[News analysis] Why N. Korea is diversifying its missile launch platforms

Posted on : 2023-03-27 17:28 KST Modified on : 2023-03-27 17:28 KST
It appears that North Korea is trying to show off its war deterrence capacity by strengthening its counter-strike capabilities
North Korean state media released this photo on March 24 of what it called a test of an underwater nuclear attack drone. (KCNA/Yonhap)
North Korean state media released this photo on March 24 of what it called a test of an underwater nuclear attack drone. (KCNA/Yonhap)

North Korea’s shows of force in response to the South Korea-US Freedom Shield military drills over the past two weeks were more diverse and intense than those carried out previously.

While during joint military exercises last year the North focused mainly on launching various short-, medium- and long-range missiles, it has recently been showing off its growing power through military actions that are increasingly asymmetric in nature.

From before the start of the Freedom Shield drills on March 13, North Korea conducted various shows of force including the launch of two submarine-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs) on March 12; an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on March 16, four cruise missiles on March 22; and the testing of a "new underwater attack weapon system" from March 21-23.

North Korea is also claiming that it can now mount nuclear warheads on not only ballistic missiles but also cruise missiles and self-destructing unmanned underwater crafts. Such moves are interpreted as an attempt by the North to show how it has diversified its means, or platforms, for launching missiles to better evade detection, strike, and interception by the South and the US.

Through these recent moves, North Korea is proving to the world that it can fire off missiles not only from transporter-erector launchers (TELs), which had been mainly used in the past, but also from other platforms such as trains, submarines, reservoirs, near golf course lakes, and even underground silos.

This kind of response is quite different from the way the North reacted last year. Last November, in response to the South Korea-US Vigilant Storm joint air drills, North Korea responded with artillery fire off its eastern and western coasts, short-range missile launches, large-scale air force drills, trainings of its tactical nuclear operation units, and missile launches that crossed south of the Northern Limit Line (NLL) in the East Sea.

The North’s armed provocations this year, however, were much more powerful and varied.

In particular, North Korea conducted drills simulating a tactical nuclear counterattack on March 18-19, during which it claims to have fired a tactical ballistic missile (KN-23, referred to as the “North Korean Iskander”) capable of carrying tactical nuclear warheads and verified the operation of nuclear explosion control devices and detonators.

Then, on March 21 and 23, the North again showed off its nuclear power by announcing the test of a new underwater nuclear strategic weapon test of an unmanned craft.

It appears that North Korea is trying to show off its war deterrence capacity by strengthening its counter-strike capabilities.

The “nuclear counterattack” capability emphasized by the North is based on the Cold War-era logic of “second strike” capabilities, a nuclear deterrence strategy used by the US and Soviet Union throughout their nuclear competition in the 20th century.

The logic behind the second-strike capability is that, if one side is not completely destroyed by a first nuclear strike and is able to conduct a counter (second) strike, then the other side will also face mutually assured destruction. As such, neither side can safely launch a preemptive strike.

Based on this logic, North Korea is clinging to the goal of securing second-strike capabilities. To this end, it has been developing SLCMs after having developed submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). Submarines that are hidden at sea and nuclear unmanned underwater crafts are all part of a secondary attack force.

In other words, even if the North is hit by a preemptive nuclear attack, its submarines and other weapons at sea could survive and fire SLBMs and other missiles to reduce their counterpart to ashes.

On March 20, the Workers’ Party of Korea-run Rodong Sinmun reported that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un guided tactical drills simulating a tactical nuclear counterattack.

According to the article, Kim stated that the North “cannot actually deter a war with the mere fact that it is a nuclear weapons state,” adding that effective war deterrence will be possible “only when the nuclear force is perfected as a means actually capable of mounting an attack on the enemy and its nuclear attack posture for prompt and accurate activation is rounded off to always strike fear into the enemy.”

Also noteworthy is how North Korea has been diversifying its missile launch platforms by deploying missiles to underground missile silos and mobile vehicles, trains, and reservoirs to increase survivability in case of emergency.

The SLCMs that North Korea launched on March 12 appear to be improved versions of strategic cruise missiles that they have been developing since 2021 to be used with submarines.

If missiles that were once fired only from the ground can now also be used at sea, it reduces the cost of developing new weapons and allows the North to acquire second-strike capabilities quickly.

“The fact that North Korea has demonstrated real-life explosions by adding nuclear detonators not just to ballistic missiles but also to super-large multiple rocket launchers, cruise missiles, and unmanned underwater attack crafts is noteworthy and I am very concerned,” said Kim Dong-yup, professor at the University of North Korean Studies.

“If North Korea diversifies its means of conducting a nuclear attack, it will require a quantitative increase as well so it will strive to increase its nuclear materials,” Kim added.

Regarding the possibility of North Korea mounting miniaturized nuclear warheads to its missiles, South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense remains skeptical.

“We estimate that this technology has advanced to a considerable level, but we do not think that it can be mounted on tactical guided weapons systems,” the ministry said. As such, contrary to North Korea’s contention, the South argues Pyongyang does not yet have the capabilities to mount miniaturized nuclear warheads on missiles in a way that can be deployed in an actual combat setting.

Meanwhile, South Korea and the US, which completed their Freedom Shield exercises on March 23, will continue with more drills through early April. The navies and marine corps of the two countries will continue with their Ssangyong (“twin dragon”) drills, division-level joint amphibious exercises that started on March 20 and will conclude on April 3.

North Korea has also strongly protested against these exercises. North Korean propaganda media outlet Uriminzokkiri wrote, “The intentional, persistent and provocative war drills and confrontational stance of the U.S. imperialists and the south Korean puppet regime of traitors have driven the military and political situation of the Korean peninsula to an irreversibly dangerous point.”

Another North Korean media outlet, Meari, also lashed out at the joint drills, accusing Washington and Seoul of bringing the Korean Peninsula closer to war.

By Kwon Hyuk-chul, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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