NORTH KOREA: Key Missile Developments Likely Signal Future Nuclear Weapons Tests

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Summary: Pyongyang seems likely to test nuclear weapons in the near future in conjunction with its rapidly advancing missile program. Pyongyang possesses advanced missile capabilities, now with a vital component for successfully launching an intercontinental ballistic missile most likely developed for reaching its target safely. Nuclear sites across the nation also display signs of reactivation after a long period of decommissioning and destruction of sites that produce or refine nuclear material.

Background: On 23 March, Pyongyang launched a new type of Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), making this the 12th launch of the year. Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un said Pyongyang will prepare for “prolonged conflict” after the ICBM landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone territorial waters. Pyongyang news outlets call the new ICBM Hwasong-17 based on the currently operational Hwasong-15. However, South Korea reported that Pyongyang launched a Hwasong-15, not a Hwasong-17. On 5 January, Kim announced military development achievements and development plans in his speech at the 8th Party Congress of North Korea. Kim specifically mentioned the Hwasong class ICBM, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and hypersonic missiles. Pyongyang has demonstrated these technologies in 2021 and 2022, with tests of SLBMs and hypersonic missiles conducted in late 2021. Kim also stressed the need to strike targets at 9,000 miles, advance nuclear technology, and develop tactical nuclear weapons.

Missile Milestones: Pyongyang most likely possesses an operational re-entry vehicle (RV) that protects a nuclear payload from re-entering the atmosphere as it strikes its target, which Pyongyang lacked previously. Pyongyang’s alleged reconnaissance satellite launches carried ICBM components used for developing multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicles (MIRVs). A MIRV can contain several nuclear warheads capable of carrying decoys that can distract missile defense systems, compared to a RV’s singular warhead. Hwasong-17’s design indicates that the ICBM can use a MIRV system, according to experts. Pyongyang has yet to show a successful missile launch with the RV or MIRV surviving re-entering the atmosphere. Pyongyang also did not release any footage or announce the reconnaissance satellite launches. An unknown ballistic missile also exploded soon after taking flight on 16 March. Pyongyang last tested ICBM Hwasong-15 with an RV attached in 2017 that failed. Shortly after the 2017 test, Kim paused nuclear and missile tests.

Nuclear Site Reactivation: Pyongyang resuming the product nuclear materials and reactivating a nuclear test site likely indicates Pyongyang will test nuclear bombs soon. Recent satellite imagery shows new construction of buildings and the restoration of tunnels at Punggye-ri, an unserviceable nuclear testing site. Satellite imagery also shows Pyongyang’s Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center capable of producing plutonium and enriched uranium used in nuclear weapons. Kim deactivated the Yongbyon center and demolished Punggye-ri with explosives in 2018, shortly after halting all nuclear and missile tests. Kangson complex, a nuclear enrichment facility, also shows signs of activity along with the Pyongsan Uranium Concentration Plant and its associated Pyongsan Mine. Pyongson mine also produces uranium ore that the plant turns into yellowcake, a uranium concentrate, a vital component of nuclear weapons production.

Outlook and Implications: Pyongyang will most likely restart nuclear tests soon with the end of its self-imposed moratorium on ICBM and nuclear testing. The recent ICBM tests most likely happened for purely technical reasons over propaganda purposes, with an important milestone reached with RVs and MIRVs. Pyongyang probably did not possess RV technology until sometime after the 2018 ban on testing. The failed launch on 16 March likely indicates that the Hwasong-17 ICBM needs more development, which Pyongyang will likely prioritize. The Hwasong-17 will most likely launch again soon as the missile contains more technically advanced, untested components such as the MIRV. Pyongyang will likely test nuclear weapons in conjunction with the latest missile advancements requiring superior warheads to complement the ICBMs.

Pyongyang will almost certainly attempt to achieve the military goals Kim outlined in his speech at the 8th congress of North Korea. Pyongyang may construct more nuclear power facilities, as Kim hinted the Yongbyon nuclear plant remains unsatisfactory for current needs. The new facilities probably will serve the crippled energy sector over the nuclear program, but nuclear material production still seems likely to increase regardless. Pyongyang may test nuclear bombs somewhere besides Punggye-ri, as the site remains far from operational. Pyongyang may test another ICBM or nuclear capability near the Day of the Sun on 15 April, former leader Kim Il-sung’s birthday, with military parades occurring during the holiday.

[Sebastien Bragg]

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