Firing Off an S-200’s Missile Into South Korean Waters: Pyongyang’s Calculated Move Duped Seoul Badly

The announcement by the Republic of Korea (South Korean) Defence Military on November 9 that a North Korean missile fired across the two countries’ de facto maritime border had been identified, and had come from an S-200 air defence system, has been seen by analysts a sign of a successful ruse by Pyongyang which left many in its adversaries’ defence communities disappointed. Seven day prior North Korea carried out the largest series of missile launches in its history, with some estimates indicating that as many as 23 missiles were fired alongside over 100 artillery rounds in a show of force aimed at responding to mass U.S.-led aerial drills simulating a large scale attack. Of all the missiles fired, one unprecedentedly landed south of the inter-Korean maritime border, and was seen to have sent a strong signal to Seoul and Washington that Pyongyang had significant means to respond to threats with escalation. The landing of a missile just 60km off the South Korean coast, however, was also widely seen in the West and in South Korea to present a valuable opportunity to analyse North Korea’s latest missile technologies should the remains be recovered and studied.

North Korean missile classes which were involved in the November 2 show of force included enhanced derivatives of the Scud missile, which in North Korean service have been developed into state of the art weapons far removed from their original Cold War era Soviet origins. The missiles have benefitted from ranges over triple those of the Soviet Scud B, integrated far more precise guidance systems and make use of manoeuvrable re-entry vehicles for much enhanced survivability. Scud derivatives have nevertheless played a much diminished role, with newer solid fuelled ballistic missiles of fully indigenous origin forming a growing part of the arsenal and also being part of the latest large scale launch. While access to the remainder of a modernised older Scud-type missile would have been of significant benefit, recovery of one of the newer missile types such as the KN-23 or KN-24 near South Korea’s coast would have been an much greater boon to U.S. and South Korean intelligence collection efforts. Materials used in the body, the engine design and composition of the missiles’ fuel among several other aspects could have significantly benefitted efforts to determine how far North Korea’s defence sector had come, whether its missiles sourced any components from abroad, and whether the findings could shed light on any possibly countermeasures. The importance of understanding North Korea’s ballistic missiles is particularly high due to the country’s heavy reliance on these assets as an asymmetric means of compensating for its lack of modern combat aircraft. 

Rather than a ballistic missile North Korea was found to have fired a surface to air missile on a ballistic trajectory – something it had not done before – apparently with the specific intention of deceiving its adversaries and ensuring that the missile which landed near South Korea would be of no intelligence value. The S-200 system was received in the late 1980s, and is by far the longest ranged missile system North Korean has ever acquired from abroad for operational service. With a 300km engagement range against aircraft, it can fly considerably further if fired ballistically as it was. Furthermore, the massive missiles used by the system are larger than Scuds and most tactical ballistic missile designs meaning they could be easily mistaken as such. The S-200 was thus an ideal choice for a launch southwards.

Assessing the likely calculus behind the decision go fire the S-200, defence scholar and East Asian security expert A. B. Abrams noted: “while North Korea fired its modern and indigenous ballistic missiles much further out into the sea, an obsolete Soviet-supplied surface-to-air missile, which would provide no intelligence value to its adversaries, was chosen to be fired on a trajectory further south. This allowed Pyongyang to send a signal to Seoul and Washington while minimising the risks of compromising its missile programs… the S-200 system was an ideal choice.” Abrams highlighted that the S-200 is already operational in the armed forces of NATO members Bulgaria and Poland and has long since been compromised by Western intelligence agencies, meaning there is likely nothing to be learned at all from studying the remains of one of its missiles. North Korea’s own air defences, meanwhile, have progressed far past this Soviet system with new much more mobile and sophisticated long range anti aircraft systems such as the Pyongae-5 having shouldered a fast growing portion of the burden for guarding North Korean skies since around 2017. This modernisation and superseding of Soviet technologies has turned the S-200 from the cutting edge of North Korea’s defences, which it was a decade ago, to one that is now two generations behind and far surpassed in performance by its formidable indigenous successors.