What we know about North Korea’s new missiles

North Korea, having suspended missile tests for months, carried out a multiple launch on May 4 from the site at Wonsan. For the first time, in addition to the 240mm and 300mm (KN-09) MLRS (Multiple Launch Rocket System), the short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) KN-23 was tested, which was seen for the first time during the military parade held in February in Pyongyang.

On July 25, again near Wonsan, a third launch consisted of what was identified as two KN-23 system missiles. The shells fell into the Sea of Japan after reaching an height of 50 kilometres, and covered 430 and 690 kilometres respectively from the launch point.

The latest missile test by North Korea, which took place on August 6, consisted of what seemed to be a different missile than the KN-23, although it is very similar in some respects.

The KN-23, Pyongyang’s Iskander missile

The KN-23 is a mobile short-range missile system (SRBM), mounted on a wheeled TEL (Transporter Erector Launcher) vehicle, which is very reminiscent of the Russian-made Iskander system.

According to Western estimates, this missile, with a warhead of 500 kilograms, is capable of a range of 450 kilometres, reaching up to 690km with a warhead of reduced weight. It measures approximately 7.5 metres in length, has a diameter of 0.95m, and its weight is around 3400kg.

The KN-23 seems to be equipped with a certain level of manoeuvrability that would allow it to pull up during the final phase of the flight, and therefore able to foil hostile antimissile systems, like the Russian Iskander. However, it remains unclear whether it really does have a sophisticated guidance system that would allow it perform evasive manoeuvers whilst maintaining accuracy.

In fact, some have speculated that the KN-23 was built with foreign assistance and is not just a North Korean copy of the Russian-made missile.

The shape of the missile, as well as being similar to that of the Iskander, also brings to mind that of the South Korean Hyunmoo-2B, a mobile SRBM launched from a mobile vehicle that can carry it in a special launch canister.

A new missile?

As mentioned, however, the missile from August 6 turns out to be different to the KN-23 system. From the images we received, it is immediately obvious that the launch vehicle has tracks – unlike a wheeled TEL – the vehicle is very reminiscent of those used for the US MGM-140 ATacMS (Army Tactical Missile System).

The missile’s body itself is slightly different from that of the KN-23: despite having roughly the same flight and range profile it appears to be wider than the previous version.

According to some analysts, it is indeed a new carrier, provisionally called the KN-25, which could in fact be the North Korean version of the American MGM-140.

Some say that, if this were the case, one would guess that, for the first time in North Korea’s history, there are two types of systems competing with each other, which is what happens in the West and especially in the United States, where each new weapons system is chosen out of at least two competitors.

But we must not forget that North Korea is not a free market country and that all domestic manufacturing is in the hands of a state that acts as a single “company”. Furthermore, the existence of several weapons manufacturers, as was the case in the Soviet Union or China, is not known.

Knowing the methodology of the production line and testing of North Korean missile systems, it is reasonable to suppose that both systems are the result of the same procurement programme, and that they will be produced in parallel, at least until one of the two has proven to be clearly better performing than the other.

North Korea, in fact, works in a different way to what happens in the West in these situations. There is no development process split into precise phases, with various tests until entry into service, but, when a missile is deemed able to function, it is immediately used in drills that also serve as tests. The fact that there were multiple launches accompanied by different systems, as in the one in May, is an indication of this particular way of working.