Interpreting North Korea’s Missile Tests: When is a Missile Just a Missile?

Stephan Haggard (PIIE), Daniel Pinkston (International Crisis Group), Kevin Stahler (PIIE) and Clint Work (International Crisis Group)



Every time we turn around, it appears that the North Koreans are conducting live-fire artillery exercises, or testing rockets and ballistic missiles. But what is the actual pattern of exercises and tests under Kim Jong Un? Does it exhibit any political logic? Are strategic considerations behind the recent tests? Or is the country testing missiles because development—and perhaps export promotion—require it? These factors are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and some or all of them could be reinforcing. However there are reasons to believe that the exercises and tests are just that: exercises and tests. North Korea sees its missile arsenal as a deterrent and maintaining that deterrent requires that it be tested for reliability. Moreover, new systems under development must be tested for engineering reasons. It may be wrong to jump to political inferences about the recent fireworks.

Daniel Pinkston and Clint Work at the International Crisis Group pulled together a list of launches since January 2012 and we have put it into graphic form: the graphs are below and the entire list is appended at the end of this post with brief commentary on each launch. Before trying to interpret the data, a few words on the organization of the North Korean rocket and military forces and the nature of the inventory.

North Korea’s arsenal of artillery rockets and guided missiles (both cruise and ballistic) is extensive and quite diverse. Institutionally, responsibility for artillery rockets, ballistic missiles, and land attack cruise missiles lies with the Strategic Rocket Forces. The Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces manages military training, but in wartime, the Strategic Rocket Forces come under the command of the General Staff, which is directly subordinate to the KPA Supreme Commander Kim Jong Un.

One possible reason for  the recent increase in live-fire artillery exercises and the development of new artillery systems is Kim Jong Un’s supposed expertise in artillery after his “studies” at the KIS Military Academy (he purportedly wrote a thesis on artillery). Following the Yŏnp’yŏng Island artillery attack, there were reports that the attack was attributed to Kim Jong Un’s oversight as he was being groomed to succeed his father. It is also worth noting a political economy rationale for highly-centralized control and Kim’s presence at recent missile launches: it signals that missiles are a priority and that the regime will continue to provide resources for the program, which is beneficial for those people working and tied to the program—an important part of the leadership’s political coalition. Above all, these organizational relationships testify to the significance the leadership places on these weapons: as a potential source of political and military signaling, particularly of the regime’s resolve; as a deterrent and perhaps even offensive capability; and as a potential source of foreign exchange.

The inventory includes, first, “antique” rockets such as the FROG (free rocket over ground; see here and here) as well as new 300mm artillery rockets currently under development and testing (sources on these new rockets can be found at Arms Control Wonk (Jeff Lewis) as well as here and here). These rockets do not have guidance systems. They are aimed and travel a ballistic path, but like artillery shells their effectiveness depends on how well the expected trajectory is calculated and there is always some error. This raises the question of their military utility. Given the inability to use them for precision strikes, they are probably best thought of as a kind of general deterrent: a weapon that could be fired in large numbers. Although large volleys could degrade military operations by South Korea and USFK, arguably these weapons are best at introducing uncertainty and terrorizing the population. Of course, their deterrent—and terrorizing—effect would be dramatically augmented if fitted with chemical weapons munitions, as we witnessed in Syria.

The ballistic missile inventory includes:

  • Tactical missiles (the KN-02 or Toksa, which is a North Korean version of the Soviet/Russian SS-21 with a range of about 120 km).
  • Short-range (300-1,000km) Scud variants (Hwasŏng-5/6, Scud-B, Scud-C, Scud-D, Scud-ER). An interesting development is that some of these Hwasŏng-5/6 (Scuds) have been test-fired from Hwanghae Province near the DMZ, meaning that they have overflown North Korean territory before landing in the Sea of Japan. If they were to fail, that could mean debris raining down on North Korean own territory, or worse yet, onto the ROK; the North Korean leadership at least appears to have high confidence in the reliability of these systems.
  • Medium-range Nodongs (1,000~1,300km).
  • The untested Musudan , intermediate-range ballistic missile (4,000km?).
  • The Hwasŏng-13 or KN-08, a suspected road-mobile intercontinental ballistic (range > 5,500km) currently under development.
  • A “space launch vehicle” (Ŭnha-3), widely recognized as a cover for an ICBM development program.

Finally, the anti-ship cruise missiles include land-based and the new ship-launched anti-ship cruise missile (again, Jeffrey Lewis but this time at 38North). These are different systems used for very different things. These cruise missiles can’t really strike land targets, except those right on the coast and within range. But they pose a danger to ships and the new ship-launched version is clearly less vulnerable than the old KN-01 that is deployed at generally fixed coastal battery locations and thus easily targetable. We know much less about land-attack cruise missiles, but it is widely believed they have a program; the usual suspects for possible sales or technical assistance would be Pakistan and Iran.

