 ICBM, according to a South Korean military official. The missile has an estimated range of more than 15,000 kilometers, which means it could reach any point in United States, and it has the capability to carry two to three warheads.

With the goal of possessing nuclear capability that can counter the United States, North Korea is believed to be accelerating the development of a multiwarhead ICBM.

North Korea will inevitably intensify its military provocations against Japan, the United States and South Korea, which have been promoting cooperation against North Korea.

The distance between the launch point and splashdown point of this missile was about 1,000 kilometers, and it reached a maximum altitude of about 6,000 kilometers. It followed a trajectory nearly identical to that of yet another missile launched on March 24.

North Korea stated that the March 24 missile was also a Hwasong-17, but South Korean officials indicated at the time that the missile was a Hwasong-15.

The South Korean military seems to have concluded that the ICBM launched this time was in fact a Hwasong-17 based on the flight angle and the timing of the separation of the fuel tanks.

The United States and South Korea are analyzing the differences from the previous launch.

The missile launched on Nov. 3 failed to fly as intended after its second-stage rocket separation. North Korea is believed to have conducted Friday’s launch in an effort to correct the previous error.

The South Korean military is hurrying to analyze the subsequent flight details as a second-stage separation of the missile appears to have also taken place Friday.

Military experts believe that this will provide important information to determine the technological level and degree of completion of the Hwasong-17.

5-year plan

In developing the Hwasong-17, North Korea is aiming for a multiwarhead ICBM capable of carrying multiple nuclear bombs.

The missile is designed to attempt to avoid interception by separating into multiple bombs as it falls, making it more of a threat to defenders. The Hwasong-17 can carry two or three warheads, according to South Korean media.

North Korea launched the Hwasong-15 in November 2017, declaring that it had completed its nuclear arsenal. The estimated range of that missile is more than 10,000 kilometers, meaning that it can reach parts of the United States, but not major East Coast cities such as Washington and New York.

After failing to gain concessions from Washington at the three U.S.-North Korea summit meetings in 2018 and 2019, Pyongyang has turned its attention to accelerating the improvement of its nuclear capability against the United States.

North Korea set forth its goals in the “five-year defense force development plan” announced in January 2021, which included the development of ICBMs with a range over the entire U.S. mainland, guidance technology for multiple warheads, and the miniaturization and weight reduction of nuclear weapons.

North Korean Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui issued a statement on Thursday saying, “The keener the U.S. is on the ‘bolstered offer of extended deterrence’ to its allies … the fiercer the DPRK’s military counteraction will be.”

This statement was highly likely to have been meant to give warning of the latest missile launch.

While North Korea is presenting its moves as a reaction to the strengthening of cooperation between Japan, the United States and South Korea, the country seems to be primarily focused on advancing its nuclear missile development program in line with its existing five-year plan.