The Korean People’s Army (KPA), the official name of the armed forces of North Korea, unveiled what is thought to be their first solid fuelled intercontinental range ballistic missile to mar the service’s 75th anniversary on February 8. This followed months of speculation that such a weapon would be prepared for entry into service in the near future, and reports in December 2022 that a solid fuel engine for an ICBM was in advanced testing stages. Although the KPA is thought to already field three ICBM classes, the first two of which demonstrated the range needed to deliver thermonuclear warheads to the American mainland in 2017, and the third the Hwasong-17 which was first tested in 2021, new missiles with solid fuel composites will present a number of complementary capabilities. Their most notable advantage is their ability to be stored fully fuelled and thus be deployed with much shorter launch times.
Solid fuelled missiles’ much shorter launch times would be highly valued since they, like all North Korean ICBMs, deploy from mobile transporter erector launchers, which would be more vulnerable to U.S. or allied airstrikes if remaining stationary for too long. Although the U.S. Air Force notably struggled to tackle mobile ballistic missiles during the Gulf War, despite Iraq using liquid fuelled Scud missiles with very long launch cycles, advances in American surveillance and precision strike capabilities have been in a race with improvements in North Korean missile technologies since the mid 1990s. The KPA has deployed canister-based solid fuelled ICBMs in the past, most notably the medium range Pukkuksong-2 first unveiled in 2017, and has brought multiple solid fuelled tactical missile designs into service since then.
Although the Hwasong-17 took centre stage at the latest KPA parade, where its predecessors the Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15 had been the most prominent features at the preceding 70 year anniversary parade in February 2018, the appearance of a solid fuelled missile has been highlighted by a number of experts as a more significant feature. Development of solid fuelled ICBMs follows multiple other recent breakthroughs in North Korea’s missile capabilities, including testing of hypersonic glide vehicle tipped missiles from September 2021 which placed the KPA among the three world leaders in developing such technologies. Pyongyang has highly prized the ability to strike American military facilities beyond the Korean Peninsula for decades, largely due to the influence of the historical memory of the Korean War during which American air power eradicated population centres, infrastructure and the irrigation system across the country. This was a primary contributor to the millions of casualties suffered among the East Asian state’s population, and the Korean People’s Army was at the time wholly unable to retaliate. The perceived need for a deterrent has been repeatedly reinforced since, as Washington has come close attacking on North Korea several times including under both the Obama and Trump administrations in 2016 and 2017. The latter drew up plans for mass nuclear attacks that were expected to kill millions of its population. The demonstration of a retaliatory strike capability against American cities with nuclear weapons is considered to have been a primary factor altering Washington’s calculus and largely taking American military options off the table. The strengthening of this capability has remained a key priority since it was first attained close to six years ago.