North Korea declared on Thursday the successful testing of the Hwasong-18, their advanced intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) powered by solid fuel. This marked the second successful test and a significant breakthrough for North Korea’s prohibited weapons programs. The implications of possessing a solid-fuel missile raise questions about its nature and importance for Pyongyang.
The test unlocks a major breakthrough for North Korea’s banned weapons programs, but what exactly is a solid-fuel missile and why does it matter that Pyongyang has one?
Unlike liquid-fueled missiles, this type of missile employs a solid chemical mixture as its propellant. Ankit Panda, a nuclear policy expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, describes it as follows: “The propellant is integrated into the missile’s structure during its construction, akin to a ready-to-launch firecracker rocket.”
In contrast, liquid-fueled missiles require the insertion of fuel and an oxidizer into the missile before it can be fired, a more time-consuming and cumbersome process.
What makes solid-fuel missiles advantageous? Cheong Seong-chang, the director of the Centre for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute, explains that preparing a liquid-fuel missile for launch is akin to refuelling a car, which takes time. Additionally, once a liquid-fuel missile is ready, it must be launched within a short timeframe. In contrast, solid-fuel missiles can be stored and maintained.
Solid-fuel missiles offer swifter deployment and possess an advantage in immediate launch capability, according to Hirokazu Matsuno, Japan’s top government spokesman. He suggests that the recent test appears to be of the same solid-fuel ICBM that North Korea previously fired in April.
Are North Korean solid-fuel ICBMs currently operational? Images from both the April and July launches depict the missile’s exhaust plume, indicative of the characteristic dirty and smoky appearance produced by solid propellant.
Han Kwon-hee, a member of the Missile Strategy Forum, explains, “The shape of the flame aligns with that of solid-fueled missiles, as demonstrated by the long white smoke emerging from the propellant seconds after lift-off.”
Based on technical similarities observed between the launches, the second test aimed to verify and certify the accuracy and precision of the Hwasong-18.
While North Korea’s liquid-fueled ICBMs have undergone repeated testing, their trajectory has been lofted, differing from how they would be employed in real-life scenarios. Consequently, questions remain regarding their actual performance.
Nevertheless, North Korea’s perception of what constitutes an operational weapon system may differ from that of other nations. Therefore, the new solid-fuel missile might be considered operational, even though other militaries would require additional testing for such a designation.
Which other countries possess solid-fuel missiles? Most nations initially adopt liquid-fuel missile technology before striving to acquire advanced solid-fuel missiles.
However, it is important to note that not all advanced militaries exclusively rely on solid-fuel missiles.
The United States deploys solid-fuel ICBMs and SLBMs (submarine-launched ballistic missiles), while Russia and China continue to utilize large liquid-fueled missiles, according to experts.
South Korea possesses the technical capability for solid-fuel missiles and has some in its arsenal. However, their range is limited to covering the Korean peninsula, as stated by Kim Jong-dae from the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies.
Does this represent a game-changer? North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, asserts that the Hwasong-18 solid-fuel ICBM will “radically enhance” the country’s nuclear counterattack capabilities. Experts suggest that it could indeed alter the security dynamics on the Korean peninsula.
South Korea’s self-defence strategy relies partially on the Kill Chain pre-emptive strike system, allowing Seoul to launch a pre-emptive attack in the face of an imminent North Korean threat. The Hwasong-18’s increased stealthiness could disrupt this pre-emptive strike formula. However, South Korea’s defence ministry dismisses concerns about this as “excessive worry.”
Nevertheless, if North Korea were to deploy solid-fuel ICBMs, it would signify a game-changing development in potential warfare, as noted by Kim from the Yonsei Institute.
He explains, “The South’s existing plan in case of a conflict with the North is to launch a pre-emptive strike and neutralize the North’s missile system after confirming signs of launch preparations. However, no such signs would be evident if the North Koreans were to employ solid-fuel missiles aimed at the South.”