Dial ‘M’ for Madman

This is an article published in our August/September 2017 Issue.

US Air Force’s Boeing WC-135W Constant Phoenix aircraft
The US Air Force’s Boeing WC-135W Constant Phoenix aircraft is capable of performing air sampling to determine if a nuclear weapons test has been performed, and has undertaken flights near the Korean Peninsula to this end. (USAF)

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is known for its penchant for missile development, particularly on a scale that would impact many nations around the world. With the US pushing all of Kim Jong-un’s buttons, this is likely to encourage the nation to back these developments further.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) carried out a military parade on 15th April, touting its offensive and defensive wares. Although the event is marked every year, relations between the Hermit Kingdom and powers in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond, plus the type of new missile technology on display, have led to heightened concerns over the contents of the parade, leading to much talk on what the intentions of this ‘country of concern’ are. Cast against much rhetoric directed at leader Kim Jong-un from US President Donald Trump, the April parade was interpreted as a warning by many observers, who recognised that launch systems capable of reaching the US were being paraded by the DPRK, namely solid fuel Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) launchers displayed during the parade, which although seemingly only at prototype stage, would have a long enough range to reach the US once fully developed, and could be rapidly deployed: “The big reveal of the parade was the ICBM launchers, and several types of missile, including a submarine-launched missile,” Euan Graham, director of the international security programme at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, based in Sydney, southeast Australia told AMR: “The obvious message from the ICBM launchers being included was a statement of (the DPRK’s) intent to develop something with the range to hit the United States, and although a lot of people have cast doubt on how capable they are, their track record is usually that once something has been put in the parade, they do end up developing it.”

Ballistic missiles
Ballistic missiles have enormous propaganda value for the DPRK as shown here during this 2013 Victory Day parade. (Wikimedia Commons)

Parade Gloss

In early April, ahead of the parade, Mr. Trump referred to the DPRK as a “menace” and accused it of “looking for trouble” in series of statements on social media. He then met with the People’s Republic of China’s President Xi Jinping in Florida on 6th April, after which he issued veiled threats that trade deals with Beijing would hinge on that nation abetting improved relations between the DPRK and the rest of the world: “I explained to the President of China that a trade deal with the US will be far better for them if they solve the North Korean problem!” Mr. Trump articulated on 11th April: “If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them!” he added. The PRC is typically considered the closest ally of the DPRK, having been an ally during and after the Korean War of 1950 to 1953. However, no high ranking Chinese officials were at the parade, Mr. Graham noted, which represents increased hostility between the two nations as the DPRK continues to ramp up its missiles and nuclear activities: “In terms of the reaction, I think what is driving this at the political level is the change factor around Mr. Trump and his meeting with Mr. Xi, which seems to have introduced a new factor of uncertainty into the Chinese calculation on the DPRK,” Mr. Graham noted: “They feel they have to do something to at least show the Americans that they are doing more.”

He did, however point out that the relationship between the two Asia-Pacific nations is not always straight forward: “There is a report one day that Air China has ceased services to DPRK, and then a week later there was a report that Air China is increasing its services from May,” he said: “So, there’s a very complicated double story here, and that reflects the fact that China’s displeasure with the DPRK also has to compete with the fact that the DPRK serves its interests in real politique terms.”

Cyber Attack

Attention laid on the DPRK did not wane following the parade, as the day after, on 16th April, it tested a medium-range missile that failed shortly after launch: “the DPRK disrespected the wishes of China and its highly respected president when it launched, though unsuccessfully, a missile today. Bad!” Mr. Trump exclaimed. It has been reported that the US may have intercepted the test by launching a cyber-attack to thwart the attempt, which is a tactic that was previously used to blockade Iran’s development of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), an instructive example being the Stuxnet computer worm which was reportedly developed by a joint Israeli-American team and was first detected in 2010.

While the parade was always going to go ahead, it celebrates the birth of the DPRK’s founder and Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung, also known as the ‘The Great Leader’ whether all the technology that was shown was planned to be on display is unknown: “For the parade, we expected to see something new because they told us that there would be something new, but we did not expect there to be as many new things shown off,” observed Melissa Hanham, senior research associate for the East Asia Non-proliferation Programme at Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, California told AMR: “This is the highest amount of new military hardware that we have ever seen in one of the DPRK’s parades.” Ms. Hanham said that while it was the largest show of equipment, not all of it is deployed or even tested yet, so some of them are still early design concepts. The parade showed off a lot of the DPRK’s delivery systems, which is a telling sign of what the nation is planning. Ms. Hanham noted that there has not been a lot of new information about its potential nuclear warheads since March 2016, and Pyongyang is yet to conduct the sixth nuclear test that it has promised to carry out.

