Under Kim Jong-un, the country’s nuclear program has been described by government spokesmen as "an all-powerful treasured sword for preventing a war and reliably protecting peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula". Although it was Kim Jong-il who turned the development of nuclear weapons into a central focus of the regime and who oversaw its first nuclear tests, North Korea could only truly be called a fully-fledged nuclear power under Kim Jong-un, with continual demonstrations making politically motivated denials of their progress moot.
Part III - Sharpening the Treasured Sword
Possessing nuclear weapons had been a gleam in Kim Il-sung’s eye since the disaster of the Korean War. While he was able to declare “victory”, in that the north remained under his control, the war killed at least 2 million civilians, destroyed 75% or more of all standing structures, and wrecked the country’s infrastructure.
While North Korea’s ideological goal has always been the reunification of the peninsula on their own terms, regime survival has been the pragmatic goal for decades. And key to preventing a repeat of the highly lopsided destruction the war wrought has been the development of nuclear weapons, particularly since the DPRK hasn’t had conventional military parity with South Korea since the late 1960s.
The development of nuclear weapons has been a regime promise for decades and the people realize that their material standards of living have suffered for this ultimate guarantee of survival. The existence of the modern North Korean state, it seems, is now tied to having these bombs. But not just for direct military reasons.
An integral part to North Korea’s strategy to reunify and to survive includes keeping the United States as an eternal enemy while also attempting to drive a wedge between the US and South Korea. In doing this, the North can continue walking a fine line with provocations, shaking down international aid at the same time. This not only helps the regime survive in practical terms but threatens to weaken popular support amongst South Koreans for the US-ROK alliance.
Even while no South Korean or American has died from a northern nuke, North Korea has nonetheless managed to extract substantial concessions over the years amounting to billions in financial aid and millions of tons worth of food. From Pyongyang’s perspective, nuclear threats have turned into good business both domestically and internationally. Giving them up without substantial agreements by the United States might, in the eyes of the people, be viewed as a national betrayal on the part of the regime itself and could lead to its own collapse.
As such, one of Kim Jong-un’s top responsibilities since coming to power has been to fulfill the promise of turning North Korea into a genuine nuclear power all while holding off the international forces that would seek to stop him.
A Brief History
Kim Il-sung embarked on developing nuclear weapons with the establishment of the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center in the early 1960s, but progress was slow. And as the world changed and the Cold War ended, he seemed to be genuinely willing to give up the nuclear program in exchange for peace and better relationships with western countries. Unfortunately, his proposed meeting with US president Bill Clinton over the issues of denuclearization, civilian nuclear energy, and food aid never materialized as Kim died in 1994.
Kim Jong-il, facing tremendous internal challenges from an impending famine and needing to bolster his image as the new leader, quickly set aside his father’s ideas for total denuclearization while still paying homage as the dutiful son to Kim Il-sung’s “dying wish”.
Even though it was Kim Jong-il who signed the Agreed Framework, there is little indication that he intended to abide by it. The regime took every opportunity to present it to their own people as an “abject surrender” of the imperialists in the face of the DPRK’s might. Any rewards Pyongyang reaped were couched in terms of war reparations.
And anytime the West was perceived to not act in good faith, Pyongyang used that as an excuse to further erode the agreement. It wasn’t long before covert nuclear activities were underway once more (by 1998) and the agreement effectively collapsed in 2003.
The decision to pursue nuclear weapons regardless of diplomatic overtures was made more urgent as the lasting effects of the Gulf War became clear.
Saddam Hussein was forced to officially end Iraq’s nuclear program after his defeat; however, the fact his military was soundly defeated and his WMD programs were dismantled wasn’t enough to stop the deaths of countless thousands as a result of sanctions. This weakened his regime even further.
The subsequent War on Terror and Saddam’s execution in 2003, followed by the Arab Spring and Libyan Revolution (Muammar Gaddafi, too, agreed to give up his nuclear program) all taught Pyongyang a very specific lesson: no nukes equals death.
The years of Kim Jong-il’s rule saw numerous advancements not only in the development of nuclear warheads but also in their delivery systems like intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Jong-il conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009, and although the international community condemned the tests, called for denuclearization, and issued round after round of sanctions, Pyongyang felt it was on to something that the world was simply not willing to go war over and risk the fallout to – an active war that could easily involve a nuclear device landing on Seoul.
However, despite all of the progress toward the bomb and despite the privations of the people, North Korea was not able to become a true nuclear power under Kim Jong-il. It still lacked nuclear devices that were powerful enough to take out major cities, the ability to mass produce such devices, and it lacked the delivery systems needed to hold the United States directly under threat.
And though North Korea was undoubtedly making progress, it came in fits and starts. Seemingly free to proceed even further (by threatening to raise the human costs to unacceptable levels), Kim Jong-un would prove to be more than capable of taking what already existed and realize decades of nuclear ambition.
