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North Korea’s ‘3 Sets of New Weapons’ Pose Greatest Threat to South Korea

러시아가 우크라에 쐈다…수도권 위협하는 北 ‘신형무기 3종 세트’ 위력은[이현호 기자의 밀리터리!톡]
North Korea has launched its short-range ballistic missile, the North Korean version of Iskander (KN-23), for the first time since the inauguration of the Joe Biden administration in March 2021. / Yonhap News

North Korea has introduced three new weapons: the Iskander-like KN-23, the Atacms-like KN-24, and the 600mm super-large artillery piece KN-25. These are advanced short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) in the existing solid fuel series, distinct from previous coastal and regular artillery due to their equipped guidance devices, which enhance accuracy. These SRBMs, with ranges between 400 and 900 km (249 and 497 miles), are assessed by the military as being developed for strikes against the South, and they could potentially carry tactical nuclear warheads.

According to Professor Kim Dong Yeop from Kyungnam University’s Institute of Far Eastern Studies, the three types of weapons have slightly longer ranges, lower altitudes, and faster speeds. They all utilize solid fuel and mobile launch vehicles, which shorten the launch time and diversify the launch origin. This makes it challenging for U.S. and South Korean intelligence assets to detect and take preemptive action, often called the “kill chain.”

On the 4th (local time), the White House confirmed that North Korean ballistic missiles played a role in the recent Russian attack on Ukraine. Foreign media speculates that not only the North Korean version of Iskander KN-23 but also the North Korean versions of Atacms KN-24 and the super-large artillery KN-25, forming a new “triple set” of tactical weapons, were likely transported to Russia via ships, railways, or aircraft.

The attention is now focused on the fact that while North Korea conducts numerous ballistic missile tests each year, their use in actual combat carries distinct implications. The White House reported a missile range of approximately 900km (559 miles). Assuming it was launched from a location near Pyongyang, this range could encompass the entire South Korea.

North Korea Suspected of Supplying KN-23 and Other Three Types of Weapons to Russia

The problem is that the ballistic missiles North Korea supplied to Russia are weapons developed to target South Korea. By Russia using North Korean missiles on the battlefield, Kim Jong Un gets the opportunity to verify and improve their practical performance. This raises concerns that North Korea, targeting South Korea, could gain a more technically sophisticated missile. North Korea enhanced its technology by exporting missiles to the Middle East in the 1990s.

KN-23 was developed by imitating the Russian Iskander missile. It is over 9m long, longer than the Russian missile (7.2m). Its range and speed are also considered superior to the Russian Iskander. On the other hand, KN-24 and KN-25 are missiles developed by North Korea itself.

In particular, North Korea announced in March last year that the Volcano-31 tactical nuclear warhead, which it revealed, can be mounted on more than ten types of missiles, including SRBM. The Volcano-31, estimated to have a diameter of 40 to 50 cm and a yield of around 10 kt (kilotons, 1 kt is equivalent to the explosive power of 1,000 tons of TNT), is believed to be standardized to be inserted into the warhead part of the missile to be launched. The “triple set” that Russia used in the war can also perform irregular maneuvers when descending from the peak altitude, making it difficult to intercept from the ground. If the results of being used in actual combat are combined with the precision guidance function, it becomes a significant threat to the U.S. and South Korean military authorities.

러시아가 우크라에 쐈다…수도권 위협하는 北 ‘신형무기 3종 세트’ 위력은[이현호 기자의 밀리터리!톡]
Artillery shells suspected to be from North Korea appeared in Russian media. The photo is a capture from a Russian broadcast. Source: Yonhap News

The North Korean version of the Iskander missile KN-23 is made by imitating Iskander (9K720, NATO name SS26 Stone), which Russia developed. The maximum range of the improved version is about 373 miles, covering the entire Korean Peninsula. On the other hand, Russia’s Iskander is a tactical ballistic missile with a maximum range of 600 km (311 miles), capable of precise guidance. It can be equipped with a tactical nuclear warhead. It can be launched from a mobile launch platform (TEL), making it highly mobile and survivable.

The specifications of the KN-23 are 7.5m in length, 95cm in diameter, a total launch weight of 3.45 tons, and a warhead weight of up to 500kg. It is a one-stage, short-range ballistic missile using solid fuel. According to assessments, the use of one-stage solid fuel enables immediate launch, making it impossible for the South Korean military’s kill chain to intercept.

Some consider the KN-23 to be the most threatening weapon to South Korea, more so than any other North Korean missile. The Hwasong-10-15 series are considered intermediate-range ballistic missiles or intercontinental ballistic missiles, targeting the U.S. and Japan rather than South Korea. However, the short-range ballistic missile targets only the Korean Peninsula based on its range.

Moreover, it is considered a means of directly attacking strategic bases in the rear, such as Busan Metropolitan City or Jinhae-gu, with its complex flight trajectory, which could decrease the interception probability by the Korean kill chain. Therefore, it could significantly threaten U.S. reinforcements or major naval bases. In addition, it is understood that an improved version has been developed that can move and launch by train and is equipped with a large warhead. It can be mounted on various launch platforms such as ① wheeled TEL ② tracked TEL ③ railway mobile type ④ SLBM type ⑤ reservoir barge ⑥ fixed semi-underground silo. Recently, efforts to improve it for SLBM use have been reported.

