While initial assessments suggested that North Korea tested a Hwasong-14 (HS-14) intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) during its record-breaking launch on November 28 , statements from Pyongyang assert that the weapon was a completely new missile called the HS-15.
Very little information is available about the new ballistic missile save for the official statement from the North Korean regime. However, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) took pains to emphasize the weapon’s payload—particularly its capability to carry “super-heavy” warheads —and its ability to strike anywhere inside the United States.
“The test-fire of intercontinental ballistic rocket Hwasong-15, newly developed under the political resolution and strategic decision of the Workers' Party of Korea, was successfully carried out,” reads a statement from the North Korean government .
“The ICBM Hwasong-15 type weaponry system is an intercontinental ballistic rocket capable of carrying super-heavy warhead and hitting the whole mainland of the U.S. This system has much greater advantages in its tactical and technological specifications and technical characteristics than Hwasong-14 whose test-fire was conducted in July last, and it is the most powerful ICBM which meets the goal of the completion of the rocket weaponry system development set by the DPRK.”
The statement also touted the accuracy of the weapon and its ability to precisely control the missile course in-flight.
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“Particularly, the accuracy of hitting targets by posture control and speed correction in the mid-flight section, accuracy in operation of high-thrust engine to which propulsion vector control is applied and the engine of high specific thrust was confirmed, and the accuracy of design integers of subsequent guided and stabilization systems was verified,” reads another North Korean government statement.
The statement also mentioned that North Korea tested the weapon from a new mobile transporter erector launcher (TEL) vehicle—which eliminates the option of destroying the missile on its launch pad or silo.
“Also confirmed were mobile and hoisting capabilities and operational reliability of launching system of the nine-axis self-propelled launching vehicle newly developed and completed,” the statement reads .
North Korea also emphasized that the missile’s reentry vehicle—which carries the nuclear warhead—works. Western analysts and the Pentagon were uncertain if the North Koreans had perfected that critical technology.
“The test-fire also re-confirmed the control and stabilization technology, phase-separation and start-up technology and the safety of warhead in the atmospheric reentry environment that had already been confirmed,” the statement reads.
Analysts are uncertain about the veracity of the North Korean statements, but if Pyongyang’s description of the HS-15 is accurate, the missile is very large—as suggest by the nine-axle TEL vehicle. However, while there is no hard data available, some inferences can be made based on the available information.
“Without pics we are just going by the various KCNA statements,” missile expert Vipin Narang, an associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told The National Interest . “The one released this morning focused on higher thrust engines, either for the first or the second stage, or both. If true, this would suggest a larger version of the HS-14 with higher thrust engines, so a variant that is significant enough to warrant a new designation.”
However, there are many other possibilities—some of which are could be very significant.
“There are other possibilities, including solid fuel in either second or first stage, or both (a mobile solid fuel missile would be very significant indeed),” Narang said.
“Without more data or pictures, I don’t think we know for sure what it is exactly. More broadly, though, the demonstrated range should leave no doubt that North Korea can hold the entire continental United States at risk. Even if that range was with a lighter dummy warhead, a nuclear warhead wouldn’t attenuate the range enough to give comfort to those who want to believe that North Korea cannot target New York or D.C.”
The only potentially positive development is that North Korea seems to be indicating that its ICBMs and nuclear weapons are solely for deterrence.
“The development and advancement of the strategic weapon of the DPRK are to defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country from the U.S. imperialists' nuclear blackmail policy and nuclear threat, and to ensure the peaceful life of the people, and therefore, they would not pose any threat to any country and region as long as the interests of the DPRK are not infringed upon,” the North Korean government said in its statement.
“This is our solemn declaration.”
Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest . You can follow him on Twitter: @Davemajumdar.