Editor’s Note: David Schmerler is a research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS). The views expressed below are his own.
If North Korean leader Kim Jong Un hoped the successful launch of a missile Sunday would be a powerful footnote to Saturday’s military parade, he would have been sorely disappointed.
The missile blew up almost immediately, providing observers with few clues as to what the regime was attempting to achieve with the launch, beyond a show of force.
Saturday’s parade to mark the “Day of the Sun” was different, however.
During similar parades in the past, North Korea has shown off its military hardware as a sign of strength and defiance to those who oppose the state.
This year we were expecting to see a new missile, but what we got was something of a scale never seen before.
First in the series of ballistic missiles, we saw the KN-11 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). Six missiles were paraded on trailers.
The KN-11 is North Korea’s first large solid-fuel missile and is a relatively new addition to North Korea’s ballistic missile fleet. Submarine launches are more difficult to detect as the missile can be fired from locations off the Korean Peninsula.
This missile has been tested a handful of times, including its most recent test on August 24, 2016, where it flew 500 kilometers (310 miles).
Following the KN-11 we saw an as-yet unidentified missile on a tracked vehicle similar to the Soviet Scud design.
We believe that it is a liquid-fueled missile based on markings found in higher-resolution images indicating possible fuel and oxidizer ports.
An interesting feature seen on this missile are the fins located on the nosecone. These fins could be used to provide additional guidance to the missile warhead as it approaches a target, making the missile system more accurate and dangerous.
Solid fuel ashore
After seeing the potentially new Scud variant, we saw the KN-15 (also known as the Pukguksong-2).
A land-based version of the North’s solid-fuel SLBM, this missile was first seen during a missile test near Kusong, north of Pyongyang, on February 12. According to the US, the missile traveled 500 kilometers (310 miles) before landing in the Sea of Japan, also known as the East Sea.
Aside from the new tracked vehicle carrying the KN-15, the addition of solid-fuel missiles to North Korea’s land-based fleet raises additional concerns, due to the reduction in time needed to launch these systems.
Solid-fuel missiles can be launched with less preparation and require fewer support vehicles than liquid-fuel missiles.
Decreasing the number of support vehicles and amount of time needed to prepare for a launch makes the missile harder to detect and defend against.
Following the KN-15s came North Korea’s Musudans, an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) that with a range of 3,500 kilometers (2,150 miles) could potentially reach the US’ important Andersen Air Force Base on the Pacific island of Guam.
This missile was first paraded in 2010 but remained untested until last year. This missile system suffered from a string of failures with only its most recent sixth attempt – in June 2016 – being successful.
Not a Musudan
Following the Musudan, on the same type of transporter, came something new. With features from possibly two different missiles, this new weapon is longer than the Musudan and uses a nosecone similar to that of North Korea’s KN-08 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
While the front looks like the KN-08, it is shorter than North Korea’s ICBM, possibly making it a longer modification of the Musudan or a shorter modification of the KN-08, or possibly something else entirely.
Following this unique line up of large missiles came two large canisters that are used to launch even larger missiles.
This is the first time we have seen missile canisters of this size and design in North Korea. While it is still unclear which missiles these designs may be used for, the second canister type was seen on a transporter previously associated with the KN-08 (in 2012) and later the KN-14 (in 2015). We first saw the Musudan IRBM in a similar parade in 2010, and North Korea’s two ICBM designs (the KN-08 and KN-14) in 2012 and 2015.
North Korea has only a few of the larger transporters seen carrying the latter canister design, possibly explaining why we were not shown the KN-08s or KN-14s this year.
Due to the limited number of larger transporters available, North Korea is restricted to displaying only a few of its potentially intercontinental-ranged missiles during parades.
This resource restriction was highlighted in last year’s parade with the absence of the KN-08, as they needed all of the larger vehicles to display a new design that had never been seen before at the time (the KN-14).
This does not mean that the missiles that were previously seen are gone, however, as we saw both the KN-08 and KN-14 during Kim’s nuclear weapon design display last year.
What was missing and what is next
This year’s military parade was interesting for a couple of reasons. The first being the display of North Korea’s new solid-fuel missiles, the KN-11 and KN-15.
With the addition of solid fuel to North Korea’s larger missile fleet, the vast number of solid-fuel missiles on display was most likely intended to drive the point that the North had achieved the technical capability to produce longer range solid-fuel missiles, a development that many analysts had worried about. Since solid-fuel missiles can be stored ready to launch for a longer period of time and require less preparation prior to launching, the solid-fuel missiles were most likely intended as a technological display to signal significant developments in North Korea’s offensive capabilities.
A second interesting observation from this year’s parade is what we did not see.
In previous events, North Korea has paraded Scuds and Nodongs (short-to-medium-range, liquid-fueled missiles), which make up the backbone of its ballistic-missile fleet.
This year, excluding the liquid-fueled missiles on tracked vehicles, those older systems were missing. Their absence possibly indicates a shift of focus to missile types that extend beyond the much older Soviet-based systems what we had seen up till now.
Finally, the addition of a new missile on the Musudan’s transporter, and the two new launch canisters for yet unidentified missile systems, raise questions about the size and scope of North Korea’s ICBM ambition.
As for what is next, it is hard to know for certain.
It took North Korea almost six years to first test the Musudan after its initial display, and four years on, we still haven’t seen the KN-08 ICBM tested.
However, when framing the question of North Korea’s missile development, it really isn’t a matter of if we will see these missiles tested, but a matter of when.
Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s address said as much, and with North Korea’s recent string of new missile engine tests, we might be in for a potential ICBM test this year.