On January 5 and 11, North Korea launched two missiles, which it called “hypersonic”, to highlight their outstanding performance. Experts in Seoul are in no hurry with laudatory assessments, but are forced to admit that the DPRK is developing systems that in the near future may pose a serious threat both to South Korea itself and to the US military bases in the country. We asked the well-known expert on the DPRK military program, Vladimir Khrustalev, to talk about the features of the new North Korean missiles, as well as about the direction in which the development of the military-industrial complex of the Juche Country is moving.
What are the features of the missiles launched by the DPRK on January 5 and 11?
Vladimir Khrustalev: First of all, I would like to draw attention to the characteristics of the trajectories along which the new complexes flew in comparison with both the previously known simple ballistic and quasi-ballistic missiles of the DPRK.
We are talking here not so much about the formal hypersonic speed (that is, the speed of 5 or more speeds of sound), which is easily achieved by conventional ballistic missiles of medium and even more long-range, and not only about the ability to maneuver vertically and horizontally with large overloads instead of a simple ballistic curve. The fact is that these missiles were immediately designed to operate precisely in the extreme range of flight trajectories and speeds, in which North Korean missiles previously could not work.
If we take the set of parameters range / maneuverability / speed / altitude, then until 2022 Pyongyang did not have systems with a similar simultaneous ratio of the above characteristics. As it seems, everything has been done in order to increase the ability to penetrate the enemy’s anti-missile defense (ABM) system.
After the launch on January 5, the South Korean military said that the DPRK in an official statement exaggerated the capabilities of its missiles. Following the January 11 launch, Seoul acknowledged that Pyongyang had confirmed many of its stated capabilities. Who should be believed in this situation?
Vladimir Khrustalev: Here you should trust only your eyes. I would like to note that South Korea systematically underestimated the military-technical successes of the DPRK. In general, tracking missiles of this kind is characterized by a number of difficulties, and errors can occur unintentionally. For example, the Japanese side considered the launch of a similar North Korean missile on October 19 last year to be the launch of two missiles, although there was only one missile and the trajectory was not so extreme.
And so, from my point of view, North Korea has seen tremendous progress in terms of developing new missile systems. Regardless of whether the new missiles are fully ready or they still need to be “brought to mind,” in any case, even the smallest conservative estimate of the available foreign surveillance data points to a significant breakthrough in North Korean rocketry.
To what extent can these missiles be effective in overcoming missile defense?
Vladimir Khrustalev: They are likely to be very effective at penetrating missile defense systems originally designed to intercept conventional short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. In the new complexes of the DPRK, the design windows and zones of effective fire are greatly reduced in comparison with simple ballistic trajectories. In a number of situations, interception with missile defense is simply impossible.
If you go into details, then these DPRK missiles have everything at a very good level, which is very difficult for the enemy’s missile defense system. This is both a high speed (as in a normal medium-range ballistic missile) and most of the flight in an inconvenient altitude range for existing anti-missiles (too high for some, too low for others) and the ability to exit from an open direction (anti-missile guidance radars have limited sectors) to the target and the possibility of convergence at an inconvenient angle (the probability of interception and its effective range depend on this as well).
And where the opportunity to intercept still appears, then the consumption of interceptor missiles per target increases sharply. That is, if these missiles are used massively by North Korea, they will create a huge problem for missile defense.
The DPRK has now made it almost a rule that after each launch the next day there is a detailed description of the tests with colorful photographs and detailed and explanations. What do you think, why such openness on the part of Pyongyang, after all, they could simply remain silent, without supplying foreign experts with information?
Vladimir Khrustalev: Firstly, these are the tasks of internal propaganda, which should be used to demonstrate the achievements of national military power to its people. The authorities and propagandists of practically all significant military powers are engaged in this. The DPRK does the same, but only with an allowance for local specifics. Second, for the credibility of deterrence. If you want to impress the enemy, then you must systematically and reliably surprise him with the success of the development of your military industry. These tasks are solved with the help of detailed texts and illustrations that we usually see in the DPRK media after launches.
The DPRK has so far kept the promises made by Kim Jong-un in 2018 by stopping nuclear tests, as well as launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), but continues to test something else. For example, we see missile launches from submarines, launches of shorter-range missiles, but with complex trajectories, etc. What do you think the North Korean missilemen are now working hard on, judging by the tests carried out after Kim Jong-un’s “moratorium”?
