In both North and South Korea, rocket scientists were able to congratulate themselves on a number of new achievements at the end of 2022 and the beginning of 2023. South Korea launched a solid-fuel rocket and completed a lunar orbit, while their North Korean colleagues continued to fulfil the policies of their national leader, reaching new heights in their aerospace program.
Between 26 and 31 December 2022, the 8th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea held its 6th plenary meeting. During the meeting Kim Jong-un made a number of important announcements about developments in the military sector. Specifically, he stressed that “In a situation where South Korea has become our undoubted enemy, it highlights the importance and necessity of a mass-producing of tactical nuclear weapons and calls for an exponential increase of the country’s nuclear arsenal.” In addition, the industry was instructed to “develop another ICBM system whose main mission is quick nuclear counterstrike” and to put a spy satellite into orbit as early as possible. Today let us look at two events that took place as Kim Jong-un was addressing the country, and which demonstrate the might of North Korea’s military-industrial complex.
On January 1, 2023 North Korea’s national news agency published a photograph of Kim Jong-un and his “most beloved” daughter Kim Ju Ae visiting a North Korean rocket base. While most popular media tended to focus on the daughter (with some speculating that this 10-year-old girl may be named as his future successor) more eagle-eyed commentators were quick to point out that the images showed 12 or more mobile launch platforms, presumably for KN-23 tactical missiles (popularly referred to as “Kimskanders”) and 26 medium range Hwasong-12/KN-17 missiles (with a maximum range of 4,000-4,500 km), without warheads.
Why is this important? North Korea’s critics often claim that its nuclear capabilities are much exaggerated, and that if it does have nuclear weapons then they are very few in number and “white elephants”of little practical use, perhaps a single “wonder weapon” that is seen as so precious that it is not used until the very last moment, by which time it can no longer effectively change the situation. That does not prevent them from warning about the serious threat posed by such weapons and demanding that the world take measures – or at least spend money – to prevent these “white elephants” from being used in an attack. The key thing is for North Korea to show the world – even if not in detail – that it “has the goods.”
It is clear, however, that these rockets would play a key role in any potential conflict. Their published technical characteristics are truly impressive, and, what is more, North Korea has announced that the rocked has now been upgraded. While debate may continue about how many of the Hwasong-15 and Hwasong-17 exist and their level of technical development, there is little doubt about the Hwasong-12.
Also on January 1 North Korea’s NKNCA Agency published an article “Ceremony of Presenting 600 mm Super-Large Multiple Rocket Launchers Held with Splendor”. To put it briefly: On December 31, 2022 600 mm super-large multiple rocket launchers provided by workers of the military industrial complex were presented to the 6th Plenary Meeting of the 8th Central Committee of the WPK in a solemn ceremony held in the grounds of the headquarters of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of North Korea. It appears that this armaments presentation ceremony was the first of its kind. Moreover according to representatives of the workers in the military industrial complex, these MLRS were not part of the workers’ production target.
Kim Jong-un participated in the ceremony and made a speech, in which he assured the audience that the weapons are “powerful in that they will give a fresh strength and courage to the whole country.”
Some 70 rocket launches in 2022 is not only an absolute record for North Korea, it also marks the beginning of a new phase for the country’s armaments industry, as many experts in a range of fields have noted. If a country can afford to use that many rockets for tests, it is clear that it has enough reserves to replace the expended rockets. These are tell-tale signs of a properly functioning armaments industry which is able to manufacture enough rockets for defense purposes, plus enough to enable testing on a large scale.
The ability to manufacture 30 large-scale MLRS over target is a good indicator of the intense pace of work in North Korea’s armaments industry and how many units it is able to produce simultaneously. This is very important, as the ability to produce armaments is a key indicator of a country’s military might. During the Korean War the North started off with a large number of Soviet tanks, but they were relatively quickly destroyed in US air strikes, and since it lacked its own armaments industry it was unable to replace them. Today this capability is of crucial importance, as in the event of a hypothetical conflict North Korea would have to stand against the military potential of the USA, and a country that is able to manufacture three tanks for each tank made by the enemy will be able to win a war of attrition even if the forces on the battlefield are evenly matched.
Here it is worth saying a few words about the MLRS, which first appeared three years ago. 600 mm is a very large caliber. It is the same caliber as that of the guns on the Japan’s Yamato – the most powerful battleship used in the Second World War. In fact, North Korea’s weapon is more than just a large-caliber MLRS, it is able to fire short range rockets (a range which takes in the whole of the Korean peninsula) with the speed and intensity of Soviet Katyusha rocket launchers. Moreover each rocket can carry a tactical nuclear warhead.
This kind of weapon is of great importance in a modern war, in which each side aims to make its first strike as powerful as possible. Moreover, these rockets are able to reach not only greater Seoul but key military facilities in central regions of South Korea and transport hubs such as Busan, which can be used to provide supplies to troops. And it is difficult for air defense systems to intercept short-range rockets of this type.
In his speech, Kim Jong-un also said that the constructors had developed a special trailer to carry the MLRS. It should be noted that the development of specialized vehicles suitable for transporting rocket systems is a major challenge, and in the past North Korea has used repurposed Chinese vehicles for this task, which led to a certain cooling of relations between the two countries. Now, it seems, that problem has been resolved.
Moreover in 2022 armament manufactures also provided farmers with more than 5,000 farm vehicles, “providing powerful support for the agricultural front, and thus keeping up morale.”
Naturally, when the MLRS are transferred to the military, they are thoroughly checked. As reported by the KCNA, the presentation of the missiles on December 31 included a test launch: “The Second Economic Commission in the DPRK conducted on the morning of December 31, 2022, a test-fire of the super-large multiple rocket launchers being presented to the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea to examine their performance”.
Seoul’s response was predictable. South Korea’s Ministry of Defense warned that “any attempt by North Korea to use nuclear weapons would lead to the end of its regime.”
On January 2, a new department was added to the structures overseen by South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee – a Directorate of Countering Nuclear Weapons and Weapons of Mass Destruction, tasked with developing the response to nuclear threats from North Korea. In the future it is expected that this Directorate will become a fifth Strategic Command, reporting to the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee alongside the existing Intelligence, Operations, Strategic Planning and Military Support and Provisioning Commands. The new Command will manage the process of creating South Korea’s three-axis defense system, made up of Kill Chain (responsible for preemptive strikes against nuclear facilities), Korean Missile Defense, and Overwhelming Response (which would destroy North Korea’s government infrastructure).
The new Directorate is based on the nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction response division, which reported to the Joint Chiefs of Staff Strategic Planning Directorate. It has now become a separate directorate with additional functions.
To sum up, a quote from Kim Jong-un would be appropriate: “That we have such a self-supporting defense industry which displays such heroism and possesses characteristic features and absolute strength is something no other country in the world can have or build even though it wants to, and this is a source of pride of prides of our Party.”
Kim Jong-un (and he is not alone in this view) appears to consider that tensions will continue to increase in 2023 just as much as they did in 2022, and that this challenge should be met fully armed, as the doctrine of nuclear deterrence – that nuclear weapons will be used against nuclear weapons and direct confrontation will be met with direct confrontation – is as valid as ever.