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What do we know about North Korea's 'monster missile'?

March 25, 2022

North Korea's first ICBM test in five years was a missile capable of flying farther with a larger payload than earlier ones. But experts say the weapon is unlikely to move the needle on any negotiations with the US.

A big missile takes off
An image of the 'Hwasong-17' provided by North Korean state mediaImage: KCNA/REUTERS

North Korea continues to advance its military technology in the face of international pressure and sanctions that have been unable to deter Pyongyang's development of more capable and deadly weaponry.

North Korea has carried out more than a dozen weapons tests in the first three months of 2022, but an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test on Thursday appears to be a new milestone.

What has been called the "monster missile" by analysts, the "Hwasong-17" is the largest ICBM Pyongyang has ever tested.

"If launched on a normal trajectory, it would range the entirety of the continental United States with some range to spare," Ankit Panda, an Asia-Pacific security expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told DW.

North Korea has not tested an ICBM since 2017, and leader Kim Jong Un said in April 2018 that Pyongyang "no longer needed" to test long-range missiles and nuclear weapons before two summits with former US President Donald Trump.

Now, five years later, Kim has personally observed an ICBM launch, with accompanying propaganda broadcast in state media lauding a "new strategic weapon … confirming the modernity of our strategic force."

Kim Jong Un wears sunglasses near a large missile
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un makes a propaganda appearance ahead of the launchImage: KCNA via REUTERS

Pyongyang said the Hwasong-17 launch will "clearly show the might of our strategic force to the whole world once again," while warning that North Korea was "fully ready" to "contain any military attempts by US imperialists."

North Korea is banned from testing ICBMs, and the US has already announced sanctions in response to the tests.

However, as has been seen with past failures at "denuclearization," the Kim regime's actions show that it considers military deterrence as more important to its survival opposed to any damage sanctions could cause.

"Every test yields useful data for the North Koreans on improving the credibility of their nuclear deterrent," Panda said.

What do we know about Hwasong-17?

The Hwasong-17 was first revealed at a military parade in October 2020, although this week was the first time it was test fired, according to 38 North, a US-based think tank.

An ICBM is a guided missile designed to deliver nuclear warheads at a range of between 5,500 to 16,000 kilometers (3,400 to 9,900 miles), although they can also deliver other payloads. ICBMs are also much faster and have a greater range than other types of ballistic missiles.

North Korean media reported Hwasong-17 flew to an altitude of over 6,200 kilometers for 67 minutes at a range of 1,090 kilometers before hitting a target in the sea. Japan and South Korea also reported similar data. 38 North said the missile is estimated to be 2.5 meters in diameter.

Early image analysis of Thursday's test shows that the test was the first time North Korea launched an ICBM from a Transporter Erector Launcher (TEL), an expensive piece of Chinese-made kit. According to analyst Panda, Hwasong-17 is likely the largest liquid-propellant missile ever launched from a road carrier.

However, the most concerning component of the missile is its potential ability to carry more than one nuclear warhead, which greatly complicates defending against a strike.

Based on what has been seen in past parades and exhibits, 38 North analyst Vann Van Diepen wrote before the missile test that the primary value of the new missile is its larger payload capacity, which could facilitate the deployment of multiple warheads, very-large-yield single warheads, or more and more capable missile defense penetration aids.

"I don't think anyone is really that surprised that they went through with it. They've clearly been working up to it with the last couple of launches and there was already a growing expectation that they would use it to launch the reconnaissance satellite they've indicated is coming," Jenny Town, 38 North's director, told DW.

Officials in Seoul and Washington have said North Korea test launches on February 27 and March 5 likely involved components of the Hwasong-17 system, which could have been a run-up to the full test seen Thursday.

At the time, Pyongyang said it had launched unidentified range ballistic missiles it claimed were being used to test components of a reconnaissance satellite at operational altitudes, according to 38 North.

First North Korean ICBM since 2017 

North Korea's ICBMs are named "Hwasong," which translates to "Mars" in Korean.

Several launches carried out in 2017 involved the Hwasong-15 missiles, which at the time were able to reach an altitude of 4,500 kilometers.

The Hwasong-15's estimated range of 13,000 kilometers (8,000 miles), when fired on a standard trajectory could put any part of the continental United States within range.

However, the Hwasong 17 is estimated by 38 North to be able to deliver a payload of about 1,700 kilograms vs. the 15's 1,000 kilograms to anywhere in the US.  

The greater payload capability could allow different types of reentry vehicles to hit multiple targets.

North Korea's increased ICBM capacity is aimed at deterring the US. However, Pyongyang has shown recently that its short and medium-range weapons would be effective against targets in Japan and South Korea.

Other recent North Korean missile tests have included a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) of the Pukguksong class and several hypersonic glide vehicles. Pyongyang also possesses an arsenal of shorter-range Scud missiles and cruise missiles.

A graphic showing North Korea missiles
The Hwasong-17 had yet to be tested when this graphic was produced

How does the new ICBM affect talks with US, South Korea?

The international community has been quick to condemn the new launch, however, it is unlikely that Pyongyang intends to use its weapons tests as a bargaining chip in the short term.

"I wouldn't call this 'game-changing' as the North Koreans have been unresponsive to overtures for resuming talks with the US and South Korea for a while now," said Town from 38 North.

"It's pretty clear from North Korean statements and moves that they didn't have much confidence that new negotiations would lead to results in the short term," she added.

This includes the US returning to a more "traditional" policy stance under President Joe Biden, and the upcoming conservative presidential administration in South Korea under Yoon Suk-yeol, who has promised a tougher line on Pyongyang.

Kim Jong Un claps at Hwasong-17
In the past, Kim Jong Un has only been present for tests of advanced weaponryImage: KCNA/KNS/AP/picture alliance

"With rising US-China tensions, and worsening relations with Russia, there is a growing sense that political and ideological blocs are re-forming and that the UN Security Council is now effectively paralyzed," said Town.

She added that there is an arms race accelerating in northeast Asia, with countries like South Korea testing missiles, and all regional actors strengthening alliances and building new security pacts.

"This isn't really the kind of security environment in which you would expect North Korea to be willing to negotiate limits on their own weapons development," said Town.

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Edited by: Shamil Shams

Wesley Rahn Editor and reporter focusing on geopolitics and Asia