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Size Does Matter: The Implications of North Korea’s Newest Missile

Updated: Dec 27, 2020

For those with a casual or professional interest in North Korea, the “Party Foundation Day”, celebrated on October 10th every year, is a day of special importance. Commemorating the founding of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the occasion is most notably marked by a grandiose parade of the Korean People’s Army.

These parades are a rare opportunity for international analysts to get a glimpse at new military capabilities developed by the Democratic People’s Republic. Inevitably, the star of the show is the Strategic Rocket Force, responsible for operating the DPRK’s growing arsenal of nuclear missiles. And this year, they had a big surprise for Korea-watchers: a brand-new, never-before-seen missile on an enormous wheeled transport.

Details are understandably scant, but from visual observation alone, experts have been able to deduce certain key facts: most pertinently, the missile, which some analysts have preliminarily dubbed the Hwasong-16, is the largest road-mobile missile in the world, and undoubtedly an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). This is notable: the majority of the world’s ICBMs are based in fixed, fortified missile silos hidden far from population centers. North Korean nuclear weapons are, as a rule, designed to be transported by special trucks called Transporter-Erector Launchers (TELs). TELs move the missiles into firing positions, prepare them for launch, and then drive away to be reloaded with a new missile so they can repeat the process. This makes it significantly harder for the US and South Korea to track and destroy the missiles in a potential conflict, though Michael Elleman, Senior Fellow for Missile Defense at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, notes that its size will almost certainly make it less mobile and slower to set up than its peers.

North Korea already possesses ICBMs in the form of the Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15, the latter of which is thought to be capable of striking the entire continental United States. The new missile, however, is much larger than its predecessor, indicating one of two possibilities: it is either designed to reach a longer range than the Hwasong-15, or it is armed with a significantly heavier payload. Both of these possibilities have their own separate implications for the possible nature of the missile.

The first, and most straightforward, possibility is that the missile has a single warhead heavier (and presumably more powerful) than the Hwasong-15. Various analysts have gone further, however, and opined that the new missile may be equipped with Multiple Reentry Vehicles (MRVs) - that is to say, multiple nuclear warheads that can be deployed from a single missile body. This allows for one missile to not only deal considerably more damage to a target, but also to defeat missile defence systems such as the US’s Ground-based Midcourse Defense. GMD, based in Alaska, is designed to fire interceptor missiles at any ICBMs heading for the United States; however, each interceptor has a very low expected probability of successfully destroying an incoming warhead, and given that four interceptors are fired per incoming warhead, it is possible for a small number of MRV-equipped missiles to overwhelm GMD.

Another theory as to the nature of the new missile is somewhat more esoteric: Dr. Joshua Pollack, Senior Research Associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, speculates that the new missile could be a revival of a 1960s Soviet concept known as the Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS). During the Cold War, the US expected any Soviet nuclear missiles to cross the Arctic, as this would put them on the shortest flight path; as such, their missile defences were focused northwards. To counter this, FOBS would be an ICBM sent at very low altitude (just barely above the atmosphere but below the altitude reached by regular ICBMs) across the Antarctic to strike the US from the south, its blind spot. If this new missile is, indeed, a FOBS, the US is left with a strategic dilemma: either to create an expensive missile defence network in the southern USA, or to leave its flank exposed. Even the idea that North Korea might possess a FOBS will doubtless lead to much nervousness within the Pentagon.

In any case, until the DPRK tests it, it is impossible to know for sure whether the missile is a FOBS or MRV-equipped. The former would be technologically simpler to accomplish, whereas the latter presents greater options in the long run; MRVs are just one step down from Multiple Independently-targetable Reentry Vehicles, MIRVs, which are the standard payload for modern ICBMs.

There is only one thing that’s certain about this new weapon: it is the final nail in the coffin of Donald Trump’s attempt at making peace on the Korean Peninsula. When he sat down with Kim Jong Un in Singapore in 2018, there was legitimate hope among arms control activists that this would be the first step on the path to reducing the scale of North Korea’s nuclear program.

Fast forward two years, and all the hopes of the Singapore Summit have been dashed. Kim Jong Un is no closer to willingly giving up his nuclear arsenal - and on October 10th, he made that a point of national pride.

Whatever the actual capabilities of the mystery missile, it is an appropriately large monument to a disappointing failure; one that no amount of missile defence systems can fix.

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