North Korea Just Displayed Enough ICBMs to Overwhelm America’s Defences

During a military parade commemorating the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Army (KPA), the official name of North Korea’s armed forces, an unprecedentedly large arsenal of intercontinental range ballistic missiles (ICBMs) displayed as an apparent show of force aimed at the United States. Pyongyang and Washington have been officially at war for 73 years, with the successful development of multiple classes of ICBM, and of miniaturised thermonuclear warheads to arm them being a leading achievement of the past decade and providing the only means for launching major retaliatory strikes should the U.S. Military launch an attack on Korean territory. 12 launchers for latest ICBM class, the Hwasong-17, were driven through Kim Il Sung Square in central Pyongyang during the celebrations, with experts widely reporting afterwards that this arsenal would be sufficient to overwhelm the U.S. mainland’s missile defences – aside from the KPA’s deployments of other ICBM classes. The Ground Based Midcourse Defence system protecting the United States has long been relied on as a defence against possible Korean strikes, with the KPA being the only body to field an arsenal aimed at America – but small enough that there was thought to be a realistic chance of interception. The GMD deploys only 44 anti ICBM interceptors, with three considered necessary to reliably neutralise each incoming warhead – although use of decoys and other countermeasures could disrupt this. With each Hwasong-17 at conservative estimates carrying four independently targetable reentry vehicles, meaning a total of 48 vehicles for the arsenal seen in Kim Il Sung Square, the GMD system will be overwhelmed should all be fired. 

North Korea accelerated production of miniaturised warheads and ICBMs in 2018, with estimates for the number of warheads varying widely from around 60 to well over 100. A New Years address on January 1 2023 announced the initiation of “an exponential increase of the country’s nuclear arsenal” would be the “main orientation” of KPA modernisation efforts in that year. Satellite footage from mid 2020 accordingly showed steps towards construction of a new nuclear reactor which could facilitate a major expansion in the production of fissile materials for the nuclear arsenal and allow it to be expanded more quickly. In parallel to enlargement of its nuclear arsenal, the KPA has also invested in making its delivery vehicles less vulnerable to interception by American and allied air defences. This has included development of solid fuelled missiles with shorter launch cycles for both tactical and strategic uses, making them much more difficult to destroy on the ground, as well as missiles with semi ballistic depressed trajectories which have proven impossible for the American AEGIS defence system to even detect when tested. The country also began flight testing of hypersonic glide vehicles in September 2021 for medium range ballistic missiles, with the possibility that as a next step such glide vehicles could be integrated onto ICBMs. 

The ability to strike the American mainland is highly valued by Pyongyang, largely due to the influence of the historical memory of the Korean War, during which Korean population centres were successively erased from the map by American firebombing raids while the KPA lacked any means of retaliation. An estimated 20-30 percent of North Korea’s population died in the three year conflict with the U.S., which saw Washington come close on multiple occasions to launching nuclear attacks which were widely advocated for by figures in the leadership. The U.S. came close to launching attacks subsequently under the Johnson, Nixon, Clinton, Obama and Trump administrations, with the last in 2017 having seriously considered initiating mass nuclear strikes that were expected to kill millions of Koreans across the country. Successful development of nuclear-tipped ICBMs by the KPA, first demonstrated in 2017, was considered key to taking American military options off the table