While predicting the behaviour of Pyongyang may be a fool’s errand, North Korea is presently on track to at least match 2016’s 24 ballistic-missile tests as it develops new systems and carries out assurance firings of already fielded types.
North Korean Missile Test. Credit: North Korean State Media

By Joseph Dempsey, Research Associate for Defence and Military Analysis

Only a few months into 2017, the isolated regime has already carried out at least seven launches, suggesting no let-up in the pace of development testing. There have been one or more test failures, the latest reportedly on 22 March. Often justified by North Korea as a response to the threat of external aggression, the provocative tests not only indicate current operational capabilities but also highlight the progress of several new longer-range systems. The North Korean regime also appears to be continuing the design and development of nuclear payloads and the associated systems for weapon delivery.

Almost half of all launches since the beginning of 2016 have been associated with the development of new systems. Out of 31 tests shots since the start of last year, at least 14 related to the testing of developmental programmes along with several additional associated ground tests. The 2016 tests also included the first attempted launch of the Hwasong-10 (Musudan) – a road-mobile, intermediate-range missile system first shown publicly in 2010. However, the seemingly troubled series of up to eight launches last year yielded only a single success.

Although the Hwasong-10 programme continues to be problematic, there are clear indications of progress elsewhere, particularly with regard to the development of solid-propellant motors. This is a technology that offers greater launch readiness and ruggedness over the liquid-fuelled counterparts Pyongyang has until now depended upon. In addition, tests on the country’s first submarine-launched ballistic missile, Bukkeukseong-1 (KN-11), continued throughout 2016 and these demonstrated an apparently successful switch to a solid motor – quite likely the result of earlier reported failures of the liquid-fuel design. A land-based modification of KN-11, the Bukkeukseong-2 (KN-15), which also uses a solid motor, was shown publicly for the first time in a successful February 2017 test. This used a tracked transporter-erector-launcher vehicle, offering improved mobility. KN-15 was also reportedly launched in the most recent 4 April test.A table showing North Korean ballistic missile tests in 2016 and 2017. Credit: IISS

Despite flight tests of these new missiles, the regime’s intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) programmes have remained so far on the ground. Neither the Hwasong-13 (KN-08), with the potential to hit much of the US mainland, or its Hwasong-14 (KN-14) derivative have yet been test flown. Propulsion and re-entry-systems ground tests were carried out in 2016, and the regime in early 2017 suggested that its pre-flight ICBM test-development programme was nearing completion. This prompted speculation of a launch in the near future. However, predicting if, when and how North Korea will test-launch such a system remains difficult.

Testing not only the ICBMs at operationally representative ranges for these new systems remains a challenge for North Korea. Using the Sea of Japan (East Sea) would risk overly provocative entry or over-flight of Japanese territory, were some missiles now in development tested toward their maximum ranges. Recent launches have not extended beyond around 1,000km – the upper range of the operational types involved – and this was only achieved by firing from the west side of the country and risking a potential splashdown within Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Indeed, three of four missiles fired successfully in the 6 March test hit the sea within Japan’s EEZ.

The recent test launches of the three longer-range missiles under development (Musudan, KN-11 and KN-15) instead all adopted lofted trajectories (with an apogee far greater than the minimum-energy trajectory), providing some indication of their theoretical ranges without the provocation associated with a full-range flight test.

This blog was updated on April 5, in light of a new North Korean test.


This analysis originally featured on the Military Balance+, the new IISS online database that enables users in government, the armed forces and the private sector, as well as academia and the media, to make faster and better-informed decisions. The Military Balance+ allows users to customise, view, compare and download data instantly, anywhere, anytime.

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