Solid Fuel

Included in the parade was a Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM), known as the Pukkuksong in the DPRK, and KN-11 in the US: “The SLBM has a mixed track record, they did some tests in 2015 and three successful tests in 2016, and we’re not officially sure whether the DPRK considers it deployed or not, but it is definitely starting to work,” Ms. Hanham said: “It is a solid fuel missile, and they have been so convinced by its success that they rolled out the Pukkuksong-2 (KN-15), and they tested that in February. It was in the parade and is also a solid fuel missile.” The KN-15 is a solid-fuel, land-based system, and was shown mounted on a different transporter/launch vehicle than what has been used previously.

The benefit of using solid fuel instead of liquid is that it stores for longer, and can be pre-loaded into the missiles. This means that they can be fuelled and deployed at short notice, without any damage to the warhead: “By using solid fuel, it means that (the DPRK) can launch a little bit more quickly, and they can hide them,” Ms. Hanham observed. This means the Korean People’s Army Strategic Force, the DPRK’s custodian of its missiles, could potentially drive these trucks out from a tunnel, cave or warehouse, and then launch it relatively quickly, whereas with its other liquid fuel missiles, they have to be driven out and fuelled for between 60 minutes to 90 minutes before being launched. The testing of the Pukkuksong-2 in February was performed near a tank factory, and the DPRK used tracked launchers which were “very distinctive” in the parade, Ms. Hanham added. Pyongyang would benefit from making such vehicles indigenously alongside its tanks, whereas before it was trying to import wheeled chassis from other countries because it did not have the correct industrial base for making complex, flexible and durable chassis to protect the missiles when off-road.

Most notably, during the 2012 parade, eight-wheel trucks that had been imported from the PRC were shown during the parade. They were sold to the DPRK North Korean ministry of forestry, and later were turned into launchers with hydraulics for the missiles. This would have been an embarrassment for the PRC: “None of that is too technologically difficult for the DPRK, adding the components that turn a very expensive vehicle into a transporter erector launcher,” Ms. Hanham said: “I think China slammed the door on that, and that’s why they are now forced to build their own indigenous vehicles.”

The development of the land- and sea-based solid-fuel launchers has piqued the interest of the DPRK, as this feature was rolled into the ICBM launchers that were shown in the 2017 parade: “It’s clear they have seen the value of solid fuel, because they have now rolled out in the parade two different ICBMs in canisters, which probably means solid fuel again,” Ms. Hanham continued: “These were at the very end of the parade, and they probably received the most criticism from people, saying that they are probably fake.”

military parades
Debate continues as to whether the platforms showcased at the DPRK’s military parades are genuine or fake. (Wikimedia commons)


However, while the designs were wobbly, and it is likely there was no missile inside, this does not mean that the nation will not develop it into an operational system in the future: “When they rolled out their previous set of ICBMs, the KN-08, people said the same thing in 2012 … people said the welding was bad and that it didn’t look real,” Ms. Hanham observed: “But then between 2012 and now they have continuously refined that design and they’ve tested engines, fuel, a heat shield for re-entering the atmosphere, all of those components, and that missile has gone from what people called fake to probably ready for test at some point … I prefer to not call what they roll out at parades fakes, so much as design concepts.” She notes that during the parade a lot of the missiles themselves were not on display, just the launchers. Nothing relating to the testing of the new solid fuel ICBMs has been carried out as of yet, and it is likely that the canisters were empty. However, Mr. Hanham expects horizontal engine tests to support development to be carried out at some point. Kim Jong-un, the country’s Supreme Leader, is keen to test an ICBM in the near future, reportedly by the end of 2017 or in 2018, but development of the liquid-fuelled KN-08 is so far along that Ms. Hanham expects that to be the missile that would be tested first, not the solid fuel ICBMs: “All I can say is by looking at the components of the KN-08 and the statements of (a DPRK defector), it seems plausible that they will do an ICBM test in that timeframe,” she said: “I think the test will fail, the very first time you test something it’s complex, and with a phased ICBM you will probably have a failure, (but) they are going to learn from every single test … The outside world really likes to laugh every time there’s a failure in the DPRK, but you’d better believe that they’ll learn from every failure.”


