North Korean missile test reveals both increased capacity and Pyongyang’s smokescreen

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As recently anticipated by U.S. intelligence and other monitoring agencies, North Korea’s conducted a full-scale test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The March 24, 2022, test — part of a recent uptick in testing — not only violates U.N. Security Council resolutions, it ruptures Kim Jong-un’s moratorium on such tests that he self-imposed prior to meeting with former President Trump in 2018.

Based on reports by the U.S. Department of Defense, the Open Nuclear Network (ONN) and other open source intelligence,  here are 10 things you need to know about the North Korea missile program and the latest North Korean missile test:

 

  1. With a flight duration of 71 minutes, the March 24, 2022 test, assumed to be a Hwasong-17 missile test, was the longest duration flight by a North Korean ICBM. The missile reached an estimated altitude of 3730 miles (6,000 km) and 3850 miles (6,200 km) according to respective reports from Japan and South Korea. The launch was nearly vertical, ranging only 730 miles (1,180 km) to fall into the Sea of Japan, but if the missile had been launched on a standard ballistic missile trajectory, the estimated range would reach across the continental United States.

 

  1. The March 2022 test increases North Korea’s range — twice-demonstrated in 2017 –with its launch of Hwasong-14 missiles capable of reaching western Europe and approximately half the continental U.S. The March 2022 test further affirms North Korea’s increased ability to strike anywhere in the continental U.S. The November 2017, a nearly vertical test of a Hwasong-15 missile reached an altitude of around 2,780 miles (4,475 km) and ranged about 590 miles (950 km). On a standard ballistic missile trajectory, the estimated range of that missile –if mounted with a single nuclear warhead — was about 8,000 miles (13,000 km), a range sufficient to reach any point in the continental United States.

 

  1. The March 2022 test marks another escalation in and active North Korean missile program. The test was the first full range test since 2017, but also at least the 11th test of ballistic missile technology by Pyongyang since the start of the year. The most recent being an apparently failed test on March 15th, following successful tests on March 4th and the launch of a short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) from Sunan, on February 26, 2022.

 

  1. The Hwasong-17 appears to be MIRV capable (i.e., capable of carrying multiple warheads or multiple independently-targetable reentry vehicles), which not only increases the lethality of North Korean missiles but also makes verification of their capacity more difficult as warheads are easier to hide from reconnaissance than Transporter Erector Launcher (TEL) vehicles. (see more about TEL development below)

 

  1. If MIRV mounted, the Hwasong-17 would launch a MIRV bus into a suborbital ballistic flight path. TheMIRV bus is then guided by an onboard inertial guidance system that adjusts its flight path using smaller thrusters toward independent points of release for each independently-targetable reentry vehicle and/or decoy designed to overwhelm tracking and defense systems.

 

  1. Prior North Korean tests demonstrated crude capacity to reorient or change vehicle trajectories but they have yet to demonstrate a maneuverable, hypersonic warhead capable of surviving reentry or evading U.S. missile defense systems.

 

  1. In violation of international sanctions, North Korea obtained at least six WS51200 heavy-duty trucks from China that they then modified into (TELs). North Korea has apparently increased its indigenous capacity to produce TELs or modify other vehicles into TELs. The number of known launchers is important because, at maximum, they could each launch two ICBMs before retaliatory strikes could knock them out.

 

  1. The flight dynamics and range of the multiple staged liquid-fueled Hwasong-17 will also increase North Korea’s ability to launch reconnaissance satellites according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency.

 

  1. North Korea first revealed the Hwasong-17 during a military parade in Pyongyang in October 2020. Prior test of the liquid-fuelled Hwasong-17 were single stage tests If confirmed to be a Hwasong-17 missile, it build on technology developed during the Taepodong and Unha/Kwangmyongsong missile programs as well as predecessor Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15 ICBM tests.

 

  1.  The latest rocket launch, part of a recent uptick in testing, confirms that the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un fooled former President Trump with promises of arms reductions while continuing to advance Pyongyang’s missile programs. The smokescreen for development was effective enough that after meeting with Kim Jong-un, in June 2018  then-President Trump declared “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.”

 

It is anticipated that the UN, U.S., and other western countries will issue the usual condemnations.

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