Analysis, Nuclear Weapons

The Transfer of a Russian ICBM to North Korea?

Russia’s multi-warhead intercontinental ballistic missile Topol-M (SS-27 Mod 2) and North Korea’s recently test-fired “Hwasong-18” (right). (Russia MoD and KCNA)

Key Findings

  • North Korea’s Hwasong-18 ICBM and its July 12, 2023 successful launch is likely the result of technical cooperation sourced to Russia.
  • Unlike the North Korean liquid propellant ICBMs which North Korea has demonstrated over the past few years, the sudden appearance of a solid fueled ICBM occurred only months after a horizontal engine test.  This test demonstrated that the Hwasong-18 can deliver substantial payloads to intercontinental ranges along with decoy canister countermeasures.  The sudden appearance of these advanced capabilities is difficult to explain without cooperation from the Russian government and its scientists.
  • The reported physical dimensions and flight trajectory data of the Hwasong-18 is nearly identical to that of the Russian Topol-M ICBM (SS-27 Mod 2).
  • This 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”).
  • A transfer of this ICBM or its related technology from Russia would violate an unwritten international protocol to both refrain from and prevent transferring nuclear strike capabilities to other parties.
  • The July 2023 visit by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to DPRK to attend the 70th anniversary of the Korean war armistice, and the personal audience with Kim Jong-un, is only the latest manifestation of growing Russian-DPRK ties that include the transfer of munitions in support of Russia’s war in Ukraine and Russian food and energy transfers to the North in return. This potential transfer of the Topol-M missile or its technology would take cooperation between Moscow and Pyongyang against the U.S. and Indo-Pacific allies to a new and more dangerous level.

The Hwasong-18 and the Topol-M ICBM

On July 25, 2023 Russia’s Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu, landed in Pyongyang.  He was met at his plane by his North Korean counterpart, Kang Sun Nam, and the next day, he met with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un. 

The Russian Defense Ministry simultaneously announced that one purpose of Shoigu’s visit was to “help strengthen Russian-North Korean military ties … in the development of cooperation between the two countries.” 

What has so far been unrecognized in the West, is that this meeting is only one indicator of how far beyond previously forbidden political boundaries Russia has gone with this new initiative.

The real issue is a radical departure from past political practice by Russia if it has chosen to transfer to North Korea an advanced 50-ton solid propellant ICBM, the Topol-M, also known as the SS-27. 

The key concern is that unlike the North Korean liquid propellant ICBMs we have seen over the last few years, this particular ICBM could not possibly have come into the hands of the North Koreans without the full support and cooperation of the Russian government.   In addition, North Korea could not maintain and operate Topol-M ICBMs without substantial cooperation and training from the Russian government and its scientists.  As such, the sudden appearance of the Hwasong-18 in North Korea cannot be ignored as simply “business as usual.”

The Topol-M can deliver multiple thermonuclear bombs to the continental United States, and since North Korea has demonstrated in nuclear underground tests that it has thermonuclear weapons, it now has the ability to deliver these thermonuclear bombs to the continental United States.  Further, its new ICBM, called the Hwasong-18 by North Korea, is fully capable of carrying and deploying multiple bombs and decoy countermeasures that will defeat any missile defenses currently being operated and modernized by the United States. 

What is also likely, but not yet known for sure, is whether the guidance system on the Hwasong-18 also provides it with sufficient accuracy, perhaps a few thousand feet (roughly 300 to 400 meters) to allow North Korea to target U.S. cities with sufficient accuracy to assure the destruction of city centers.

Similarities in capabilities and dimensions

The diameter of the first stage is about 2.2 m (see side-by-side photos above), as identified by careful studies of films of a ground test in North Korea of the missile’s first stage on December 15, 2022.  North Korea announced that the first stage motor has a thrust of about 140 tons, which is consistent with the observed acceleration rate in the videos of Hwasong-18 shortly after its first stage ignition at launch. 

Assuming the estimate of a 2.2 m diameter for the first stage is correct, the ratios of dimensions as determined in the side-by-side photographs derived from the July 12 test indicates the Hwasong-18 is slightly longer than 22 m, which is essentially the same length as that of the Topol-M.

About two weeks prior to Russian Defense Minister Shoigu’s visit, on July 12, North Korea launched a Hwasong-18 on a near vertical trajectory to 3,750 miles (6000 kilometers).   The full flight time from launch to impact was reportedly 74 minutes, but the important demonstration in this flight was the decoy canister (in this particular case, probably containing chaff to mask warheads from early warning radars) released at an altitude of roughly 460 to 480 kilometers, shortly after the third stage burned out.

The release of this canister would have been readily observable by South Korean, Japanese, and U.S. high-resolution X-band intelligence radars in Japan and South Korea and would have been an immediate indicator to Western intelligence of on-board missile defense countermeasure systems, in addition to multiple warhead capabilities.