While criticism has been directed at Pyongyang, the US has also been playing its part in riling its adversary. The US carried out a series of missile defence tests in April, and has also deployed the US Army’s Lockheed Martin Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system to the Republic of Korea (ROK). The deployment of THAAD has served to effect regional relations rather than unite them. The range of an ICBM deployed from Pyongyang (ICBMs typically have a minimum range of 2969 nautical miles (5500 kilometres)) arguably renders the THAAD useless against this threat, it would be better utilised in the US, and at the same time has added unease to the PRC’s attitude towards the US’ military presence in the region, amid fears by Beijing that the surface-to-air missile system could blunt the potency of the PRC’s nuclear deterrent. Yet, the deployment does show an important symbolic commitment to the ROK’s security, and the US commitment therein: “There has been a very strong and deliberate ramping up of tensions from the US side, and it is also not bad news for (Kim Jong-un); even the development of THAAD in the ROK has a geopolitical advantage for the DPRK, because it drives a wedge between the ROK and the PRC.”

THAAD air defence system
The US’ deployment of the THAAD air defence system has been controversial with arguments continuing as to the message the deployment sends to the DPRK regime. (US Army)

Mr. Graham added that Mr. Kim: “in his element at the moment … The pre-emptive strike option has got all sorts of problems with it; the genie is so far out of the bottle that it would be very messy and there would be no guarantee that you would be able to destroy all of the (DPRK’s WMD) infrastructure that has very clearly been (hidden),” Graham noted, adding that the DPRK is very good at tunnelling and hiding its infrastructure away. He added that the US approach at the moment is to put enough doubt in the PRC’s mind so that they will take economic coercion seriously, and subsequently influence the DPRK, and the US will give this some time to work, although how long is questionable. However, Beijing’s support is not necessarily of great importance to the DPRK, and it is likely that it will continue with missile developments regardless: “The DPRK has shown that whether the Chinese are supportive or not, they are quite prepared to continue to a point where their negotiation position is maximum strength, by meaning they have a secure, tested and operationally fielded ICBM, and that’s not a position that anybody realistically expects them to walk back from in negotiations,” Mr. Graham added. He continued that the question is whether or not the nation will commit to a freeze of nuclear development: “I think there are real benefits to that, we forget in focusing on the missile issue, that they could develop a thermo-nuclear capability in a few years,” he noted. “They’ve talked about it, and it’s something that outsiders would have scoffed at five to ten years ago.”

US Air Force’s Boeing WC-135W Constant Phoenix aircraft
The US Air Force’s Boeing WC-135W Constant Phoenix aircraft is capable of performing air sampling to determine if a nuclear weapons test has been performed, and has undertaken flights near the Korean Peninsula to this end. (USAF)

While much speculation surrounds what was the catalyst for the roll out of these systems, plus the level at which the technology currently stands, Mr. Kim is not likely to give up his missile development any time soon. The Supreme Leader is seemingly unaffected by the consequences that economic sanctions have on the people of the country, and will continue with his missile development regardless. Relations with the US are clearly some sort of catalyst for the need to develop capabilities such as an ICBM, but this is not necessarily the only driver for Pyongyang: “I don’t think everything occurs in the window of the optics of the DPRK-US relationship; that’s obviously a driver for strategic decision making, but that also has to compete with the realities of practical constraints, and the DPRK still is, we mustn’t forget, essentially doing this on a shoestring, especially compared to the PRC and Russia,” Mr. Graham stated: “It’s extraordinary the level of ambition they’ve demonstrated.”

He noted that some of the vehicles had to pull out of the parade, while a tank had mechanical problems, and as for the launchers, there were groups of seven launchers set up so that if one developed mechanical problems another would be able to step into its place. Nevertheless, the DPRK is keen to promote these military wares and stands proudly next to them: “I think they feel enormously threatened, in part because of the changeable mood and opinion of the Trump administration, the uncertainty in the ROK elections, and the increased pressure from the PRC,” Mr. Hanham added: “Nobody ever says positive things about the DPRK, but this is a tense time and they probably feel very much under pressure. I think that Kim Jong-un personally wants to see successes in these systems, and I don’t think he’s going to trade them away for economic or perhaps even diplomatic exchanges.” Mr. Kim is seemingly unwilling to give up either his missiles or nuclear developments, and failed tests have not deterred him from persevering with the varying programmes. The strong position of Mr. Trump’s administration is unlikely to deter him and, if anything, could paradoxically spur on development of the one capability that could threaten the continental US.

Missile Defence Agency’s SBX-1
In January the US deployed the Missile Defence Agency’s SBX-1 sea-based early warning radar to the Pacific to monitor DPRK ballistic missile launches. (US DOD)

by Beth Stevenson