A new crisis with North Korea is quickly brewing. The country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, remains focused on a wide-ranging military modernization agenda he had first laid out in January 2021. In the fourteen months since, Kim has shown those plans to be credible; among other capabilities, he has tested two types of hypersonic weapons and a new long-range cruise missile. Kim now appears determined to continue through his list, moving on to bigger-ticket items that could significantly harm U.S., South Korean, and Japanese interests by expanding the quality and quantity of the nuclear threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear forces.
On February 26 and March 4, North Korea carried out two missile launches that featured unusual trajectories. They didn’t match any that had been seen across the more than 100 missile tests carried out in recent years. Pyongyang released short statements after these tests to indicate that its space agency was exploring a set of technologies that would facilitate the development of a reconnaissance satellite—one of Kim’s goals. The implication from North Korea was that these weren’t missile tests, but experimental launches of a new type of payload with cameras and other satellite instrumentation.
However, in an unusual disclosure on March 10, U.S. officials said that they had conducted an analysis of intelligence gathered about these launches and determined that they involved a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) system. Specifically, they said the ICBM in question was an as-yet-untested missile known as the Hwasong-17, which North Korea first revealed to the world at a military parade in October 2020.
The North Koreans didn’t fully elide the military nature of these tests. Their statements noted that the Academy of Defense Science (ADS), the body responsible for developing the country’s many missile systems, was involved, alongside the National Aerospace Development Administration (NADA), Pyongyang’s space agency. Prior to the U.S. disclosure, a plausible explanation for the ADS’s involvement may have been that the launches didn’t use fixed satellite-launching facilities but made use of road-mobile launchers that are also used for ballistic missiles. The push to develop a reconnaissance satellite may have been another plausible explanation.
But the U.S. disclosure makes matters clearer: the ADS was involved in this test because it marked the first flight-testing of at least parts of the Hwasong-17 ICBM. Compared to the Hwasong-14, North Korea’s first-ever flight-tested ICBM, and the Hwasong-15, North Korea’s largest tested ICBM until now, the new Hwasong-17 is a significantly larger missile—the largest liquid-propellant missile deployed in a road-mobile configuration in human history. For reasons of operational safety and ease—liquid-propellant missiles make use of highly volatile fuels and oxidizers—other countries that have deployed missiles of comparable size never opted to place them on large launch vehicles, preferring silos and other safer basing modes.
The Hwasong-17’s size has several implications. If it works as intended, it will have the range to reach any part of the continental United States. But this isn’t this system’s value-add to North Korea’s nuclear deterrent: the Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15, both tested in 2017, showed an ability for North Korea to range parts and all of the contiguous forty-eight U.S. states, respectively. The Hwasong-17 is almost certainly a vehicle for launching multiple warheads.
In his January 2021 speech, Kim Jong Un was transparent about his intentions to develop these types of ICBMs. He said that North Korea’s national defense scientists were “making preparations” for a range of capabilities, including a “multi-warhead rocket.” (This was listed alongside “hypersonic gliding flight warheads,” which have since been tested.) The logic of the appeal of multiple warheads is strong for a country in North Korea’s strategic and technical predicament. All else equal, it is more cost effective to manufacture additional nuclear warheads for a given missile than to manufacture many missiles. Having a force built around many missiles can enhance survivability, but North Korea has long been known to face industrial bottlenecks in the rapid production of large launch vehicles. While it has made some progress in this area, Pyongyang has continued to rely on large logging trucks it imported from China in 2011 under false pretenses to carry and launch its ICBMs.
A second consideration is purely strategic: Pyongyang hopes to ensure that it could detonate nuclear warheads on U.S. soil, should a U.S. president decide to attack or invade. Multiple warheads increase the threat to the United States by giving a single missile the ability to wreak significantly more damage than a single warhead. Another consideration for Pyongyang is U.S. ballistic missile defense: placing more warheads on a single missile complicates the task that U.S. missile defense systems will face.
While North Korea has been open about its intentions to develop better ICBMs, the matter of why it has chosen to frame these tests in terms of space activities remains. In the past, U.S. officials strongly protested North Korea’s space launches, which Pyongyang presented as purely civilian activities. The concern was that these launches would give North Korea a pretext to test technologies that would allow it to eventually build an ICBM, which North Korea did. But the primary enabling technology—a large liquid-propellant rocket engine based on an old, reliable Soviet design—had never been used in a North Korean space launch.
The concern today is not that North Korea may use a new space launch to learn how to send payloads up, but what it may allow in terms of developing important enabling technologies for multiple warhead ICBMs. After the February 26 launch, North Korea noted that NADA and ADS confirmed the performance of “attitude control devices” on the experimental payload. “Attitude control” is a term of art in the aerospace world that refers to mechanisms, usually small thrusters, that help reorient an object in flight.
Precise attitude control is important in orienting a satellite’s sensors—cameras in this case—where they should be pointed. This was the justification North Korea presented. However, attitude control also has an important role to play in enabling an effective multiple warhead ICBM. Long-range missiles with multiple warheads typically feature what’s known as a “post-boost” vehicle. This is an apparatus that detaches from the missile’s main boosters outside of the Earth’s atmosphere and then, just like an optical satellite reorienting itself, fires small attitude control motors to reorient and release each of its warheads at separate targets. These multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles, or MIRVs, were revolutionary for the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. North Korea’s testing of satellite-related systems has probable value not only in helping NADA prepare its ambitions for an optical satellite, but also to help the ADS prepare for a MIRV-capable ICBM.
Kim noted in February that North Korea aspired to launch “a lot of military reconnaissance satellites,” possibly in the course of a single launch. This would have real implications for improving Pyongyang’s space-based reconnaissance capability if it succeeded, but it would also help validate technologies useful for achieving a MIRV capability. Kim has also recently visited North Korea’s main space launch site to call for refurbishment ahead of satellite launches. All of this points to a likely North Korean space launch, one that will have implications for Pyongyang’s ICBMs, but not in the way that it might have in the past, where U.S. concerns focused primarily on the launcher’s booster rockets.
Nothing we’ve seen of North Korean behavior since Kim laid out his modernization agenda suggests that Pyongyang is likely to waver in its plan to move ahead. Amid the pandemic and economic difficulties, Kim is the facing the most challenging internal environment across his decadelong tenure. In addition, his external environment may be the most favorable he’s seen. Amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the precipitous decline in U.S.-China relations since 2017, a fraying great power consensus over North Korea’s activities means that new sanctions at the UN Security Council for anything short of nuclear testing are unlikely.
South Korean intelligence has apparently spotted signs of activities at North Korea’s nuclear test site to reconstitute the tunnels used to conduct underground nuclear tests. This could presage a return to nuclear testing with lower-yield tactical nuclear weapons, another of Kim’s goals. The Biden administration’s unusual disclosure of the nature of North Korea’s recent launches suggests a desire to avoid being seen as being caught off guard when Pyongyang does carry out its next test. But the administration appears set on its policy approach, even as it acknowledges that dark clouds loom on the horizon. For this administration, North Korea has become more a problem to be managed than one to be solved. Yet the qualitative progress that North Korea is likely to make in the coming weeks, months, and years will have significantly detrimental effects on the security of the United States and U.S. allies.
But short of a complete transformation of U.S. policy, this administration has few good options to deter Kim’s plans. As it showed in January and again in March, new, unilateral sanctions to indicate disapproval of North Korea’s activities seem an instinctive response. To improve U.S. and allied security—and to avert the possibility of a new crisis with Pyongyang—the Biden administration should change course.