The large ICBM featured as the grand finale of North Korea’s military parade to mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Korean Workers Party has been a source of controversy and speculation from missile experts and amateurs alike from the moment it appeared on state-run Korea Central Television. Quickly and colorfully dubbed the “monster missile” based on a comment from the Open Nuclear Network’s Melissa Hanham—in part because North Korea has yet to announce its official name—it probably has received more scrutiny and press reporting than any previous weapon first seen in a Pyongyang parade. Media coverage has ranged from a retired general dismissing it as largely for show–even as possibly a mockup—to a breathless article crediting it with an infeasibly large “2000 megaton” warhead. (Given that the largest nuclear test in history, the massive Tsar Bomba, was 50 megatons, a 2000 megaton yield is more in the realm of science fiction weaponry than a plausible North Korean nuclear warhead.)
While many experienced analysts acknowledge that it may not be just a mockup, they have questioned the utility of such a gargantuan missile, with Harry Kazianis characterizing it as an impractical “Spruce Goose.” Skeptics are quick to point out this enormous liquid-fueled missile’s shortcomings for either a surprise “first strike” or surviving for “second strike” purposes, including the difficulty in concealing it, its limited mobility, and presumably long fueling time. Markus Schiller colorfully noted that driving it once fueled would be risky at best: “No sane person would drive this ticking bomb through the North Korean countryside.” Other authors, like Dan Depetris, assess that this new model does not really add much to North Korea’s already-diverse ballistic missile arsenal, with the Hwasong-15 ICBM already believed by many experts to be capable of reaching the entire United States based on its November 2017 test, and many more proven shorter-ranged nuclear-capable missiles available to credibly hold U.S. bases and allies at risk.
So, then, if it does not seem to have much additional utility to North Korea for traditional purposes, why does it matter?
First and foremost, it matters—along with the panoply of other missiles displayed in the parade—because it shows the progress North Korea continues to make on strategic weapons despite the effects of sanctions and Kim’s continuing restraint in ICBM flight testing. Besides producing the large missiles themselves, North Korea showed that it could modify, produce or even smuggle in the components—prohibited for import under UN sanctions—for four transporter-erector-launchers (TELs) larger than any it has shown before. Even if the missile itself turns out to be more of a “technology demonstrator” that is only an interim step toward a more efficient ICBM, whether liquid propellant or even solid propellant, it signals continued progress in North Korea’s strategic ballistic missile program.
In particular, this new ICBM’s assessed payload would further increase the credibility of North Korea’s claims that it can strike the continental United States with nuclear weapons—even if only tested on a lofted trajectory similar to 2017’s ICBM tests, rather than a fully-realistic flight test approximating all the conditions involved. Even in the wake of the 2017 tests, some skeptics still questioned North Korea’s ability to engineer an efficient re-entry vehicle (RV) that can withstand the heat and stress of traveling that sort of trajectory, and its ability to build nuclear warheads small enough to fit inside an ICBM RV. This new ICBM could help counter these doubts without the risk of a fully realistic test of missile and warhead. The “monster missile’s assessed payload capacity in comparison to the Hwasong-15 could accommodate an unusually heavy “overbuilt” RV with extra shielding and a larger, more primitive warhead.
More likely, this new ICBM is the first North Korean missile that is almost certain to have the payload capacity to loft multiple re-entry vehicles—at least those of a size and weight sufficient to carry the plausible warhead designs that North Korea has displayed and claims to have tested underground in 2017. Though there is good reason to be skeptical that North Korea is on the cusp of Multiple Independent Re-entry Vehicle (MIRV), due to the technologies required for a maneuvering “bus” required to direct the RVs to different targets, there is an “entry-level” option for fielding multiple RVs. Both the Soviet Union and the United States deployed missiles that used a simpler approach of releasing a pattern of three re-entry vehicles several years before they fielded MIRVs. Even though each missile would still be limited to one target area, this would dramatically improve the prospects of a successful hit, even if some of RVs fail, go off course, or are intercepted.
Further, we should not count this missile out as useful due simply to its size. Given North Korea’s long history of denial and deception as an acknowledged “hard target” for intelligence, one should not rule out the possibility that North Korea has developed, or will develop, a basing mode that would allow it to be fueled from concealment or hidden from view entirely. Simply because the missile was featured on a mobile launcher in a parade does not mean that North Korea could not also be preparing options to launch it from a fixed facility. China’s older DF-4 missile, for example, is liquid-fueled and uses a “roll-out-to-launch” mode. Given North Korea’s well-known propensity for building underground facilities, silos are a plausible future basing option. With the tremendous thrust and payload capacity of the “monster missile” design, using them for space launches from the aboveground Sohae Launch Facility also cannot be ruled out.
Lastly, the display of the “monster missile” matters for US policy on North Korea because it suggests a growing incentive for North Korea to resume ICBM flight testing –presuming the missile is technically ready for a near-term launch. The signals are there, out in the open. In the very same Party meeting that Kim alluded to this “new strategic weapon” he warned that he “no longer feels bound” by his pledges not to test ICBMs or nuclear weapons—and gave three different types of promotion to his favorite orchestrator of missile tests, Ri Pyong Chol.
Even Secretary of State Pompeo alluded to the importance of testing in his comments when asked about the missile by a reporter: “It’s important to know that when a nation builds out its missile program, the most important thing they do to make sure that it’s actually functional is to test those missiles.” Though factual—and presumably meant to reassure Americans—from Pyongyang’s perspective, these comments may sound like a very good reason to test this missile, at least after the US election is over. Absent tangible incentives for Pyongyang to refrain from flight-testing ICBMs and lacking credible threats of serious consequences if it does, we may soon get to see how this missile performs and how many re-entry vehicles it can carry.
Markus V. Garlauskas led the U.S. intelligence community’s strategic analysis on North Korea as the National Intelligence Officer for North Korea from July 2014 to June 2020, after serving in U.S. Forces Korea for twelve years. Following the conclusion of his government appointment as a member of the Senior National Intelligence Service, he joined the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security of the Atlantic Council as a nonresident senior fellow affiliated with its Asia Security Initiative. Follow him on Twitter: @Mister_G_2.
Note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not imply endorsement by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence or any other U.S. Government agency.
Image: Hwasong-16 ICBM/KCNA TV Screenshot.