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North Korea is testing nukes that can evade missile defenses

A North Korean missile launch. (DoD/Released)
July 21, 2020

North Korea continues to advance its nuclear weapons and missile programs despite diplomatic efforts and United Nations Security Council sanctions, according to a report from U.S. Congressional Research Service last week.

“Recent missile tests suggest that North Korea is striving to build a credible nuclear warfighting capability designed to evade regional ballistic missile defenses,” the CRS report said.

North Korea is reportedly developing nuclear weapons and delivery systems that have “critical features” like mobility, reliability, potency, precision, and survivability.

“The U.S. intelligence community has said North Korean leaders view nuclear weapons as ‘critical to regime survival’ and intended for ‘deterrence, international prestige, and coercive diplomacy,” the report said.

In the past year, North Korea has increased test launches of short-range ballistic missiles, a direct violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions. The advancements demonstrate a shift toward solid-propellants and satellite guidance systems.

“North Korean [short-range ballistic missiles] SRBMs and medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBM), precision-guided multiple launch rocket systems, and artillery pose the most acute near-term threats to other nations,” the report said. “These developments provide the projectiles greater mobility and survivability prior to launch and greater potency and precision on target.”

The most notable advance to the North Korean inventory is the KN-23 SRBM. Tests conducted in May 2019 revealed an “atypical flight path in which the weapon flew much closer to the ground” than a traditional ballistic missile would. The KN-23 also conducted a “pull-up” maneuver upon approach of its target, meant to confuse ground-based interceptors. The move increases its speed and angle of attack to the target. The KN-23 is capable of carrying a conventional or nuclear payload and striking any location on the Korean peninsula.

“These traits suggest that the North Korean test program may seek to achieve more than a simple political statement, and that it may be intended to increase the reliability, effectiveness, and survivability of their ballistic missile force,” the report said. “North Korean tests have demonstrated growing success and, coupled with increased operational training exercises, suggest a pattern designed to strengthen the credibility of North Korea’s regional nuclear deterrent strategy.”

Defeating or degrading the effectiveness of missile defenses deployed in the region appears to be the main reason behind the recent advances in North Korea’s ballistic missile test program.

“Such an approach likely reinforces a deterrence and coercive diplomacy strategy — lending more credibility as it demonstrates capability — but it also raises questions about crisis stability and escalation control,” the report said.