When I discussed North Korea’s latest show-stopper of a military parade over the weekend, I didn’t have too much to say about one of the new missiles that Pyongyang decided to show off. The missile in question appeared to be a Scud/Nodong variant and — like the Pukkuksong-2 that we saw tested for the first time in February — was on a tracked transporter erector launcher (TEL). Notably, the missile had fins on its nose cone, suggesting that it was designed to offer a degree of maneuverability in its descent or terminal phase — a capability Pyongyang has not yet demonstrated, but expressed interest in acquiring.
North Korea hasn’t talked about that specific missile, but today, it appears that the U.S. government has gone public about what it might be. On Monday, U.S. officials told Fox News that the missile North Korea tested on Sunday — the day after the military parade — was something called the KN-17. That represents a brand-new KN missile designation by the United States, which just weeks ago unveiled that it would be calling the Pukkuksong-2 the KN-15. The KN-17, according to a U.S. official that spoke to Fox, is a single-stage, liquid-fueled missile that — critically — could be used to target ships.
That’s right: North Korea may be working toward an anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM).
This new information about the KN-17 also helps partly identify the mysterious projectile that was tested on April 5, which was incidentally also launched from land near the Sinpo shipyard like Sunday’s launch. (The Diplomat recently offered a deep dive into North Korea’s Sinpo submarine base with satellite imagery.) That missile, which was initially assessed as a Scud, flew for just 60 kilometers with an apogee of 189 kilometers and, strangely, “pinwheeled” in descent, according U.S. Pacific Command.
As David Wright noted in his excellent analysis, the April 5 test’s failure, if it was indeed a Scud, could just be a reminder of “how uncertain the missile business can be.” Indeed, without any additional information, that seemed like a reasonable hypothesis. But North Korea has gotten quite confident in its short- and medium-range single-stage, liquid-fuel missiles. It’s partly why it may be using its ER-Scuds for first-strike rehearsal these days more than testing them to see if they work, for example.
Looking at the April 5 and April 16 launches from Sinpo makes a lot more sense with PACOM’s KN-17 reveal. The KN-17 is North Korea’s attempt to take a base that it is quite confident with — single-stage, liquid-fuel missiles — and experiment with terminal phase maneuverability. Presumably, the assessment U.S. officials gave to Fox News, that this missile could eventually come to serve the role of an anti-ship ballistic missile, is based on those factors alone. (Think something like China’s much-discussed solid-fuel DF-21D carrier-killer, but “Korean-style.”)
Some commentary after the two launch failures out of Sinpo also focused on U.S. attempts to disrupt North Korean missile development through so-called “left of launch” cyber methods. While we don’t know precisely what components of North Korea’s processes are being actively undermined by the United States, it’s possible that given the early development of Pyongyang’s ASBM, things are simply going wrong as they often do in testing and development in the ballistic missile business. (It is somewhat odd, though, that despite Pyongyang’s experience with liquid Scud-like systems, Sunday’s test exploded seconds after launch instead of making it through boost phase like the April 5 test.)
The specter of a North Korean ASBM program will no doubt spark commentary that Pyongyang will be the next to develop a robust anti-access/area denial capability, with “carrier-killer” missiles. That too might be premature. North Korea almost certainly still lacks the over-the-horizon radar capabilities and other associated intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities that would allow it to credibility threaten, say, a U.S. aircraft carrier with a ballistic missile anytime soon.
In the near-term, North Korea already has its tried-and-tested short-range anti-ship cruise missiles, one variant of which was also prominently paraded on Saturday on tracked TELs painted in the Korean People’s Navy blue camouflage. Based on the subsonic Russian Kh-35, that system seems to be what Pyongyang is counting on most to repel surface ships from its shores in wartime, though it wouldn’t offer the long-range stand-off capabilities of an accurate ASBM. (North Korea also has its older KN-01s and reports a few years ago suggested it was looking to developed an ASCM variant of its KN-02 ground-to-ground missile.)
A lot of this — like so many things related to North Korea — remains speculative. What is increasingly clear though is that Pyongyang is at least interested in maneuverable reentry vehicles (MaRVs). MaRVs would have applications for Pyongyang outside of ASBM applications. For instance, after its Pukkuksong-2 test in February, North Korean state media claimed that the test had “verified … the feature of evading interception,” which could refer to MaRV-like capabilities.
Though the Pukkuksong-2’s warhead didn’t have obviously protruding fins like the unidentified-but-likely-KN-17 missile we saw during Saturday’s parade, even rudimentary MaRVs would increase North Korea’s confidence in its ability to penetrate enemy missile defenses. Pyongyang is already looking into saturating systems like the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea with multiple missile launches; MaRVs would abet that effort. So, even if this doesn’t pan out to the end point of an ASBM, the KN-17 could be an important test-bed to help Pyongyang develop its MaRV know-how on a base that it knows well: single-stage, liquid-fuel missiles.
Finally, there’s a somewhat droll angle to Pyongyang’s testing of the KN-17 in April, if it indeed was an ASBM. Readers may recall that earlier this month, we saw reports that U.S. Pacific Command had directed the USS Carl Vinson strike group to the Korean peninsula, supposedly in anticipation of a nuclear test. Pacific Command did redirect the Vinson strike group on April 8 — three days after the first failed test out of Sinpo — but it was redirected to the Western Pacific — not the Korean peninsula.
Anyway, with the test dates for the KN-17 and the false reports about the Vinson‘s northbound trip, one wonders if Pyongyang’s test on Sunday could have additionally sought to signal a burgeoning ASBM capability to a U.S. carrier group that wasn’t actually in the region — a shot across the bow of a ship that wasn’t even there, so to speak.
The alternative is, however, a simpler explanation and just as likely: North Korea is still just trying to develop its missile capabilities and improve its knowledge base in its inexorable quest for a guarantee against coercive regime change.