Early Failure, Early Success
After Kim Jong-il’s death in 2011, Kim Jong-un inherited the nuclear project and decided to expend every effort to sharpen the sword into something that would ensure no foreign army would ever again march through Pyongyang and would finally make good on decades of promises and propaganda.
While Pyongyang’s last public actions in 2011 regarding their nuclear program was to reach out diplomatically and call for resumed Six Party talks in exchange for a moratorium on future nuclear tests and long-range missile tests, and despite coming to a 'Leap Day' deal on February 29, 2012 for North Korea to invite IAEA inspectors to observe the suspension of uranium enrichment at Yongbyon, the decision to launch a satellite into space had already been made.
On April 13, 2012, North Korea attempted to launch a satellite into space from the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, using the Unha-3 Rocket which was based on Nodong and Musudan (BM-25) missile technology. While the launch failed, the attempt was certainly a violation in spirit, if not the letter, of the ‘Leap Day’ deal that had been agreed to just two weeks prior. It was also a clear demonstration of Pyongyang’s desire to become one of the space-faring nations of the world, a desire voiced by Kim Il-sung in 1993.
In one of Kim Jong-un’s first major successes, a second attempt was made on December 12, and a small satellite (the Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 Unit 2) was placed in orbit. Contact with the satellite was soon lost and its ultimate fate is still not known, but orbit was nonetheless achieved. This not only fulfilled the first major step of Kim Il-sung’s wish but it was done before South Korea placed their own satellite in orbit on Jan. 30, 2013, giving the younger Kim a propaganda boost.
Although ballistic technology is a requirement for peaceful space exploration, North Korea has not hidden its ulterior motives. The video of the December 12 launch was later used in a propaganda film declaring “raise higher a nuclear sword of Juche”. The ability to use space technology as a cover or as a technology demonstrator for future military technology has a long history and should not be underestimated, particularly as North Korea’s two space facilities (Sohae and Tonghae) have long been part of testing rocket engines and firing missiles.
As Ankit Panda wrote for The Diplomat in 2016 of the mood after the ‘Leap Day’ deal had been agreed to, “At the time, observers of North Korea suggested that Kim Jong-un’s willingness to enter talks with the United States “[augured] well .. for Kim Jong Un’s foreign-policy smarts.” Even if that were true at the time, that line of reasoning didn’t consider Kim’s domestic policy smarts.”
The two satellite launches and subsequent events in 2013 Panda went on to say, “underlined Kim’s bid to earn legitimacy in front of the North Korean leadership’s old guard”.
As is so often the case, reporting and volumes of analysis tend to focus on North Korea’s outward-facing message and rarely take into consideration the internal message and how things play out within the marble halls of Pyongyang. It is this internal message, the instructions and propaganda aimed at the soldiers and scientists, and not foreign observers, that provides a much more reliable guide to what (and why) Kim does what he does.
Only a few months after the December 12 satellite launch, the world would come to realize what Kim’s real focus was on.
Race to Thermonuclear
Kim Jong-il’s Songun policy was the Workers’ Party giving primacy to the military regarding the economy as both nuclear and conventional arms were pursued. The people’s standard of living would have to wait as the country faced “unprecedented” threats from without.
On March 31, 2013, Kim Jong-un set Songun aside in favor of a modified “strategic line” that was first put forth by Kim Il-sung in 1962: Byungjin.
Jong-un’s version of Byungjin (parallel development) insists on the development of a nuclear deterrent without sacrificing the domestic economy and things like living standards.
This shift in policy came after Kim Jong-un’s first nuclear test on Feb. 12, 2013. The test took place at the South Tunnel of the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site beneath Mount Mantap and resulted in an estimated yield between 12 and 16 kt, making it the largest test up to that time; roughly the same explosive yield as the Little Boy bomb the US dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. The symbolic milestone must not have been missed by Kim and the nuclear engineers and technicians who were directly responsible for the test.
In response, the United Nations Security Councill passed Resolution 2094 which demanded an end to future testing and tightened the sanctions regimes in place against North Korea.
More than simply testing out old designs or trying to blow up larger and larger quantities of a limited stockpile of highly enriched uranium, Kim Jong-un recognized that he needed to give special treatment to the thousands of scientists, engineers, and others who were involved at all levels in Pyongyang’s nuclear program in order to better incentivize personnel toward making greater technological progress.
Propaganda was effuse with praise for these atomic warriors. Students proclaimed that their sole desire was to help build the country’s nuclear force and rewards (including housing) were handed out to those involved after each test.
Kim had also reorganized the Missile Guidance Bureau in 2012 into the Strategic Rocket Force. This branch of the military is ultimately responsible for not only missiles but for the country’s nuclear arsenal itself. Now, the SRF sat with pride of place among the other branches of the Korean Peoples’ Army.
