Contrary to the South Korean government’s initial analysis, the missile launched by North Korea into the waters west of Japan yesterday could represent an important advancement in the country’s missile technology that would allow it to carry multiple warheads.
According to a report in Japanese business newspaper Nikkei, photos of the Hwasong-15 published by local North Korean media showcase a newly developed launch system and casing.
Rodong Sinmun, a mouthpiece for the North's ruling Workers' Party of Korea, published photos of the Hwasong-15, the country's latest intercontinental ballistic missile, at liftoff and mounted on what appears to be a newly developed mobile launch system. The missile seems to involve a completely new rocket, judging by its size and shape, South Korea's Ministry of National Defense said Thursday. The ministry's initial analysis Wednesday claimed the Hwasong-15 was merely a retooled version of the Hwasong-14 ICBMs launched in July.
The shape of the rocket’s nose cone suggests that it was designed with an eye toward carrying multiple warheads, which could make it easier for the North to outfit the rocket with a nuclear payload. Also, by possessing the capability to strike multiple sites with one missile, it would make it more difficult for anti-missile defense systems to intercept it.
The latest missile's nose cone is more rounded than that of its predecessor. This could indicate it was designed with an eye toward a multiple-warhead system, Chang Young-keun of the Korea Aerospace University said in response to questions from South Korea's Yonhap News Agency. It was generally agreed that inserting multiple warheads into the Hwasong-14's pointed nose cone would be difficult.
A missile capable of striking multiple sites at once would be more difficult for ship- and land-based defense systems to fully neutralize than a single-warhead missile. North Korea, long thought to be seeking this technology, would pose a much greater threat as a result.
To be sure, the rounded nose cone may have been designed solely to protect the missile as it reenters Earth’s atmosphere. Atmospheric re-entry has long been a major obstacle for the North’s missile program.
The missile's shape may also be related to technology intended to protect its payload from the stress of re-entering the Earth's atmosphere, said Kim Jung-bong, a professor at Hanzhong University. Heavy use of high-performance material such as carbon fiber could account for the rounded form, Kim said.
Re-entry technology is considered a major hurdle blocking North Korea from deploying a functional ICBM. A warhead must survive the intense heat and pressure of re-entry to be useful as a weapon. The North is thought to have obtained high-performance materials, using them in its quest to clear that barrier.
Finally, the rounded nose might be necessary to allow North Korea to load its rudimentary nuclear warheads on the rocket. US and Japanese officials now believe the North is less than two years away from being able to successfully strike the continental US with nuclear weapon.
A rounder nose cone also allows for a larger payload, perhaps intended to let Pyongyang mount a nuclear warhead on the rocket, a source at Japan's Ministry of Defense said. The North's technology is "certainly advancing," Adm. Katsutoshi Kawano, chief of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces' Joint Staff, told reporters Thursday. Japan will operate under the assumption that "the threat has grown," he said.
Furthermore, the missile’s added girth suggests that it has been outfitted with two engines for the first two stages of flight instead of one.
The Hwasong-15 is 30 centimeters wider than its predecessor at around 2 meters, one expert said. This suggests the missile contains two engines in the first of its two stages, up from one in the Hwasong-14, said Kim Dong-yup, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. The increased thrust could put the entire U.S. mainland within the missile's range without any reduction in the weight of the payload, the professor said.
A Rodong Sinmun editorial posted online Thursday called the launch of the Hwasong-15 a watershed moment for the North. Many think locking down multiple-warhead technology will take some time. But Pyongyang's progress toward a functional ICBM is undeniable.
While there’s still no guarantee the North could pull off a nuclear strike with a high degree of accuracy, a nuclear weapon detonated several hundred miles above the center of the country could destroy the US by causing a giant electromagnetic pulse. Such an attack could kill hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people by wiping out access to electricity across the entire continent.