Vladimir Khrustalev: Firstly, this is the creation of multiple warheads for missiles, secondly, this is the creation of new solid-propellant ballistic missiles for submarines, thirdly, the improvement of solid-fuel ICBMs, and fourthly, the creation of various complexes of means of overcoming missile defense for ICBMs (false targets, jammers, etc.). Well, Pyongyang will most likely have to return to satellite launches. They have an objectively huge need for a full-fledged orbital constellation (communications, reconnaissance, meteorological data), so the DPRK will have to resume attempts to put satellites into orbit.
In October last year, the DPRK held the first ever arms exhibition “Self-Defense-2021”, which it publicly announced, provided photos from the event. Kim Jong-un also attended the exhibition. Did you see something interesting at the exhibition?
Vladimir Khrustalev: There were a lot of interesting things, but I especially remember two new cruise missiles – both the one that was reported in the media about the tests, and some other. An interesting section of the exhibition entitled “Satellites and Space Technologies” was also noticed, but, unfortunately, no exhibits were included in the official reportage.
What can we expect from the DPRK in the future in terms of steps to further develop weapons? Do you think Pyongyang can agree to resume nuclear explosions or launch ICBMs?
Vladimir Khrustalev: It can be said with full confidence that North Korea will continue testing both new missiles (and a wide variety of missiles, not just ballistic ones), as well as already known, proven systems.
As for testing new ICBMs in the foreseeable future, I cannot say for sure, but I do not exclude such a possibility.
Nuclear explosions, however, are a step on a slightly different level. While this looks unlikely, and something important and unusual must happen for the DPRK to resume full-scale nuclear explosions. Moreover, to a large extent, the need for such tests has decreased, since the DPRK has learned to improve atomic warheads by conducting various subcritical, hydro-nuclear and other experiments in combination with mathematical modeling. The DPRK may be prompted to new tests of nuclear weapons by the creation of some radically new charge design, where it is still possible to do without a test “live”, or by a significant change in the foreign policy situation.
Many experts argue over what is Kim Jong-un’s goal in terms of developing his nuclear missile program. On the one hand, it is obvious that the DPRK will clearly not be able to handle the abundance and variety of complexes that the United States and Russia have, on the other, North Korea nevertheless does not stop there and continues to increase its capacities. If you were Kim Jong-un, what state of the country’s nuclear missile arsenal would you consider sufficient to guarantee security, given the current state of the DPRK? Where will Pyongyang stop or can it move on constantly?
Vladimir Khrustalev: Let’s put it this way: North Korea does not live on Mars, and therefore the leadership of North Korea cannot ignore the development of both the reconnaissance and strike potential of adversaries and the development of missile defense systems. Therefore, as the military power of the opponents changes, the development of the DPRK’s nuclear missile arsenal will continue in parallel. Simply put, since missiles and missile defense systems are developing in the United States, South Korea and Japan, then North Korean missile systems will continue to develop, which will be designed to overcome these missile defense systems and deliver nuclear warheads to their designated targets.
As for the specific goal, the level where the DPRK can consider itself in more or less relative safety, I think that Pyongyang will need hundreds of ready-made nuclear and thermonuclear charges, from 150 to 500 pieces. And at the same time, part of this arsenal should confidently reach the territory The United States even when countering missile defense.
Judging by the situation, despite all the rhetoric regarding the development of inter-Korean dialogue, South Korea also does not want to just look at the North Korean tests and itself has actively undertaken to develop the corresponding arsenals, since the United States has canceled many of the previously existing restrictions. Seoul has successfully tested new land-based ballistic missiles, launched missiles from submarines, and there is talk of creating its own nuclear submarine fleet. In addition, South Korea has actively taken up the development of its own space program, which has an explicit and military application, which, however, is not hidden in Seoul. How can Russia be threatened by such active arming of its neighbors in the region?
Vladimir Khrustalev: Absolutely everyone in the region is now arming itself: the United States, China, Japan, and both Koreas and other countries. It’s just that technological progress is changing the current military-technological fashion somewhat. Therefore, Russia can be threatened with something serious only in two cases: either the Russian Federation will ignore the process of general rearmament on its eastern borders, or if it tries to play on par with all the others in military development. Then Russia needs to pursue a rational line of development of the country’s military potential in the region – to improve its capabilities, but still not try to be stronger than all the countries on the planet together.