The North Korean version of Atacms KN-24 is a missile launched from a mobile vehicle with two launch tubes. Its appearance resembles the ‘Atacms’, a tactical guided weapon developed by the U.S., hence it is called the North Korean version of Atacms. In the first test, the interval between missile launches was 15 minutes, but it has been shortened to 5 minutes. Although the continuous launch capability has not yet fully reached the main orbit, the narrower the launch interval, the harder it can be to intercept with our tactical guided weapons, according to analyses.

Atacms travel at Mach 3, are 4m long and 600mm in diameter, and contain hundreds of submunitions, making it a powerful weapon that can annihilate an area the size of 3 to 4 soccer fields with a single shot. Some military experts speculate that this missile could also potentially be equipped with a nuclear warhead for the destruction of robust military facilities or large-scale industrial facilities.

The specifications are 95cm in diameter, a launch stand weight of 3415kg, and a warhead weight of up to 500kg, with a range estimated to be between 450 and 690 km (280 and 429 miles). Therefore, experts believe that by adjusting the warhead weight, it is possible to increase or decrease the range.

KN-24 Launch Interval Shortened to 5 Minutes, Increased Mobility

North Korea has showcased its improved precision and mobility capabilities in its recent KN-24 missile tests. The test focused on confirming its ability to achieve precise strikes. During these trial launches, the missile range was significantly reduced to approximately 200 kilometers from the usual 20 kilometers, flying at low altitudes. A lower peak altitude makes it more challenging to intercept the missile. North Korea also released images of the missile launch vehicle (TEL) mobilizing and launching from dense forests, demonstrating its covert mobility capabilities.

Of particular note to military authorities is the evidence of “unconventional maneuvers,” including pull-up and glide ascent, during the test. After reaching its peak altitude of 50 kilometers, the missile displayed pull-up flight characteristics in specific flight segments. Such maneuvers can confuse tracking and intercepting the missile as it deviates from a predictable flight trajectory. The Chosun Central News Agency stated, “During the test-firing, distinct differences in flight trajectory characteristics, maneuvering capabilities, guidance accuracy, and warhead power were demonstrated.” The fact that North Korea launched the missile from Sincheon in Pyeongbuk, rather than from the east coast, to penetrate inland suggests their confidence in the accuracy of this new tactical-guided weapon.

Known as the ‘KN-25,’ this large-caliber artillery system boasts a diameter of 600mm and an estimated maximum range of around 400 kilometers. It was first unveiled during the 75th anniversary celebration of the Workers’ Party in Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang on October 10, 2020, alongside strategic weapons intended to deter the United States, including intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

This impressive launcher, boasting 4 to 6 firing tubes, stands out for its capability to reach distances of up to 400 kilometers, mirroring the range of North Korea’s short-range ballistic missiles. Notably, the 6-tube launcher is affixed to an articulated vehicle. This novel tactical weapon system distinguishes itself somewhat from North Korea’s existing short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs), including the KN-23 (North Korean rendition of the Iskander) and the KN-24.

What is most concerning is that the 600mm artillery system can reach areas within South Korea’s jurisdiction, including Pyeongtaek and Osan, and even U.S. military bases further afield, earning it the moniker “ballistic rocket artillery.” It can be armed with nuclear warheads and chemical weapons, making it an extremely threatening weapon.

Additionally, the 300mm and 600mm artillery systems have ranges similar to short-range missiles, often causing confusion with ballistic missiles based solely on radar tracking data. When equipped with high-explosive shells, these systems can mimic the parabolic flight characteristics of ballistic missiles. Instances of such activity have been detected by long-range radars, underscoring the ongoing security threat.

Radar Tracks Cause Confusion Between Artillery and Ballistic Missiles

The radar tracks of these missiles can lead to confusion in distinguishing between artillery systems and ballistic missiles, potentially causing uncertainty in response. There have been cases where the Joint Chiefs of Staff initially announced these missiles as “short-range missiles” due to their similarity in flight characteristics to ballistic missiles but later corrected it to “short-range projectiles” after about 40 minutes.

The most significant issue is that these missiles are challenging to intercept with the missile defense systems possessed by South Korea and the United States. KN-23, KN-24, and KN-25 have characteristics that include flying at altitudes of 30 to 40 kilometers, which are vulnerable areas for South Korea and the United States’ detection assets, as well as unconventional maneuvers. As a result, these missiles can potentially neutralize the interception capabilities of South Korea and the United States, such as the Patriot (PAC-3 MSE) or the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems, by predicting the impact area of the missiles.

Even the U.S. Congressional Research Service recently warned in its report on “North Korea’s Nuclear and Missile Programs” that “KN-23, KN-24, and KN-25 from North Korea have demonstrated mobility, effectiveness, and precision, and possess characteristics that make them difficult to intercept.”

By. Hyun Ho Lee

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