Through this restructuring and reallocation of resources, Pyongyang was able to better focus on the technical needs required. Even moderate improvements in efficiency can lead to seemingly miraculous results, as history shows with Germany’s armaments industry during WWII despite the huge inefficiencies inherent to the Third Reich.
But the 2013 device was still a small bomb and only showcased well-known and fairly basic nuclear weapons technology. Kim needed something bigger and something that would demonstrate the North’s technical ability with even more complex weapons.
On March 30, 2014, North Korea announced plans to test a “new form” of nuclear bomb which analysts believed could have meant either a miniaturized nuclear device that could be fitted onto a missile or a thermonuclear (hydrogen) bomb. Later in October, US General Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of ROK-US Combined Forces Command said, despite a lack of new testing that, “I believe they have the capability to miniaturize a device at this point and they have the technology to potentially deliver what they say they have”. This concern was later echoed by other members of US national defense.
After nearly two years since Pyongyang’s announcement that it would test another nuclear device, seismic activity was detected at the Punggye-ri site on Jan. 6, 2016. The bomb had an estimated yield between 7-10kt, and contrary to North Korea’s claim that it was a hydrogen bomb (an assessment most outside experts disagree with), it was more likely a boosted fission device.
Though not having the same yield as the 2013 test, the technology required for these boosted weapons produces bombs of a smaller size, placing North Korea nonetheless one step closer to having a miniaturized, mountable warhead.
Following the January test, at the Seventh Congress of the Korean Workers’ Party in March, the government pronounced that it would never use nuclear weapons “unless its sovereignty is encroached upon by any aggressive hostile forces with nukes". While many doubt such seemingly peaceful statements coming out of Pyongyang, North Korea has long held that it would give up its own nuclear weapons as part of a global denuclearization program. And given the realities of a nuclear war (or even a full-scale conventional war) on the peninsula, there’s little reason to actually doubt Pyongyang’s assertions about its desire for global denuclearization or doubt that it would never use them offensively unless it sensed an imminent existential threat (such as a ‘decapitation strike’ from the US or South Korea).
Indeed, Kim Jong-un said at the 2021 arms exhibition that “war itself” was the country’s primary enemy. As clichéd as that might sound, as well as contradictory to their previous actions, the only way for the Kim regime to survive in the long-term is to avoid war at all costs. While there is considerable debate around these issues, Korean studies specialist Andrei Lankov has said of it, “showing off kinetic capabilities while also signaling openness to dialogue are not contradictory at all for the North Koreans. The regime is run by people who are masters of survival. And their goal is to nudge the U.S. toward relieving sanctions while working to ensure the election of a pro-engagement president in the South.”
And so, North Korea will continue their cycle of “showing off” followed by attempts at engagement, as they did back on Sept. 9, 2016.
Amongst a flurry of threats and condemnations between nations and on the 68th anniversary of the founding of North Korea, the Sept. 9 test had a yield ranging between 20 and 25 kt, overtaking the 2013 test as their largest one to-date. In their announcement after the test North Korea claimed that it was now able to produce "at will, and as many as it wants, a variety of smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear warheads of higher strike power".
Although North Korea has always had a penchant for exaggeration and claiming success when there was none, governments around the world seemed to have agreed with spirit of the announcement, with then U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper saying in October 2016, "I think the notion of getting the North Koreans to denuclearize is probably a lost cause. That is their ticket to their survival." Clapper went on to say that the US military had already ascribed to North Korea the ability to produce and mount a warhead onto a missile and hit US territory.
Less than a year later, on August 8, 2017, a leaked report from the Defense Intelligence Agency showed that the agency had assessed back in July that North Korea had indeed achieved the capability to miniaturize a warhead and hit the US mainland. The CIA and Office of the Director of National Intelligence also agreed with the DIA’s assessment.
In an ever-declining environment for peace (from Trump’s “fire and fury” to the THAAD missile defense system becoming operational in South Korea) and with Pyongyang’s adversaries agreeing that they were a nuclear power, Kim Jong-un had one more test in mind.
Multiple reports from 38 North showed various levels of activity in 2017 at the Punggye-ri test site, suggesting preparations were being made for a future test. These were followed by media stories out of South Korea in August claiming South Korea’s National Intelligence Agency had reported that North Korea "has completed its preparation to carry out a nuclear test at Tunnel 2 and Tunnel 3 of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site.”
Then, on Sept. 3, 2017, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake was detected in the vicinity of Punggye-ri just after noon local time. Further monitoring detected a second smaller quake a little later.
The North Korean announcement said that the country had just tested a variable-yield thermonuclear device and that the design would enable mass production of the warheads.
Although previous claims of North Korean hydrogen bombs had generally been dismissed, the size and other signatures of this test had led to many analysts concluding that it actually could have been a hydrogen bomb and no intelligence agency from the US, Russia, China, France, or the UK have come out and contradicted the reporting (although they haven’t validated it, either).
