Report

North Korean Missile Dismissed as ‘Standard’ by Trump Threatens U.S. Military

Defense experts fear Pyongyang has developed a new rocket that can penetrate U.S. defenses.

A woman and a girl chat next to a television news screen showing an image of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un looking at the test-fire of a new multiple rocket launcher, at a railway station in Seoul on Aug. 1.
A woman and a girl chat next to a television news screen showing an image of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un looking at the test-fire of a new multiple rocket launcher, at a railway station in Seoul on Aug. 1. JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images

In recent weeks, North Korea has been testing a short-range missile that U.S. President Donald Trump dismissed as “very standard.” In fact, it’s anything but: The new missile represents an important advance in North Korea’s ability to deliver a nuclear weapon and evade American missile defenses, according to experts.

Defense analysts warn that the KN-23, a short-range, solid-fuel missile that is highly mobile and elusive because it is launched from a truck, appears to mimic a Russian-built missile that represents one of Moscow’s most advanced rockets and could potentially penetrate the most sophisticated U.S. defense systems.

After it blasts off, the KN-23 first travels on a standard ballistic trajectory—imagine the arc in which a golf ball travels after it is struck. But then it does something unusual: As it’s falling to the Earth at around six times the speed of sound, the missile pulls up and travels more parallel to the Earth before it sharply dives down toward its target. The missile may fly at an altitude that exploits a breach in the various U.S. missile defense systems, and its maneuvers make it harder to shoot down. Its solid-fuel engine means it’s ready to be fired on short notice.

The U.S. military has made significant investments in improving its missile defense capabilities on the Korean Peninsula in recent years, and the new North Korean missile appears to be a response to those deployments.

The conclusion for U.S. military planners is stark. “American missile defense sites in Korea are not as useful as they used to be,” said Markus Schiller, a German rocket analyst who runs the consulting firm ST Analytics.

By testing the missiles amid a deadlock in nuclear negotiations, North Korea is sending a clear political message to both Washington and Seoul. With South Korea and the United States unwilling to deliver economic benefits without more concrete progress on the nuclear portfolio, North Korea is pressing ahead with developing key military technologies to make its armed forces ready to fight a nuclear war with the United States, argued Jenny Town, a fellow at the Stimson Center.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has made expansive promises to North Korea about the economic possibilities of a rapprochement with its southern neighbor and with the United States. Those pledges have so far gone unfulfilled, as Washington has refused to roll back United Nations sanctions. The recent tests likely represent “North Korea complaining about South Korea’s inability to deliver on its promises,” Town said.

Washington has so far reacted laconically to the tests and has ignored the threat posed by the new missiles to South Korea and its neighbors. “The firing of these missiles don’t violate the pledge that [North Korean leader] Kim Jong Un made to the president about intercontinental-range ballistic missiles,” National Security Advisor John Bolton said in an interview with Fox Business Network.

But in the same breath Bolton also criticized a diplomatic process that has left his hawkish views on North Korea sidelined. “You have to ask when the real diplomacy is going to begin, when the working-level discussions on denuclearization will begin, as Kim Jong Un again said on June 30 he was prepared to do,” Bolton said. “We’re still waiting to hear from North Korea.”

While U.S. officials have been waiting to hear from him, Kim has been busy supervising weapons tests. This week, he oversaw the test-firing of a new multiple rocket launch system that appears to give the North Korean armed forces additional options for raining destruction on the major South Korean population centers and military installations just south of the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two countries.

But the development of the new short-range ballistic missile system, the KN-23, most intrigues analysts. The weapon appears to have been tested three times, twice in May and once last week. (The South Korean military initially said this week’s test was of the KN-23, but North Korean state media later contradicted that statement, raising questions about South Korea’s ability to detect the new missile or perhaps whether the North was engaging in a bit of misdirection. North Korea conducted another short-range test of an as-of-yet unidentified projectile early Friday Korean time.)

When it first appeared during a military parade in Pyongyang in 2018, the missile surprised analysts. Visually, it is nearly identical to the Russian Iskander missile, a top-of-the-line short-range weapon. “It looked like a knockoff Rolex basically,” said Michael Kofman, a research scientist at CNA and an expert on the Russian military.

The visual similarity to the Iskander raised questions about whether North Korea had perhaps managed to acquire the Russian missile on the black market. But Kofman and other analysts discount that possibility and argue it is more likely the weapon was domestically produced, though it is certainly possible North Korea acquired technical information about the Iskander to help development of the weapon.

Minor differences between the Iskander and the KN-23 point to the fact that it is probably an indigenously made missile. Images of the Iskander and the KN-23 indicate differences in the cable raceways used to connect different parts of the missiles and in the actuators used to control jet vanes, according to an analysis by Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

South Korean military officials have explicitly compared the KN-23 to the Iskander. “The Iskander shows a complicated flight pattern, and what North Korea fired yesterday showed a similar one,” an officer on South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff told the news agency Yonhap last week. “Analysis conducted jointly with the United States showed that the missiles added the so-called pull-up maneuver in the dive phase.”

In response to North Korean missile advances, the United States has deployed extensive missile defenses to the Korean Peninsula in recent years, including the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), Patriot, and Aegis systems.

But these systems may be uniquely vulnerable to the KN-23, if it in fact mimics the Iskander. The Patriot can shoot down targets at an altitude of up to 40 kilometers. THAAD and Aegis can hit targets above 50 kilometers. “This creates a 10-km interceptor effectiveness seam at altitudes between 40 and 50 km,” the missile expert Michael Elleman wrote in an analysis this year. “The seam almost perfectly coincides with Iskander’s flight path prior to its sharp dive toward ground-based target. Current missile defenses may struggle to intercept Iskander missiles reliably.”

The exact capabilities of the KN-23 remain unclear, but the available data and the comparisons to the Iskander represent a major headache for the U.S. military. Designed as a front-line weapon for the Russian military, the Iskander is a highly accurate missile designed to deliver both conventional and nuclear payloads onto a variety of targets while avoiding missile defense systems. “The Iskander is top of the line,” Kofman said.

When Russia in recent years has deployed Iskander missiles to the Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad, it has regularly provoked heated complaints by European countries within the missile’s range, which view its deployment as highly provocative.

U.S. military officials would not answer questions this week about whether they believe the KN-23 has capabilities similar to the Iskander.

North Korea has described the KN-23 as a “new-type tactical guided weapon,” and for Pyongyang it marks yet another step in the maturation of its missile program. North Korean missiles typically rely on liquid fuel, which represents a vulnerability for such weapons. They have to be fueled in a time-consuming process, and in the event of war the fueling stage provides a key window in which they can be destroyed by U.S. or South Korean aircraft.

Solid-fuel missile engines, on the other hand, are inert and can be fired with less preparation. But designing such fuel and the engines that use it represents a major technological hurdle. In the last five years, analysts have observed major expansions of North Korea’s solid-fuel rocket engine infrastructure.

With the KN-23, those investments appear to be paying major dividends.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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