North Korea's New Hwasong-18 ICBM: Flying High Thanks to Russia?

North Korea Missile
December 23, 2023 Topic: military Region: Asia Tags: North KoreaSouth KoreaHwasong-18Hwasong-15ICBM

North Korea's New Hwasong-18 ICBM: Flying High Thanks to Russia?

There is evidence to suggest Russia might be helping North Korea with its Hwasong-18 ICBM. What does that mean for Asian regional security? 

North Korea recently conducted a successful launch of what, for them, is the most sophisticated ICBM yet. The missile, designated the Hwasong-18 by Pyongyang, completed a flight that involved the system flying on a lofted trajectory that, if measured on a standard trajectory, would give it the range to target all of the United States.  

There has been much discussion about this launch, and with good reason. Key questions evolving around the Hwasong-18 include but are not limited to: how did the North Koreans develop this capability, was there in fact, outside assistance (most likely from the Russians), how is this more or less of a threat then what has until now been Pyongyang’s most successful ICBM (the Hwasong-15), and does this change the current balance of military forces on the Korean Peninsula? 

I believe it is essential to focus on these questions and address other issues surrounding its continued existence.

Here Comes the Hwasong-18

If one is to look at the Hwasong-18, it appears to be very much like the Russian Topol-M ICBM (SS-27 Mod 2).  According to Theodore Postol, writing for CSIS, this missile is very similar in appearance and dimensions to the aforementioned Russian missile, has similar flight trajectory data, and depending on exact capabilities, may be able to carry a similar payload. 

Further, the rather sudden addition of a solid-fuel ICBM in the North Korean arsenal, capable of successful launches almost from the beginning of its existence, does not seem likely. 

It is also unlikely that the North Koreans rolled out of bed one morning and suddenly came up with the sophisticated technology and engineering to build and launch a solid-fuel ICBM on their own.  Thus, any analyst who has been following North Korea since the genesis of its programs is likely to have the common sense to know that such technology was probably developed with the assistance of an outside entity.  Given the design and appearance of the missile, those outside entities were likely Russians, and it is doubtful that assistance to the North Koreans for this missile development was given without the Russian government’s approval.

Is more Russian assistance likely for this and other North Korean missile systems?  As I stated in an earlier essay for The National Interest , “…in recent months, Kim Jong-un visited Russia, where one of his key stops was a space launch facility. Reportedly, the Russians assisted the North Koreans with rocket engine challenges and may have even assisted with communications and command and control capabilities vital to launching and utilizing a satellite system in orbit.   We should not be surprised if this assistance continues and in fact increases in terms of scope, focus, and technology.” 

My quote was directly related to satellite technology, but why would the Russians not assist the North Koreans with their ballistic missile technology?  This is, as we all know, one of Kim Jong-eun’s highest priorities, and he likely will ask for this continued assistance as part of the payment for the massive weapons and ammunition shipments the DPRK is currently sending to Russia.

Earlier this week, the South Korean Defense Minister stated that "[N]orth Korea succeeded in flying a missile a long distance and developing a solid fuel missile, but it has not yet been verified whether it is capable of re-entering the atmosphere and accurately striking a target."  This is an interesting assessment, but the fact is that according to assessments by most analysts, the Hwasong-15 does have re-entry capability.  The Hwasong-18 also very likely has re-entry capability, and the only way to prove or disprove this is for the North Koreans to launch a missile with a nuclear payload to an empty spot in the ocean where it successfully detonates.  In the international community, nobody wants that, but prudent analysis brings us to the assessment that the Hwasong-18 does have re-entry capability.  There have been other assessments that this latest launch may mean the Hwasong-18 will be “operationally deployed.” North Korean rhetoric notwithstanding, there is no way to know that.  But what is almost inevitable is that we will see more launches of this system – and the more launches we see, the more capable North Korea’s engineers and rocket specialists will become in operating the Hwasong-18.

The Hwasong-18 ICBM Threat

Is this missile more of a threat than North Korea’s most reliable missile before it (the Hwasong-15)? 

The Hwasong-15 has proven to be a reliable missile since its launch in 2017.  The heavier Hwasong-17 has proven to be far less reliable in its tests. But it is important to note that what many analysts have stated are the key upgrades for the Hwasong-18 – faster loading because of solid fuel, fewer vehicles to deploy, and more accessible transportation via transporter-erector-launcher – may not be what makes this missile more of a threat. 

In fact, if this missile has at least several of the capabilities of the Russian Topol-M ICBM (SS-27 Mod 2), these capabilities will be a challenge to American missile defense.  As Postol from CSIS states, “[T]his missile is equipped to penetrate existing U.S. ballistic missile defenses with countermeasures and deliver multiple thermonuclear weapons to targets in the continental United States. A Hwasong-18 missile force will require the U.S. to consider additional concepts for missile defense including the use of airborne drone interceptors (“airborne patrol”).” 

Postol also acknowledges sophisticated decoy countermeasures and a sophisticated guidance system that the North Korean missile would have if the Russians shared this technology.  If the Hwasong-18 has even some of these capabilities, that would make it an upgrade over the Hwasong-15.  Liquid fuel missiles are still very mobile, and it is even possible that they could be fueled underground, safe from allied collection systems.  The North Koreans have always been very good at hiding launch patterns when they wanted to do so.

Does this change the current balance of forces on the Korean Peninsula?  It is certainly possible, given the technology observed thus far and upgrades that the Russians could easily pass to the North Koreans.  That said, if these capabilities are confirmed, the countermeasures that could be initiated by both South Korea and the United States would likely be quite rapid.

North Korea's Growing ICBM Arsenal Is a Clear Threat 

What does all of this mean?  North Korea has now shown us that they are determined to upgrade and modernize their ballistic missile force – both ICBMs and shorter-range missiles.  The game has changed significantly because, unlike any other time in Pyongyang’s ballistic missile history (even during the Cold War), we are likely to see large-scale technical support and military assistance from the Russians, mainly for two reasons: Russia’s desperation to get large amounts of military equipment and ammunition from the North Koreans, and Kim Jong-eun’s insatiable desire to continue to modernize and upgrade his ballistic missile force.  Thus, this is a story that continues to be written.

About the Author 

Dr. Bruce E. Bechtol Jr. is a professor of Political Science at Angelo State University. He is also the president of the International Council on Korean Studies and a fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies. The author of five books dealing with North Korea, his latest work is North Korean Military Proliferation in the Middle East and Africa.