Analysis – How North Korea could use a Pacific “firing range” to perfect its missiles

By Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – If North Korea carries out its threat to turn the Pacific Ocean into a “firing range,” it would allow the isolated and nuclear-armed state to make technological advances while signaling its military resolve, analysts said.

North Korea launched two short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) on Monday after firing a massive Hwasong-15 ICBM on Saturday.

Like most North Korean tests, these missiles all fell into the Sea of ​​Japan, known in both Koreas as the East Sea.

But Kim Yo Jong, leader Kim Jong Un’s powerful sister, on Monday threatened to go further, saying North Korea’s use of the Pacific as a “firing range” would depend on the behavior of US forces.

“These types of tests would have technical value and convey the credibility of their nuclear deterrent,” said Ankit Panda of the US-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

So far, North Korea has fired three variants of the Hwasong-12 medium-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) over Japan and into the Pacific Ocean. The last such launch, in October 2022, flew a record distance for any North Korean missile.

There have been no reports of damage or casualties from launches over Japan, but international organizations have criticized Pyongyang for conducting such tests without warning to civilian aircraft or ships.

North Korea has never launched an ICBM on anything other than a lofty trajectory that sends missiles high into space, rather than the lower and longer trajectories they would follow in real-world operations.

Pyongyang says it is doing so out of concern for the safety of its neighbors.

“This is a worrying and credible threat: North Korea is likely attempting to technically validate its long-range missiles through testing in the North Pacific, as it has done with the Hwasong-12 in the past,” Panda said.

The Hwasong-15 and Hwasong-17 ICBMs are prime candidates for this type of test, he added.


Officials in South Korea and the United States said it was unclear whether North Korea had perfected reentry technology that would protect a nuclear warhead during its fiery descent through the atmosphere.

Kim Yo Jong referred to this debate in her statement Monday, denying claims by some experts that footage taken from Japan showed a reentry vehicle stalling in flight.

“We have satisfactory technology and capabilities and will now focus on increasing the crowd,” she wrote.

Full-range testing in the Pacific would allow North Korea to subject ICBM reentry vehicles to atmospheric stresses and aggregate thermal stresses that would be more realistic compared to high-altitude trajectories, Panda said.

North Korea’s ICBM technology is coming of age, and perfecting reentry vehicles would increase the threat and pressure on the United States, said Shin Seung-ki, a research fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyzes (KIDA).

“If this technology is successfully implemented through the test, they will be able to attack the US mainland, which is the purpose of their ICBMs,” he said.

North Korea can likely receive telemetry from its short-range and loft missile tests, but it’s unclear if they could collect data from long-range weapons tests, said Markus Schiller, a Europe-based missile expert.

“They should be able to collect flight data as long as the missile is in sight,” he said. “Once it’s out of range or over the horizon, North Korea will be blind.”

Schiller said he is not aware of any tracking vessels that North Korea is positioning along the trajectory and at the moment it has no data relay satellites.


South Korean officials are not wrong in stating that the North’s reentry vehicles are unproven, but those claims also lure Pyongyang into conducting the necessary tests to prove its capabilities, said George William Herbert, an associate professor at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies and missile advisor , said on Twitter.

To get his point across, North Korea could resort to conducting a full-scale test and detonating a live nuclear warhead over the ocean, he said.

In 2017, North Korea’s foreign minister hinted that leader Kim Jong Un was considering testing “an unprecedented hydrogen bomb” over the Pacific in response to US President Donald Trump’s threat to “completely destroy” the country.

“The so-called Juche Bird Live Weapons Test is a hilarious joke until the day it’s actually fired, at which point it becomes a major geopolitical incident and radioactive fallout disaster, even if it ‘safely’ detonates high above water.” said Herbert. “We shouldn’t encourage it by belittling their abilities.”

North Korea has completed preparations for the possible resumption of nuclear explosions in the underground tunnels at its nuclear test site for the first time since 2017, according to officials in Seoul and Washington.

With or without an atmospheric test, North Korea would likely conduct multiple full-range ICBM tests and use its underground tests to perfect smaller but more powerful nuclear warheads, said Yoji Koda, a former admiral in Japan’s Maritime Self Defense Force.

If those two conditions are met, North Korea will have fully demonstrated its deterrence capability against the United States, he said.

(Reporting by Josh Smith; Additional reporting by Minwoo Park and Soo-hyang Choi; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)


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