The bomb’s lower estimated yield was 50 kt with a theoretical maximum of 260 kt based on measurements made using synthetic aperture radar information. Since the bomb’s yield can’t be verified, seismic data is key to understanding its size and what type of bomb it was. In any event, the test was so large it noticeably damaged Mt. Mantap and destroyed the viability of the North Test Portal (tunnel) to conduct any future tests without risking the explosion breaking out into the environment.
The 2017 test turned out to be North Korea’s final (to-date) nuclear test, but it proved to be at least 10 times the size as any of their other tests and may well have been a thermonuclear bomb. This substantial advancement could have led to a military strike against the country by the United States. Such an eventuality was even publicly discussed prior to the test, but the lack of solid information regarding the location of their missile launchers precluded such an attack in the end because the US couldn’t guarantee it could target all of the relevant sites and prevent North Korea from launching a nuclear attack.
Indeed, this cluster of nuclear tests, it must be said, was occurring during some of the most active missile testing years in North Korea’s history. In 2016 and 2017 there were twenty-eight separate launches of everything from short-range ballistic missiles to tests for the development of submarine launched ballistic missiles. All of which are theoretically nuclear-capable.
In 2018 Kim Jong-un issued a voluntary moratorium on future nuclear testing, saying the country had achieved its nuclear goals.
While some questions remain about North Korea’s ability to actually hit the US mainland in practice (do they really have a viable reentry vehicle for the warhead?), North Korea seems to have little additional need for nuclear testing. Having achieved miniaturization, their weapons’ infrastructure could move on to producing a larger arsenal from established warhead designs and developing new and improved delivery methods.
A view that I subscribe to is that there haven’t been subsequent nuclear tests exactly because North Korea was able to develop a sufficiently small but powerful warhead capable of being mass-produced and mounted on a missile, and not necessarily because of international pressures or even because of damage to the testing site. In other words, they accomplished what they were seeking, they weren’t “stopped”.
Reviewing the North’s armaments industry seems to support that view.
Atomic & Missile Infrastructure
Before any testing can occur, you need the uranium, plutonium, and scores of other components to make a bomb. You also need a place to test.
Much of the infrastructure need had been put in place long before Kim Jong-un came to power, but he has not merely taken advantage of what existed, he has undertaken fairly large modernization programs at many of the associated facilities.
Yongbyon has been North Korea’s primary uranium enrichment facility since its inception. It is also responsible for the production of plutonium and needed radioisotopes (including for legitimate medical procedures I should add). But production has never been as simple as turning on a switch and letting things run. There have been many times that the various production facilities have been shut down for one reason or another ranging from diplomatic overtures to performing maintenance. This makes it difficult for outside analysts to monitor the activities of the center, leading to the occasional need to examine almost imperceptible puffs of steam and small drips of water from drainage pipes to determine whether or not a site is active or on hiatus.
What can be said for certain, however, is that during Kim Jong-un’s reign, there have been many changes to Yongbyon and to the closed city that houses its workers.
From 2014-2020 at least 21 new apartment blocks have been built or are under construction. This suggests a large influx of new residents to work at the various laboratories and production facilities at Yongbyon. Several additions to the laboratories in the center’s administrative area have also been noted.
Additionally, a chemical facility was added to the Uranium Fuel Fabrication Complex and most recently, new construction work has been observed next to the uranium enrichment centrifuge halls.
Kangson is a suspected uranium enrichment site. While there is still some disagreement within the open-source community about its purpose, if it is indeed a uranium enrichment site, it would be the second one known to outside sources.
In any event, there is near universal agreement that it plays a role in North Korea’s nuclear program either as an enrichment facility or a factory manufacturing related components.
First built in the early 2000s, activity has been noted throughout Kim Jong-un’s rule, with the International Atomic Energy Agency saying in June 2021 that indications of activity at Kangson were “ongoing”. With Yongbyon’s highly visible nature and aging infrastructure, having a second enrichment site makes perfect sense. As does decentralizing the manufacturing of parts needed for enrichment like centrifuges. Whatever Kangson’s real purpose is in supporting the North’s nuclear ambitions, the facility has certainly not been one of the ones neglected by the regime.
Pyongsan is North Korea’s primary uranium mining and milling plant, where uranium ore (coming from nearby coal sources) is converted into what’s commonly called yellowcake before it is sent to either Yongbyon or Kangson.
From 2013-15, a refurbishment program was underway to make repairs and to expand Pyongsan’s capacity. And while activity at the plant had been sporadic in the past, Google Earth provides a steady stream of images each year since 2011 and those reveal a constantly growing waste material reservoir. Since 2011, the portion of waste material that is visible above the waterline has grown from 53,370 sq. m to over 126,500 sq. m. as of March 4, 2021, indicating the uranium extraction process has largely been continual in recent years. The pollution associated with this has also caused concern in South Korea over fears of water contamination.
