Having declared an end to ballistic missile and nuclear testing in April, after successfully developing a number of new weapons systems and miniaturised nuclear warheads necessary to provide the country with substantial deterrent capabilities, North Korea appears to have redoubled its efforts to produce the weapons already tested in sufficient numbers for its defence needs. From 2015 to 2017 North Korea’s armed forces carried out dozens of weapons tests, which have introduced not only the country’s first intercontinental range ballistic missiles, the Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15, and compact hydrogen warheads - but also modernised short and intermediate ranged platforms capable of striking at new ranges and with greater efficiency. The North Korean missile deterrent force is among the most diverse and capable in the world, with over ten ballistic missile types currently in service ranging from the basic short ranged Hwasong-5 of the late 1970s to the highly sophisticated Hwasong-15 - able to strike targets as far as New York on the U.S. West Coast. With the country having focused on testing a number of new platforms in quick succession, which have included the Pukkuksong-1 and 2 solid fuelled missiles, the intermediate range Musudan and Hwasong-12, an unnamed new solid fuelled short range missile and two intercontinental range ballistic missiles, the military is now increasingly turning its attentions towards producing the weapons and their launchers in larger numbers to strengthen the country’s deterrent force. This has very likely been accompanied by production of more nuclear warheads alongside conventional ones in order to arm these missiles.
According to U.S. sources, though unverified, the North Korean military has placed a particular focus on producing the Pukkuksong-2 ballistic missile in larger numbers - accompanied by necessary launch platforms. The missile is based on the submarine launched Pukkuksong-1, which entered service in 2016 onboard the country’s Gorae/ Sinpo and Golf Class warships, and was successfully test fired from a transporter erector launcher in February and May the following year and put into active service. What is notable about the Pukkuksong-2 is that it not only retains a formidable range of 2000km, putting all of South Korea and Japan well within its range including U.S. military facilities on Cheju Island and Okinawa, but it is also very practical to operate. At just 9 meters long, and making use of solid rather than liquid fuel, it is considerably easier to store and transport and takes less time to prepare for firing than the larger liquid fuel Rodong-1. The Rodong-1 entered service in the late 1980s as North Korea’s first intermediate range ballistic missile, with a range of 1,500km allowing the country to for the first time put U.S. military targets in Japan at risk. With Japan a key staging ground for American military efforts against North Korea, both in a potential future war and during the Korean War, this was a major development. The Pukkuksong-2 appears to take over this role, and making use of a superior fuel composite and solid fuel it can fire further with a similarly large payload and can be constantly stored ready to launch. While liquid fuel has corrosive effects on the interior of missiles, meaning they must be fuelled shortly before use which lengthens their response time to an enemy attack, solid fuelled missiles can be stored fully fuelled are considerably easier to prepare for launch - as well as to store and hide if necessary.
The Pukkuksong-2 appears set to become the mainstay of North Korea’s intermediate ballistic missile strike capabilities, alongside the Hwasong-12 ‘Guam Killer’ ballistic missile which, though larger and relying on liquid fuel, can strike U.S. military facilities further afield. While ongoing negotiations with the United States may well lead to pressure to halt missile production, until that stage North Korea remains free to expand its deterrent forces with new and highly versatile strike platforms. The Pukuksong-2 notably is ideal for operating from remote bases the country’s mountains, and alongside its lower maintenance and fuelling requirements it makes use of an indigenous tracked transporter erector launcher which allows to remain highly mobile off road - an invaluable asset to make best use of the cover of the country’s rough mountainous terrain. The missile is ejected from a canister using pressurised gas before its engine ignites, a process known as cold launching also used by the country’s KN-06 air defence platform, which allow it to better operate from the cover of buildings or forests.
Ultimately while Pyongyang has pledged an end to the testing of missiles and nuclear warheads, acts deemed highly provocative by the Western Bloc and its regional allies, this pledge does not extend to the expansion of its deterrent forces by building more of tried and tested missile platforms and warhead types. As North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said just weeks before ordering the closure of the country’s nuclear weapons testing site: “The nuclear weapons research sector and the rocket industry should mass produce nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles, the power and reliability of which have already been proved to the full, to give a spur to the efforts for deploying them for action.” The expansion of the Pukkuksong arsenal, and likely accompanying production of Hwasong-15, Hwasong-12 and new short ranged solid fuelled missiles, is likely also taking place simultaneously - allowing the country to very quietly and inconspicuously strengthen its defences.