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North Korea Overcompensated With Its Missiles

March 29, 2022
Via North Korean media.

Although South Korea’s own military technology is superior to that of its belligerent neighbor this hasn’t discouraged Kim Jong Un from overhauling the armed forces. The KPA in particular, along with the rocket force, are still in the midst of adopting so many new weapon systems. The speed in which this was done, at the same time as a comprehensive nuclear arsenal was put together, remains astonishing. The results are most apparent when it comes to guided munitions, especially the larger calibers, that were all rolled out in just a handful of years–from 2017 until 2021.

This month had further live fire tests of the KPA’s long-range conventional weapons followed by an ICBM launch on March 25. The events continue the accelerated testing for newer systems that became apparent since last year. As impressive as North Korea’s missile technology is today not enough attention is paid to what roles they’re meant for. One example are a ballistic missile “family” developed alongside copies of the better known Iskander that North Korea’s armed forces have adapted for rail-based, tracked and wheeled transporters. This specific missile unrelated to the Iskander is seen pictured above and is recognizable for its black and white paint scheme.

Determining whether the latest SRBMs from North Korea are meant for the rocket force, who maintain the country’s nuclear arsenal, or the regular ground forces is unresolved. The public record of North Korea’s military strength, as collected and scrutinized by US intelligence agencies, remains incomplete and the emphasis on nuclear missiles is too strong. Detailed assessments of certain types of weapons simply don’t exist or are never done. The ground forces in particular have accurized large diameter rocket artillery that blurs the margins separating “smart” rockets and SRBMs. South Korea’s own army doesn’t bother with the same distinctions since its new Chunmoo multiple rocket launchers carry tandem cells or pods that are meant to carry several calibers of munitions. The Chunmoo’s manufacturer Hanwha Defense even offers a 600mm SRBM with a 290 km range for export with warhead options.

North Korea’s ground force have done the opposite. Tracked vehicles designed to carry rocket artillery are a longstanding tradition that began as armored self-propelled vehicles for smaller 107mm and 122mm calibers. Since 2020 there are now three very large tracked vehicles with elongated beds for carrying different launchers. One of them combines six tubes used for the large diameter rocket artillery whose estimated range spans at least 100 kilometers to as far as 200 km. A second is an alternative tracked carrier vehicle for the locally made Iskanders that are usually loaded on 8×8 transporters. The third mounts two rectangular containers for a new “family” of missiles. Although it’s tempting to apply the term “nuclear-capable” for these precision weapons their actual roles could be limited for war scenarios when crippling South Korea’s command and control and logistics infrastructure are essential in the beginning of hostilities.

This might explain why the KPA need a surplus of large diameter rocket artillery and even SRBMs when the ROK Air Force and Navy have enough cruise missiles that are meant for destroying North Korea’s command and control centers. What’s often missed when viewing the “military balance” in the Korean Peninsula is the KPA’s capacity for waging a full-scale war has eroded since the 1990s and the build up it maintained across the DMZ these past 70 years isn’t as threatening as it once was–the ROK Army achieved overmatch in the 2000s with its locally made K9 self-propelled howitzers against the KPA’s antiquated Soviet vintage guns. It’s not surprising how North Korea’s ground forces are switching to better conventional weapons and tactical missiles that covers for the dismal state of the air force. As for this new-ish SRBM the usual proliferation concerns applies to it; it might not stay in North Korea for long.

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