Further construction work occurred in 2017/18 and throughout the typhoons of 2020 and 2021 as minor repairs were made.
Monitoring the mining activities that’s providing the uranium ore to be sent to the plant has also revealed that North Korea hasn’t simply been processing older, existing stock but has actively been acquiring more ore.
Punggye-ri is North Korea’s only nuclear testing site. Built around Mt. Mantap, it consists of several areas of administration and support facilities which all converge at the base of the mountain where four portals (tunnels) have been excavated. The North and East portals have been used for nuclear testing, with the 2017 test possibly causing irreparable damage to the North portal and the above rock. However, the West and South portals have never been used and are located far enough away from the others that their structure could be stable enough for future tests.
As part of Kim Jong-un’s voluntary moratorium on nuclear testing announced in April 2018, he also offered to destroy Punggye-ri. However, what international journalists were shown was nothing more than the tunnel entrances being blown up. There is no evidence that the tunnels themselves were destroyed.
David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security has said that the other tunnels are still capable of conducting future nuclear tests and that the facility could be reactivated in just a few weeks’ notice; a conclusion many others have echoed.
Adding substantial evidence to this is the fact that none of the facility’s support structures outside of the immediate testing area were demolished. Punggye-ri extends for 17 km and the primary entrance area remains fully intact as does the train station connecting the base the country’s rail system. Additionally, agricultural and other activities have been noted by multiple sources over the years (AccessDPRK, CSIS and 38 North). Agricultural activities are common to all military sites, with the produce being used to feed base personnel or sold to earn currency, and this indicates a continual human presence at Punggye-ri.
If Punggye-ri were irreversibly disabled (as with decommissioned nuclear sites around the world), we would expect that the majority of onsite buildings would be demolished and that other activities would cease. As such, it remains in caretaker status and could be reactivated at Kim’s command.
Yongdeok is a secretive location near the city of Kusong where North Korea conducts research and development on the explosive lenses needed for most nuclear weapons to operate. It is also the primary candidate location for where the country’s warheads are stored.
Under Kim Jong-un, a new food production site was built to improve supplies to the facility’s personnel, a key tunnel entrance was later disguised, over a dozen additional housing units have been added to the administrative area, and various other buildings have been constructed at the main R&D section of the complex.
When you consider all of the additions to Yongbyon and Yongdeok, and all of the ongoing work at Pyongsan and Kangson, one can only draw a single conclusion. Despite the lack of a nuclear tests since 2017, their nuclear program has only been expanding.
The second part of having a nuclear deterrent is gaining the ability to get your bomb to a target. There are scores of factories, research centers, testing facilities, and missile bases in North Korea, I’d like to take a moment to discuss some of the major industrial and testing sites and how they have changed under Kim Jong-un.
Beginning in 2011 and carried out for several years under Kim Jong-un, numerous expansions and improvements have been made to the Second Academy of Natural Sciences complex (also known as the Sanum-dong Research Center) in northern Pyongyang. This sprawling facility is a central site for North Korea’s missile program and is involved in everything from designing missiles to assembling them. It is also suspected of being the development center for North Korea’s newest cruise missile that was tested in 2021 (more on the test later).
Improvements to the complex include the addition of a new central fabrication hall, a much-enlarged monument plaza that underscores the site’s importance, and in 2018 an unidentified building was constructed that’s approximately 95 by 75 meters in size.
Another key facility is the March 16 Factory in Pyongsong. Involved in the manufacturing of mobile launch vehicles, the factory received a new manufacturing hall between 2012-2013 and another one was added in 2019. Two other buildings were constructed in 2020. The factory has been connected to the production of a modified Hwasong-15 transporter erector launcher (TEL) and Kim Jong-un is known to have visited the factory multiple times.
TELs require specialized tires and the Amnokgang Tire Factory in Manpo is one of the production facilities for the tires. It was explicitly mentioned by Kim Jong-un as responsible for making the tires for the 9-axle TEL of the Hwasong-15 that was tested on Nov 28, 2017. Nearly the entire factory complex was refurbished from 2017 to 2019.
The last industrial site I want to talk about is the Chemical Materials Institute in Hamhung. Once a relatively small facility involved in the production of engine nozzles, reentry vehicle tips, missile airframes, and other components, the facility was dramatically enlarged in 2018 (under the direct guidance of Kim Jong-un) with new production halls, research buildings, and multiple apartment blocks for its new workers.
