On July 3rd North Korea launched what it described as a new ballistic missile, the Hwasong-14. North Korea described the test as successful and proof that North Korea had a working ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) design. None of that was true. What North Korea did do was launch a two-stage ballistic missile that went higher (over 2,500 kilometers) than an ICBM normally goes (about 1,200 kilometers) but did not have enough momentum to go very far and the second stage (or what was left of it) came down in the ocean 930 kilometers from where it was launched. To be a working ICBM Hwasong-14 would need rocket motors in the first and second stages that could fire longer (carry enough fuel or be efficient and reliable enough) to keep it going at that orbital (where low orbit satellites regularly operate) altitude long enough for a third stage to separate and use a reliable guidance system and re-entry vehicle able to handle the heat of high-speed descent to the surface. North Korea is, as usual with its many recent long-range ballistic missiles, missing a lot of key components but managing to keep the media spotlight on the few features that did work and imply that the missing capabilities will appear in due course. Like many North Korean assurances (about their economy, their ability to feed their population and much else) “due course” actually means; “eventually but not yet and maybe never.” North Korea knows that this is not a popular subject for the mass media and has been able to get away with this sort of thing for decades.
Currently the North Korean media scam is concentrating on ballistic missiles because it consistently works. It is scary and you don’t have to show much progress to get the foreign editors interested. For example on May 14 they conducted a ballistic missile test involving what they described as a Hwasong-12 (KN-17) IRBM (Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile) in its first successful test. This missile apparently used a rocket engine similar to the one used in Hwasong-14. The last test of the Hwasong-12, at the end of April, failed. Hwasong-12 is a single stage SCUD type (liquid fuel) ballistic missile that has long been in development. It is used on a tracked mobile launcher and is rumored to have a warhead with a guidance system capable of hitting a large, moving ship (like an aircraft carrier) at sea. There is no proof of that at all, but makes for great headlines. In theory the Hwasong-12 could have a max range of over 4,000 kilometers but this test only took the missile out to about 780 kilometers. If another test takes a missile out to 900 kilometers it’s worth another lucrative headline.
Even with a reliable Hwasong-14 ICBM North Korea would need more than a dozen of them, launched simultaneously, to have any chance of getting past the existing GBI anti-missile missiles based in Alaska and the further south on the west coast of North America. These anti-missile systems have proved more reliable than anything North Korea has. In addition American intel analysts know that to do a successful attack North Korea would have to make a massive effort to prepare (load fuel and the like) that many missiles for simultaneous launch. That effort would be difficult to hide and if discovered would risk triggering a preemptive attack. The fact that North Korean artillery and rockets could do a lot of damage to the South Korean capital (within range of thousands of North Korean big guns and rockets) may scare the South Koreans into a state of perpetual hesitation but if they make a serious threat of nuclear attack against the United States, Seoul is no longer much of a deterrent. The North Koreans know all this and they also know they don’t have to create a credible ICBM threat against the United States to get what they want. The North Koreans are basically running an extortion effort. In effect the North Koreans are demanding cash and commodities to keep their fragile economy (and rather more robust police state) operating. In short, the offer is, “pay up and we will tone it down.”
Meanwhile North Korea has been working the scary ballistic missile threat angle for a long time. It works, so they keep at it. Sometime secret details of how they manage to pull it off emerge. At the end of 2015 the U.S. revealed that it believed North Korea was continuing to work on the KN-08 (Hwasong-13) ICBM in an effort to make it work. Getting this missile redesigned, reliable and ready for successful testing is expensive. That was a sign the North Korea was quite serious about this project. The KN-08 was meant to threaten the United States while the North Korean nukes threaten all the neighbors. But the Hwasong-13 turned out to be more of a media stunt that one component of a serious missile development project.
Hwasong-13 first appeared in public during a 2013 military parade. It had long been known that North Korea was trying to develop a ballistic missile that could reach the United States. Until the appearance of the very large Hwasong-13 the longest range North Korean seen in actual use (during tests) were the Nodong (especially Hwasong-7) series. These are based on the old Russia SCUD and had been scaled up to the point that they had a max range of over a thousand kilometers. Out of this came the even larger Taepodong missiles which were officially satellite launchers. Taepodong 1 was tested in 1998. North Korea had been working on Taepodong since the early 1990s. While the Taepodong 1 had a range of about 1,500 kilometers the larger Taepodong 2 went twice as far in 2009. A 2006 Taepodong 2 test barely got off the ground before crashing. The Hwasong-13 was a different shape missile, obviously for military use and using different technology.
In 2005 there were indications that North Korea had obtained more advanced ballistic missile technology from Russia and the Hwasong-13 may be the result of that. The Russian tech was the SS-N-6, a 1960s vintage ballistic missile known in Russia as the R-27. NATO called it SS-N-6. This was Russia's first true submarine launched ballistic missile, and sixteen of them were carried in Yankee class SSBNs (missile carrying nuclear submarines.) The R-27 had a range of 2,800 kilometers. After the R-27 was replaced by more modern missiles in the 1970s, the missile continued to be used for scientific research until 1990. By that time, 492 R-27s had been launched, 87 percent of them successfully. It would be very embarrassing for the Russians if someone had illegally exported SS-N-6/R-27 missiles to North Korea. It is more likely, and was reported in 2001, that someone in the Russian organization that designed the R-27 had illegally sold the plans to North Korea. This was supposed to have happened sometime in the 1990s and the main reason for the deal was for the North Koreans to obtain the missile guidance technology. The Russians kept improving the guidance system of the R-27 through the 1980s and the North Koreans have always been desperate for better missile guidance technology. But North Korea may have obtained useful information on longer range ballistic missile design and construction as well. That would explain the appearance of the Hwasong-13.
During that first Hwasong-13 appearance there was ample opportunity for Western visitors to take detailed photos and it was later concluded that these were mockups but very detailed and convincing ones. It was also discovered that North Korea had illegally converted Chinese lumber transports into TELs (Transporter Erector Launchers) for its Hwasong-13 ballistic missiles. These TELs were not designed to be used more than once. When first scrutinized in 2013 is was believed that Hwasong-13 was a large enough missile to have a range of over 4,000 kilometers. That estimate has since been revised upward. The 16 wheel TEL was carrying what appeared to be a three stage ballistic missile similar to older Russian models.
North Korea has never been known to deploy a long-range missile that had not been successfully tested. Some thought Hwasong-13 was a fake, just something to make the cold, hungry, and broke North Koreans feel better about themselves. Markings on the TEL identified it as “Hwasong-13 Self-Propelled Launcher.” There are two other North Korean Hwasong missiles, both of them short (up to 500 kilometers) range liquid fuel rockets. These two were called Hwasong-5 and Hwasong-6. Defectors from North Korea indicate that the official name for all North Korean ballistic missiles is Hawsong and that indicates that a missile named Hwasong-13 could be the latest one.
Hwasong-13 could have a range of 9,000 kilometers or more depending on the efficiency of the rocket engines. Hwasong-13 appears to be a liquid fuel missile but the design could accommodate the more efficient solid fuel if the North Koreans obtained the technology to build rocket motors that large. Reports from defectors and other sources indicate that North Korea is putting a lot of scarce resources into the Hwasong-13 and new technologies needed to make it work. North Korean leaders have long been obsessed about having a weapon that could threaten the United States directly.