Now that we have a sense of the inventory, it is possible to look at the temporal patterns of testing in more detail. Aggregating different types of systems risks lumping apples and oranges, while weighting them would require some algorithm (does one Unha-3 equal 20 Scuds? The effort is clearly misguided).

However, we can control for this in part by looking not only at the total number of missile launches (the right scale in the first graph) but the number of days per month when such launches take place. We can also break out reports of artillery, short-range rockets, and medium- and longer-range missile tests; we do this in the second graphic below, although it is not always possible to discern the type of missile or projectile tested at short ranges with a high degree of confidence.

Several things emerge from this analysis. First, if you sense an acceleration in the pace of testing, you are not wrong. In 2012, we witnessed the drama of the Ŭnha-3 tests and 2013 was relatively quiet after the shrill rhetoric and activities in March and April. This year, however, has proven to be an entirely different matter. While pundits have sought to tie launches to particular political events—such as visits by President Xi Xinping or the Pope to Seoul—such causal reasoning may well be flawed given the incidence of tests throughout the year. Indeed, in an amusing incident the North Koreans in effect said “we don’t know why  this Pope guy decided to visit South Korea on the day of our tests, which we had planned long in advance.”

The alternative interpretation is that North Korea is testing because it has new systems under development. Both Schiller’s and Schmucker’s analysis of the Hwasŏng-13 and Daniel Pinkston’s post in ICG’s Pursuit of Peace blog make the point about the importance of testing. Although artillery is notoriously inaccurate, as we have noted, test-firing can provide data for better aim. Moreover, there is an important background condition that may make such testing more imperative than it has been in the past. A number of analysts such as Markus Schiller and others have expressed skepticism that the North Korean missile program could have advanced as quickly as it did without external help. But such foreign assistance has been curtailed or terminated as a result of sanctions or other factors explored in detail by Joshua Pollack.

If this is the case, we can expect the tests to continue. The Korea Herald cited a South Korean Defense Ministry source as referencing ROK and U.S. intelligence analysis that concluded the recent tests on August 14th were a new tactical missile, not the KN-02 or 300mm artillery rockets of earlier tests. This analysis is consistent with KCNA’s report that the system is an “ultra-precision high-performance tactical rocket of Korean style.”

North Korean Rocket and Missile Launches since January 2012


13 January: three short-range ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan (East Sea); appeared to be KN-02 (Toksa) tactical missiles, which are a North Korean version of  the Soviet-era SS-21 with a range of about 120km ; reported by Japan’s  Sankei Shimbun (Korea Herald).

13 April: Ŭnha-3 attempted satellite launch; exploded into about 20 pieces over the Yellow Sea between one and two minutes after takeoff. Launched from the Sohae Satellite Launching Station in Tongch’ang-ri, northwest North Korea (Korea Herald).

12 December: Ŭnha-3 successful SLV launch places Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 into low earth orbit. Its first stage fell into the Yellow Sea off South Korea’s west coast, and the second stage landed in waters near the Philippines. South Korea recovered the first stage from the sea floor and gained valuable intelligence as a result (Korea Herald).


16 March: two short-range tactical ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan, presumed to be KN-02’s (Toksa) (Korea Herald).

18 May: three short-range guided missiles into the Sea of Japan in a northeastern direction (Yonhap, CNN); reports indicate they may have been modified anti-ship missiles or KN-02 Toksa) tactical  missiles (Korea Herald).

19 May: short-range rockets into the Sea of Japan, similar to those fired the previous day or rockets of at least 300mm in caliber fired from a multiple rocket launcher (MRLS) (Al Jazeera, Korea Herald).

20 May: two short-range rockets fired from the east coast into the Sea of Japan; could be an upgraded version of the KN-02 tactical missile or a rocket from long-range artillery (Reuters, Korea Herald).


27 February: four short-range missiles into the sea, fired from the southeastern coast, around the Kit’taeryŏng area (Korea Herald, Korea Herald).

3 March: two short-range ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan; one from Wŏnsan and the other from the Kit’taeryŏng area. Both fell into the sea after about 500 km of flight and impacted in the area of Japan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ); presumed to be the Hwasŏng-6 (Scud-C) with a range of 500km, or the Scud-ER (extended range), an upgraded version of the Scud D, with a range of 700km  (Korea Herald).