The expansion of the facility gave North Korea a much greater capacity to produce missiles and sits within a network of missile-related facilities that are all located around Hamgung including the No. 17 Factory that produces solid rocket propellent and the Mangun-po Rocket Motor Test site. It is worth noting that according to reporting by Jeffrey Lewis and Dave Schmerler, the majority of new construction at CMI occurred after the joint April 2018 Panmunjom Declaration in which North and South Korea agreed to carry out disarmament and “cease all hostile acts against each other in every domain”.
As for the nearby Mangun-po Rocket Motor Test Site, it was constructed in 2013 and is North Korea’s primary solid-fuel rocket motor testing facility. The first test happened in March 2016 which was overseen by Kim Jong-un. The development of solid-fuel missiles is an important step toward making North Korea’s missile force more maneuverable and survivable as they take much less time to prepare for launch and can be driven across more difficult terrain.
Other tests are likely to have happened since, but the most recent indications is that a test may have occurred in September 2021. The medium-range Pukkuksong-2 and the recently developed cruise missile both use solid-fuel propellant and are capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.
The other permanent test stands that North Korea had during Kim Jong-il’s rule, at Sohae and Chamjin, were likewise maintained, with Chamjin receiving upgrades in 2016. Chamjin was responsible for testing the reentry vehicle nose cone of the KN-08 (Hwasong-13) the following year.
However, Kim Jong-un needed more than these older sites. In 2013-14 he had a test stand constructed at the Sinpo South Shipyard for testing engines and canisters in support of the submarine launched ballistic missile program and a test stand at the January 18th Factory was recently discovered.
Almost nothing is known about this new test stand other than that construction began in 2014, but the January 18th Factory is known to be involved in missile parts production and has a large underground facility. And we know that the factory and its environs underwent renovations in 2011-12 and again from 2014-17.
Lastly, and for the purpose of brevity, I’ll just say that nearly all known ballistic missile bases have undergone some level of modernization and further development under Kim Jong-un. From new support/maintenance buildings to even the construction of an entirely new base, Kim has invested heavily in modernizing the roughly 20 missile bases in the country.
Carrying Higher the Treasured Sword
In conjunction with developing the bombs themselves, Kim increased focus on developing and testing new delivery methods. From ICBMs that could hit the US mainland to submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and even recently testing an alleged hypersonic glider, Pyongyang’s arsenal is becoming a very real threat.
Although satellites were the only things launched in 2012, the April 15 parade commemorating Kim Il-sung’s centenary featured six KN-08 ICBMs. It is now believed that the parade only showed crude mockups of the missiles, but that the missile program itself was very real (for instance, the nose cone for its reentry vehicle is known to have been tested at the Chamjin test site in 2016). Future parades showed improved variants of the missile, with the 2012 version only being a two-stage missile while a parade in 2015 showed a three-stage version.
The KN-08 program was eventually canceled without the real missile ever being tested, but the development teams working on the program were sent to work on the Hwasong-12, -14, and -15 missiles. The knowledge from the KN-08 program included work on reentry vehicles and adding a third stage to their missiles, as three stages are required for the missile to reach targets as far away as the United States and the reentry vehicle is what protects the nuclear warhead on its descent.
Speaking on whether or not the technology “displayed” by the KN-08 in 2012 was feasible or merely fantasy on behalf of Pyongyang, arms experts Jeffrey Lewis and John Schilling said, “elegant or not, these options are good enough to produce missiles with theoretical ranges from 5,500 kilometers to over 11,000 kilometers. The latter would allow virtually the entire United States of America to be reached from North Korean launch sites”.
Thus, while a real KN-08 was never seen, it broadcast to the world what North Korea was striving to build. Future launches of other missiles would later prove, as Lewis and Schilling suggested, that North Korea could accomplish the overall goals envisioned by the KN-08 variants.
The following year only saw minor testing as a series of six short-range missiles were launched on three different occasions in May from the Hodo Peninsula near Wonsan. While not crucial to the development of any new weapon system, the routine firing of existing missiles helps to better train North Korea’s Strategic Rocket Force and can be part of Pyongyang’s cycle of provocation followed by diplomatic overtures.
The first half of 2014 led to a major crisis. Starting in March, thirty rockets were fired on the 21st followed by two Hwasong-7 medium-range ballistic missiles. The growing tensions precipitated a massive exchange of artillery fire between the two Korea’s on the 27th across the Northern Limit Line in the West Sea.
Less than two months later on May 1, commercial satellite imagery revealed new activity at the Sohae Satellite Launch Center including modification of the gantry used to launch the Unha-3 in 2012, the construction of additional buildings, and showed evidence of multiple engine tests of the KN-08.
The exact beginnings of North Korea’s attempt to develop submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) are obscure, but Kim Jong-un has placed this leg of a potential nuclear triad (land-based, sea-based, and nuclear bombers) upfront along with the development of land-based missiles. Such a capability would help ensure the survivability of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal (as submarines are much harder to target and most are stationed at underground bases) and would also give North Korea a second-strike capability (being able to launch missiles even after being hit by an initial nuclear strike).
