In recent tests, North Korea has been improving the firepower of its missiles that can target South Korea, making them ready to deploy on a battlefield, experts said.
“North Korea has been enhancing its firepower, war-fighting capabilities over the past two years, flight-testing a number of new systems,” including the KN-25 missile and variants such as the KN-23 and KN-24, said Michael Elleman, director of the Non-Proliferation and Nuclear Policy Program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Both systems "are capable of threatening targets in South Korea and are likely more accurate and lethal than the systems previously seen in North Korea,” he said.
Compared with artillery positioned across the North Korean side of the demilitarized zone, Elleman said, the KN-25 missiles give Pyongyang the ability “to attack the South relentlessly in the opening hours or days of conflict.”
North Korea’s launches on March 2 and March 9 included KN-25 missiles that the regime began testing on August 24. The March 9 launch was Pyongyang’s sixth KN-25 test.
North Korea tested similar missiles on July 31 and August 2, but they were smaller than the KN-25, Elleman said.
New for North Korea
The KN-25 is a long-range artillery rocket with a guidance system to control its flight path. Because it has a guidance system like a ballistic missile, the U.S. classifies the KN-25 as a missile.
According to Elleman, the U.S. calls it “a close-range ballistic missile,” a type of short-range ballistic missile. North Korea described both launches earlier this month as “long-range artillery” drills.
“The distinction between rockets and ballistic missiles is, really, kind of semantic at this point,” said Ian Williams, deputy director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “We’re seeing more and more systems that don’t fit either category perfectly.”
Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at California’s Middlebury Institute of International Studies, said, “The old distinction used to be between missiles, which were guided, and artillery rockets, which were not.
“Most artillery rockets are now guided because electronics are so cheap,” he said.
Adding guidance technology to a long-range artillery rocket is relatively new to North Korea, Elleman said.
“The U.S. has been doing it for about 20 years,” he said. “But it’s just been in the last five to 10 years that we’ve seen countries like North Korea and Iran adding guidance to what normally would be a large-diameter or long-range artillery rocket.”
Although this technology may be new for Pyongyang, it is not a new strategic weapon. The country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, said in January that “the world will witness” it soon.
“[The North Koreans] haven’t publicly shown us something like that yet,” Elleman said. “This is not a type of strategic missile.”
Experts say enhancing flight trajectories and firepower has been North Korea’s goal for its KN-25 tests since August.
A long-range artillery rocket like the KN-25 can normally fly up to 400 km at a relatively high altitude, Williams said.
However, he said, North Korea has been testing the missiles at shorter distances and lower altitudes in the March tests, indicating that the regime has a specific goal.
“The biggest difference for me is the altitude that it flew and the range,” Williams said. “They’re firing at a much lower altitude, and that’s giving them a lower range. They’re not flying as far. So, they’re experimenting with different trajectory types so that they can attack multiple kinds of targets” in South Korea.
“The things they’re actually maybe wanting to target with it are [U.S.] military bases in South Korea, airfields," he said. "Most of those are within 200 km of North Korea. So they’re working out, making sure, and exercising in a way that they would use it in a war.”
The missiles that North Korea tested on March 2 were launched from its eastern coastal city of Wonsan, and they flew 240 km. The ones launched on March 9 from the eastern region of Sondok flew up to 200 km, according to South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.
By comparison, the KN-25 missiles North Korea tested from August to November traveled between 330 km and 380 km.
Testing for rapid firepower
If classic short-range ballistic missiles, which travel between 300 and 1,000 km, can reach the same distance as guided long-range artillery rockets, why is North Korea working on improving the KN-25?
Firing more missiles at one time could be the answer.
A key distinction between a guided artillery rocket like the KN-25 and a short-range ballistic missile is the number of projectiles that can be mounted on a launch truck.
Experts said multiple KN-25s can be mounted on a launcher and fired rapidly at short intervals, while ballistic missiles have to be mounted and launched one at a time from a single launcher.
“The truck that carries the missile to the launch point and fires them has four launch tubes,” Elleman said. “So they’re meant to be fired more than one at a time — probably, two, three, four at a time.”
Photos released Tuesday by the Korean Central News Agency, the regime’s official media outlet, show troops firing missiles from a truck-based multiple-launch rocket system with four launching tubes.
“It makes sense for them to want to maximize the firepower that they can get off a single vehicle, which may lead them away from things like a Scud missile, one big missile on one truck,” Williams said.
“Once [a ballistic missile] is fired, you have to [take them] away and reload. That takes a long, long time,” he added.
After charting how fast North Korea fired the KN-25 from its tests conducted from August 24 to March 2, Elleman said the lag time between launches had been shortened, meaning the regime has been firing them faster.
“During development, I would expect a long time between actual firing. And that’s what we saw, 15 to 20 minutes,” Elleman said. “They made it a little shorter each time, essentially. … In November, it was 30 seconds. The last time [on March 2], it was 20 seconds.”
How quickly North Korea launched the missiles on March 9 has not been assessed.
Elleman said firing the missiles in rapid succession suggests that the regime is testing them to be ready for wartime use.
“That would suggest that they’re in the final phase of what they believe they need to do for full development,” Elleman said. “And these more recent launches were probably done under military exercises, and it was likely launched by actual troops as opposed to engineers that would be responsible for developing the system.”
The tests were part of North Korea’s military drills during the regular winter training cycle.
“They’re kind of firing them the way they would fire them during a wartime, during an operational scenario,” Elleman said. “These are war-fighting tools.”
Xu Tianran, an analyst for the Open Nuclear Network program at One Earth Future, said, “This is especially important for North Korea as its armed forces cannot provide enough air cover for its assets on the ground.”
Elleman said these missiles could load a warhead weighing from 300 to 400 kilograms.
“So it’s a pretty big warhead. It can do quite a bit of damage,” Elleman said. “It will pretty much destroy almost any type of targets out to a distance of 20 meters” of its target.
Because North Korea has not developed a technology to miniaturize a nuclear warhead, these missiles cannot be used for nuclear weapons.
“I have seen no evidence that they could make a nuclear payload that small,” Elleman said.
Williams said the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system would have hard time intercepting these missiles because they fly low and out of its coverage area. The Patriot long-range missile defense system could intercept an incoming KN-25, but there are potential challenges.
“The challenge is detecting [the KN-25], seeing it coming with enough time that you can respond, enough time that you can get a fix on it, plan your engagement, and fire your interceptor,” Williams said.