- North Korea boasted its progress on a new and dangerous solid-fueled missile at a military parade.
- The country also showed off at least 11 Hwasong-17 ICBMs — Pyongyang’s biggest missile yet.
- If they work properly, these long-range missiles could potentially challenge US defense systems.
North Korea unveiled a new design this week for what could be its most dangerous intercontinental ballistic missile yet, as well as enough ICBMs to potentially challenge US defense systems.
State media photos of a Wednesday night parade celebrating the 75th anniversary of the founding of the North Korean army showed what looked like a new solid-fueled ICBM, a long-range missile that can deliver nuclear warheads to targets thousands of miles away.
The apparent launcher may be functional, but it’s more likely a mock-up with an empty canister. Still, experts told Insider its appearance is telling about North Korea’s ambitions.
Solid-fueled missiles are more dangerous than liquid-propellant systems, which is what North Korea’s other ICBMs are, because they can be fueled in advance and launched with little to no warning. Fueling missiles with a liquid propellant can only be done safely just prior to launch, is a time-consuming process, and involves a massive logistical effort that makes launch preparations more visible and leaves them vulnerable to strikes.
In recent years, North Korea has indicated that its missile program is pivoting toward the use of solid fuel, Ian Williams, deputy director of the Missile Defense Project at the CSIS, told Insider. Examples of this include short-range ballistic missile developments, as well as medium-range missiles like the Pukguksong-2.
Despite international pressure to halt its weapons programs, the country is showing “a lot greater comfort using solid-fuel missiles, and I think it’s just a matter of time before they scale this stuff up,” Williams said. “We’re seeing that now.”
It’s not uncommon to show the canister for a solid-fueled missile while hiding what’s inside. China, for instance, rarely shows what its missiles look like.
Solid-fueled missiles are sensitive to temperature changes and are usually placed in canisters or silos so their temperatures can be regulated. North Korea has displayed large canisters before, but the ones displayed on Wednesday appear to be more legitimate than those in the past, Williams said.
“Whether there’s a missile inside the canister yet or not, it’s hard to say,” he said. “But I definitely think that we’re seeing the beginnings of what will likely be flight tests of a solid-fuel ICBM.”
‘It certainly is a wake-up call’
North Korea on Wednesday also showed off a series of Hwasong-17 ICBMs, according to state media images. First unveiled in October 2020, the Hwasong-17 is North Korea’s biggest missile, is fired from a transporter erector launcher, and can, assuming it works as intended, strike targets an estimated 9,000 miles away.
Pyongyang tested one of these missiles in late November, and it flew for a little over an hour on a lofted trajectory before splashing down in the ocean a few hundred miles away.
To defend against these types of threats, the US has a missile protection system called the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) — 44 ground-based interceptors in Alaska and California that can identify and engage intermediate- and long-range ballistic missiles.
According to the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, the GMD — which also consists of communications networks, global sensors, and fire control systems — only has a 55 percent success rate in highly scripted testing.
Analysts believe there were at least 11 Hwasong-17 ICBMs on display at Wednesday’s parade. Ankit Panda, an expert with the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said on social media that there were “cumulatively more ICBM launchers than we’ve ever seen before at a North Korean parade.”
Theoretically, if North Korea was able to get around a dozen missiles — each of which could be carrying multiple warheads — off the ground, this could be enough to overwhelm the GMD. This is because the defense system’s interceptors would not have the capacity to engage all credible threats.
But Williams cautioned that are a lot of assumptions baked into this hypothetical, including that all of the missiles can actually get off the ground and function properly. Either way, he said “it certainly is a wake-up call.”
“When you are stagnant and your enemy is aggressively moving forward, you’re going to face some problems,” he said.
It’s been years since the US has expanded the capacity of the GMD system, but Washington is taking steps to beef up protection. Examples of this include the addition of 20 more interceptors and a next-generation variant, which can carry multiple “kill vehicles” and increase the system’s intercepting power, Williams said.
Furthermore, missile defense should be thought of as one part of a larger “missile defeat complex,” he added. Were the US find itself at war with North Korea and the latter launched ICBMs at the US, Washington wouldn’t just sit and watch — there would be additional factors in play like disruptions to command and control systems, electronic warfare, and electromagnetic weaponry targeting launches.
Wednesday’s nighttime parade in Pyongyang comes after North Korea significantly accelerated its weapons testing in 2022 and amid increasing tensions with neighboring South Korea and the US over its aggressive behavior. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un declared in September that his country’s nuclear-armed status is irreversible, and its missile launches have drawn frequent criticism from Western countries.
The showcase also featured guns, tanks, tactical missiles, and cruise missiles — in addition to the Hwasong-17 ICBMs and the new missile design, according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). It’s unclear exactly how many people attended the event, though satellite imagery showed a packed square in Pyongyang.
“The columns of ICBMs appeared in the square resounded with the enthusiastic cheers of the people full of pride and self-confidence, demonstrating the signal development of the military capability and tremendous nuclear strike capability of the DPRK,” KCNA wrote in a description of the parade, referring to the country’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
“Nuke for nuke and an all-out-confrontation for an all-out-confrontation!” the outlet said.