The South Sinpo Shipyard/Mayang Island Base is North Korea’s primary submarine and SLBM development complex. Apart from the test stand that was erected in 2014, two construction halls were also modernized. Additionally, The Washington Free Beacon noted that a test platform submarine was located at the base, indicative of future testing.
That October, a successful land-based static ejection test (a test of the canister system) for the Pukkuksong-1 (KN-11) SLBM was carried out. This was followed by a failed test in November. The nature of a series of later tests in 2014 and 2015 remains unknown as competing sources claim some were only ejection tests while other sources say some tests were done with the use of a submersible barge.
However, on April 23, 2016, North Korea again made use of the facility by testing the Pukkuksong-1’s “cold launch” vertical launching system capability. The test wasn’t a flawless success, but it did demonstrate the feasibility of the cold launch process, moving North Korea’s SLBM program forward.
Finally, on August 24, 2016, North Korea launched the first fully successful SLBM from a submarine instead of from a submerged barge. Being observed by Kim Jong-un and flying some 500 km on a lofted trajectory, the Korean Central News Agency said that the country had now “joined the front rank of the military powers fully equipped with nuclear attack capability”.
Beginning in 2016 and going through 2017, North Korea experienced an inordinate number of failures across a range of missile types compared to previous years. In 2016 there were ten failures and in 2017 there were seven, compared to just two in 2015. Defectors claimed that Kim Jong-un had become upset by the failures and ordered an investigation into them. In 2017, even President Donald Trump began mocking the situation saying, “all his rockets are crashing”.
But this high failure rate may not have been entirely due to problems with North Korean manufacturing or technical expertise. Coinciding with these crashes, it was revealed by the New York Times in March 2017 that the United States had been attempting for years to interfere with the missiles or missile testing process in some way (perhaps trying to find simple but critical weak points such as during the Stuxnet hack that caused a thousand Iranian centrifuges to break because a small regulatory component was forced into failure).
Whether or not the missile failures were directly caused by covert operations we don’t know, but what we do know is that the failures soon stopped happening. By 2018, only one test failed. Since then, Pyongyang has managed a 100% success rate.
During that time of increased failures, however, were some spectacular successes.
Most notably was the May 14, 2017 test of the Hwasong-12 IRBM, which is capable of reaching the US territory (and major military base) of Guam. And finally, what followed on July 4.
On that day, under the observation of Kim Jong-un, the Hwasong-14 ICBM was first tested. It was described as a “gift” to the “American bastards” on America’s Independence Day.
It flew on a lofted trajectory reaching an apogee of 2,800 km above earth and flying for a range of 930 km. This placed the whole of the continental US in range if it were to fly along a more typical ballistic trajectory.
According to North Korea, the missile also had a device onboard that would be used to detonate a warhead should one ever be mounted on the missile, and that the device functioned properly despite all of the physical stresses of the launch.
Now, North Korea’s arsenal had arrived at the ability to target US forces in South Korea with short-range ballistic missiles, target bases throughout the Pacific with intermediate-range missiles, and even to target New York City or Washington, DC with the Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile.
Of course, in the middle of all of these missile tests were the three nuclear tests, each one demonstrating North Korea’s abilities to make better and better devices capable of being mass-produced and mounted on top of these newly minted missile systems.
Fast-forwarding a bit to the Oct. 10, 2020 parade in commemoration of the founding of the Workers’ Party of Korea, North Korea showed off an 11-axle TEL with its associated missile, the Hwasong-16. The missile appears to be a new, larger iteration of the Hwasong-15. At 24-26 meters in length, this would make the Hwasong-16 the world’s largest road-mobile ICBM currently in active service.
However, it wasn’t necessarily the missile that drew attention. Although the Hwasong-16 does show that North Korea can scale up their existing technology and may indicate they are researching the ability to launch multiple warheads known as MIRVs, the TEL itself was the “wow” factor.
North Korea is known to have imported a limited number of large vehicles from China, notably, eight WS51200 TELs in 2011. But they are not known to possess the ability to domestically produce TELs of that size or larger (the Hwasong-16 TEL has three additional axles than does the WS51200).
So the appearance of the TEL suggests that either North Korea has gotten very good at modifying these vehicles, of which there are only 11, or most worryingly, that they can now domestically manufacture extra-large TELs. If they can produce them, then this raises the stakes because they can produce as many as they need for their missile program instead of having to rely on a limited number of TELs of varying models.
This would make it even more difficult for the United States or its allies to conduct strikes against North Korea’s missile forces as they would likely lack sufficient intelligence to ensure all relevant targets were hit. This paucity of knowledge, particularly through public sources, was corroborated by the 2021 US Defense Intelligence Agency report North Korea Military Power which gave the number of launchers for eleven different missile systems (including the Hawsong-16) as “undetermined”.
