North Korea Announces Massive Expansion in Nuclear Warhead Production: First Solid Fuelled ICBM Expected Following New Rocket Artillery Deliveries

Following a year of sustained high tensions with the United States, the North Korean leadership has announced plans to initiate a massive expansion in the production of nuclear warheads and the development of a new class of intercontinental range ballistic missile. Chairman of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party Kim Jong Un stressed that “overwhelming military power” was needed to defend his country against “our undoubted enemy” the United States, with which Pyongyang has been in a state of war since 1950. “Mass-producing tactical nuclear weapons” and initiating “an exponential increase of the country’s nuclear arsenal” would be the “main orientation” of North Korea’s military modernisation efforts in 2023, he elaborated. Alongside increases in the quantity of warheads, the country’s first military satellite and development of a new ICBM, both of which could serve as force multipliers for the nuclear arsenal, were highlighted as key priorities. The state run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) added that the satellite would be launched “at the earliest date possible,” and was in its final stages of development.

North Korea made significant strides in developing its space surveillance capabilities in 2022, as demonstrated by the attachment of surveillance equipment to strategic ballistic missiles the images from which were subsequently released. The country previously launched civilian satellites in the 2000s and early 2010s using Scud-derived rocket technologies, although its missile capabilities have expanded significantly since then raising speculation regarding what its new generation of satellite launch vehicles may look like. An “important final-stage test” of space reconnaissance equipment was carried out on December 18.

KCNA reported on December 16 that North Korea had carried out the test of a new solid fuel rocket engine, which is expected to power the country’s new generation of strategic ballistic missiles including new ICBMs capable of reaching the Untied States. The East Asian state developed an intercontinental range strike capability against the U.S. in 2017, at a time when the Donald Trump administration came close to initiating mass nuclear strikes on the country that were expected to cause millions of civilian casualties. The development of ICBMs was seen as key to taking American military options off the table at the time paving the way to an easing of tensions the folioing year. Solid fuelled ICBMs are currently relied on by China and the United States, with only Russia having been relatively slow to adopt them for its own strategic arsenal. Such missiles can be stored fully fuelled and have significantly shorter launch times, with the North Korean tactical missile arsenal and submarine launched missiles having begun to use solid fuel engines from the early-mid 2010s. Such capabilities are particularly critical since North Korea mounts its entire ICBM arsenal on road mobile launchers, rather than silos as China, the U.S. and Russia to for large portions of theirs, meaning the ability to deploy and fire quickly is particularly vital. Development of strategic solid fuelled ballistic missiles follows multiple significant developments in the country’s arsenal including the induction of hypersonic glide vehicles into service, which make Korean missiles mounting them considerably more difficult to intercept. North Korea is only the third country the world after China and Russia to field such vehicles, with the United States investing heavily in deploying similar vehicles for its own missiles. 

While announcing plans for the Korean strategic arsenal in 2023, Chairman Kim praised the defence industry’s successful delivery of 30 new 600mm rocket artillery systems, which he described as a “core offensive weapon” for its ability to engage assets across most of South Korea on short notice and with high precision. “We have declared our resolute will to respond with nuke for nuke and an all-out confrontation for an all-out confrontation,” he added. This follows changes in North Korean nuclear weapons doctrine announced in 2022 allowing for the tactical use of nuclear weapons, with the country’s rocket artillery systems being capable of mounting nuclear warheads. The KN-25 600mm artillery system, which boasts a 400km range, is the longest ranged weapon of its kind in the world fielded outside China, and has provided an asymmetric means of enhancing North Korean ground forces’ firepower to partially compensate for the ageing of its fleet of manned combat aircraft. Road mobile missile and artillery systems have played an increasingly key role in North Korean defence doctrine, ranging from artillery and rocket artillery systems of which the country fields the largest arsenal in the world, to increasingly sophisticated air defence platforms and ballistic and cruise missiles. New satellite communications and surveillance systems and increases in stocks of tactical nuclear warheads are expected to serve as key force multipliers for these arsenals.