Unpowered third stage of the Hwasong-18 third stage releasing a canister that could later deploy ant-missile defense countermeasures. (Rodong Sinmun)

Simulations of the near vertical flight trajectory flown by the Hwasong-18 indicate that its capabilities very closely match those of the Russian Topol-M.

Since the full payload of the Hwasong-18 (Topol-M) is about 2500 pounds, it is easily able to carry several warheads with yields of hundreds of kilotons.  These demonstrated characteristics of the Hwasong-18 closely match the characteristics of the Topol-M described in the open literature and confirmed by comparisons with ICBMs like the Minuteman III.  Estimates indicate that the North Korean demonstration test was performed with a payload weight of roughly 70% of full payload.

Trajectories showing the range-capability of the Hwasong-18 on its vertical trajectory with a 70% payload and with a full payload of 2500 pounds are shown in the graph below.  The range chosen for this ICBM trajectory with full payload is roughly 11,000 km, the distance between Pyongyang and Washington, D.C. Also shown is a trajectory of 20,000 km range, which assumes the same 70% payload flown on the demonstration test of July 12.

These trajectories show the exceptional flexibility of the Hwasong-18 for carrying large payloads of warheads and missile defense countermeasures to many different ranges of strategic significance.

Trajectories that can be flown by the Hwasong-18 as determined by the demonstrated trajectory flown in the July 12, 2023 near-vertical flight demonstration.

Implications for the U.S.

The implications of this potential transfer of strategic nuclear-strike capabilities by Russia or its scientists to North Korea are obvious and politically far-ranging. 

First, if true, it would appear that Russia will have broken an unwritten international protocol to not provide nuclear strike capabilities to states that potentially pose a significant security threat to other nations, in particular the United States.

Second, the United States currently has commitments to defend South Korea and Japan in the case of North Korean aggression against either or both nations.  An important part of this U.S. commitment is maintaining the confidence of the two allies that the United States will stand by them in a time of crisis.

The new North Korean ICBM capability significantly enhances the threat to the United States mainland with a nuclear attack if the United States were to intervene in a crisis.

This is not unlike the dilemma that confronted the U.S. and its allies during the Cold War – would the United States trade Washington for Berlin?  

North Korea’s objective is to threaten the U.S. so that South Korea would not trust the U.S. commitment to come to its assistance.

Although North Korea is not suicidal and understands that the United States would destroy it in response to an attack, this development still has very far-ranging implications for U.S. national security policy.

For example, is it possible that Russia gave these missiles to North Korea as a warning to the United States that things are getting out-of-hand between the two nations?  Is it an indicator of a new type of hostile actions by Russia?  Is it an indicator of how much advanced strategic military technology that Russia is willing to share with North Korea?  Could the next step by Russia be a game-changing transfer of advanced air defenses to North Korea?

All of these questions, and many more, seem to now be in play. 

The current Topol-M (Hwasong-18) will be capable of overwhelming the long-range missile defense systems the United States has been building over the last more than 20 years.  It was designed from the beginning to be able to deploy large numbers of decoys, which are the bane of all current U.S. missile defenses. 

However, there is a missile defense concept that could be effective if deployed against North Korea.  This missile defense, we call the “airborne patrol”, takes advantage of the fact that North Korea is a small country and adjacent to the Sea of Japan, which provides a large area of adjacent international airspace over which drones can fly.

This different missile defense concept nullifies the decoy problem by destroying North Korean ICBMs while they are in powered flight.  The “airborne patrol” need not even be fully implemented to be of significant use within the context of North Korea.  In the case of a limited deployment, a very small number of interceptors carried by drones could be used to shoot down long-range ICBMs being tested by North Korea.

Currently, North Korea would have to flight-test any long-range ICBM to its full range. 

Although this is not technically demanding, it is essential for verification that a particular missile will be able to fly a trajectory where it tips over in order to place a payload on a long-range trajectory.  The flight test would also have to be on an ICBM trajectory, where the deployment of warheads and decoys could be monitored for anomalies by North Korean missile engineers.  The reentry of warheads would also have to be monitored in the target impact area, requiring the deployment and operation of a small fleet of specialized ships to observe the behavior of warheads as they reenter and move through the atmosphere.  While this different flight trajectory is not demanding relative to a near vertical trajectory, a nation could not have confidence that their missile could be used reliably unless they tested it on such a full trajectory.

One possibility that might be introduced through the UN, is an international sanction that permits South Korea, Japan, and the United States to shoot down any ICBMs being tested by North Korea.

A closely related possibility is for such a sanction to approve interference with North Korea’s ships that must be deployed in the ICBM impact area to monitor the final phases of its tests.

Ignoring the fact that current U.S. missile defenses have limited capability against the competent adversaries we now face, when we actually have a technically feasible missile defense like the airborne patrol that could work in East Asia, is irresponsible, ignoring technology and history – a repeat of the Maginot line of World War II.

At this time, we do not yet have any special insights into the wide-ranging, unpredictable and complex political implications of this singular but deeply disturbing development.  This should be a matter of greatest concern to the U.S. national security establishment.