Looking toward his next decade, at the start of 2021 at the Eighth Party Congress, Kim laid out multiple short-term and long-term goals for future military technology in a wide-ranging, nine-hour report. Among those goals was the development of new tactical nuclear weapons, ‘super-sized’ warheads, new long-range ballistic missiles that could reach 15,000 km, the development of hypersonic weapons (more on that later), solid-fuel ICBMs and submarine-launched missiles, as well as the future launch of a military reconnaissance satellite.
Since then, we have seen several new or improved weapon systems.
On Sept. 15, 2021, North Korea tested its first rail-based ballistic missile by launching a short-range missile from a modified railcar. While the general technology isn’t new, it is new to North Korea and would give them an added edge in improving the survivability of their missiles as North Korea’s best transportation infrastructure is their railway and there are hundreds of tunnels along the tracks that these systems could be hidden in prior to firing.
That same weekend, the country also tested a cruise missile with a range of at least 1,500 km. According to Foreign Policy, the test “appears to demonstrate that Pyongyang now possesses a cruise missile capability that it could use to conduct long-range and difficult-to-detect conventional or potentially nuclear strikes against South Korea, Japan, or U.S. military bases in the region.”
And then there is the Hwasong-8 hypersonic glider. First tested on Sept. 28, 2021, the launch came an hour before Kim Song, North Korea's Ambassador to the United Nations, gave remarks and declared that the country had a “righteous right” to test missiles.
While the launch could just as easily have been a feasibility test, with North Korea needing more time to develop a deployable weapon, it is still one of the most advanced systems tested by Kim Jong-un. If it is indeed a hypersonic reentry glider, it could slam into targets without the risk of being intercepted. As Joseph Trevithick wrote, “This combination of speed, maneuverability, and flight profile make them extremely challenging targets for air-defense networks to track and intercept, compared to traditional ballistic missiles”.
There are even more missiles and weapon systems under development aimed at raising the “treasured sword” to even greater heights and capabilities. From the continuation of the SLBM program with the Pukkuksong-4 and -5 to the “March 25” SRBM and more, the months and years ahead are sure to provide many more tests and greater threats as North Korea’s missile program is moving rapidly forward.
Following the 2013 nuclear test, which was the largest to that point, North Korea passed the Nuclear Weapons State Law in which the Supreme People’s Assembly not only declared the country a full nuclear power, but laid out ten provisions for the purpose, use, and future of its nuclear arsenal. Additionally, the Ten Principles for a Monolithic Ideological System and other de facto and de jure laws of the country were updated to reflect this. Finally, in April 2018, Kim Jong-un declared the “great victory of the byungjin line” (a policy he had resurrected in 2013) in response to the construction of the state’s nuclear forces, seven months after their final nuclear test and following the success of the Hwasong-14 ICBM launch.
The nuclear testing moratorium since 2017 may be of value in and of itself, but it is clear that their nuclear program hasn’t been ended or even paused. And Pyongyang has resumed its cycle of provocations and bluster followed by requests for talks and aid (which the next chapter will cover). This is a cycle that has endured for decades and only ends up buying North Korea the time they need to work on their latest project; a strategy they’ve been rather successful at.
At times through writing this chapter it almost felt as though I was being “pro-Pyongyang”, but the inescapable truth is that no matter what failures have occurred and in spite of attempts to alter their behavior with sanctions, North Korea has made impressive progress in the areas of nuclear weapons and missiles. And no amount of horror regarding starvation and human rights abuses or moralizing over the priorities of Pyongyang can change that fact.
Through demonstrations of the Hwasong-8, -10, -11, -12, -14, -15, -16, and Pukkuksong-1 and 2 missiles and through testing rounds of extended range SRBMs and cruise missiles, this has enabled North Korea to prove it can target ranges from South Korea to Japan to Guam and to New York City. This, along with the high likelihood of the 2017 nuclear test being a thermonuclear weapon and the ongoing development of submarine-launched ballistic missiles and even hypersonic weapons, Kim Jong-un has given teeth to the 2013 law and has fulfilled the aims of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il by not just producing the various parts needed for a nuclear force but has developed an increasingly complex and integrated nuclear deterrent using all available means.
The ‘Self-Defense 2021’ exhibition of missiles, radars, and space technology which Kim attended only underscores their progress toward achieving Kim’s most recent “wish list” and lays out their future ambitions.
The sword has been sharpened. It’s up to Kim Jong-un and the international community to help ensure it is never unsheathed.
Additional reading from AccessDPRK
Current State of North Korea’s Satellite and Missile Facilities, Jan. 11,
Fallout: The Health Consequences of Pyongyang’s Nuclear Program Part I, Dec.
Fallout: The Health Consequences of Pyongyang’s Nuclear Program Part II,
Dec. 27, 2019
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