7 March: seven rockets into the Sea of Japan; fired from the Hodo peninsula near the city of Wŏnsan. Media reported that four of the rockets appeared to be KN-09 rockets, flying some 155 km; the other three were shorter range rockets, which travelled some 50 km (Korea Herald).  This is confusing because the Korea Herald cites a ROK Defense Ministry official as stating the systems were KN-09 rockets; however, the KN-09 is also commonly characterized as a cruise missile.  James Hardy discusses the KN-09 in this IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly article, but Hardy  also uses both “rocket” and “missile” when referring to the KN-09. Jeffrey Lewis claims the KN-09 is the KH-35 ship-launched cruise missile.  It is one thing to say the DPRK has the KH-35 (the video Lewis uses as evidence does indicate that the DPRK possesses a missile that is externally very similar to the KH-35), but that does not necessarily support the claim that the KN-09 is actually the KH-35.

16 March: 25 short-range rockets toward the Sea of Japan;  fired from east coast region near Wŏnsan. Assumed to be FROG tactical rockets with a maximum range of 70km (Korea Herald).

22 March: 30 short-range rockets in three bursts of fire from a coastal area near Wŏnsan; appeared to be FROGs (Korea Herald).

23 March: 16 short-range rockets from the area around Wŏnsan; appeared to be FROGs (Korea Herald).

26 March: two medium-range ballistic missiles from Sukch’ŏn-kun, South P’yŏng’an Province, north of Pyongyang; believed to be Nodong missiles, with a range of about 1,000 km. Missiles flew for about 650km before falling into the Sea of Japan.  This was the first launch of a suspected Nodong missile since July 4, 2009; previous to that the North launched a Nodong on July 5, 2006 (BBC, Korea Herald).

31 March: 500 artillery shells near the Northern Limit Line (NLL), with about 100 falling south of it. The North notified the South through a fax about four hours before the live fire exercise. The South responded by firing back some 300 rounds with K-9 self-propelled howitzers, all of which landed north of the NLL (Korea Herald).

29 May: 50 coastal artillery shells near the Northern Limit Line (NLL), around the border islands of Wŏllae-do and Changjae-do. The North’s southwestern frontline command sent a fax notification to the South’s Second Fleet five hours before the drill (Korea Herald).

26 June: three short-range rockets into the Sea of Japan from the area around Wŏnsan, with a range of about 190km (Korea Herald). The next day, KCNA claimed that Kim Jong-un “guided the test-launch of newly developed cutting-edge ultra-precision tactical guided missiles," suggesting that the tests may be of a new system. (Korea Herald).

29 June: two short-range ballistic missiles from of the area around Wŏnsan;  believed to be Hwasŏng-6 (Scud-C) missiles; flew for about 500 km before falling into the sea just short of Japan’s air defense zone; (Reuters, Korea Herald).

9 July: two short-range ballistic missiles from an air base in the western province of Hwanghae, presumed to be HWasŏng-5/6 (Scud-type) missiles. This was the first time in two decades that the DPRK has fired from an inland rather than coastal area. The missiles flew about 500 km before falling into the Sea of Japan (Reuters, Korea Herald).

13 July: two short-range Hwasŏng-5/6 (Scud) ballistic missiles from Hwanghae Province, just north of Kaesŏng, into the Sea of Japan; the launch site was only 20 km from the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) (Korea Herald).

26 July: short-range live-fire ballistic missile exercise, believed to be a Hwasŏng-5/6 (Scud type), fired into the Sea of Japan; fired in a northwestern direction from Changsan Cape in the western coastal region (Yonhap).

30 July: four short-range rockets in an eastern direction; presumed to have come from a 300mm MLRS fired from a site near Mount Myohyang in North Pyŏng’an Province (Yonhap)

14 August: five short-range rockets into the Sea of Japan; fired from the eastern coastal city of Wonsan, appeared to fly for 200-220km. (Korea Herald); According to KCNA, Kim Jong Un guided the test-firing of the “ultra precision high-performance tactical rocket.” (KCNA); Several days later, a source from the ROK JCS referred to the five rockets as “novel tactical missiles,” that are “different from its existing 300-millimeter multiple rocket launcher and KN-02 missiles,” and that the new model is expected to be called the “KN-10.” (Korea Herald)

1 September: a short range missile test from western North Korea into the Sea of Japan. A South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff spokesman said it was the first time that Pyongyang fired a missile from Chagang Province, which borders China. The launch location is 60 km away from the Chinese border (Korea Herald).

6 September: three short-range missiles fired into the Sea of Japan from a base near Wŏnsan. The ROK JCS concluded that the missiles fired on 14 August, 1 September and 6 September were the new tactical missile that apparently was flight-tested for the first time on 26 June (Korea Herald).

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