Last week, headlines blew up with reports that North Korea’s Kim Jong-un had ordered the country’s “nuclear warheads” to be on high alert. As I discussed in these pages, the move was intended to signal, as always, Pyongyang’s dissatisfaction with any new international sanctions. Given the particularly harsh sanctions regime that passed last week, in the form of United Nations Security Council resolution 2270 (UNSCR 2270), it wasn’t surprising that North Korea would issue a bombastic statement, threatening a preemptive nuclear strike.
While the language concerning a preemptive attack posture and nuclear weapons readiness caught the most attention, North Korea also used that statement to announce a new multiple launch rocket system (MLRS). The official English translation of the statement notes that North Korea held a “a test-fire for estimating the might of controlled ordnance rocket warhead for large-caliber multiple launch rocket system of new type to be deployed in the reserve artillery units of the Korean People’s Army.”
The MLRS, described as a “new-type large-caliber multiple launch rocket system,” capable of firing “controlled ordnance rocket[s],” was part of North Korea’s October 2015 military parade, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun carried extensive photography of the test-firing, which Kim Jong-un oversaw. (If you speak Korean, you can watch the KCTV report on the test here.)
The origins and specifications of North Korea’s new MLRS are somewhat of a mystery, but arms control experts and North Korea-watchers have started piecing together the system’s capabilities based largely on the still images and video made available by North Korean state media. For instance, Jeffrey Lewis of Arms Control Wonk found that the launcher for the new MLRS matched Chinese-manufactured Sichuan Aerospace’s PR50 122mm MLRS.
The 300mm rocket fired by the new MLRS, meanwhile, bears similarities to existing platforms operated by China and Pakistan. Joseph Dempsey of the International Institute for Strategic Studies notes that the rocket bears visual resemblance to Sichuan Aerospace’s Shen Ying 300 (SY300) rocket. Lewis notes that the rocket also bears visual similarities with Pakistan’s Hatf-IX/Nasr 300mm rocket, which Islamabad has claimed is nuclear-capable.
The new MLRS test comes almost exactly two years after North Korea conducted similar tests, firing short-range missiles into the Sea of Japan. North Korea’s MLR systems could prove to be a useful force multiplier for Pyongyang in any conventional conflict with South Korea and are challenging to defend against using conventional missile defense technology, given their ability to fire scores of rockets over a short time span. In its 2015 report on North Korea’s military capabilities, the U.S. Department of Defense notes that such systems pose a “constant threat to north parts of [South Korea].”