North Korea in media around the world is portrayed as a poor country which is true, but often it’s used to conflate as the North being very backwards and technologically inferior compared to its neighbours as North Koreans lack of monetary wealth is being used to generalize and stereotype them as being a brainwashed nation that is portrayed as a backward one.
This mindset of it being an inferior state as it is being labeled lead to chronic underestimation of North Korea and their people as for example when the launch of Unha-3 space launch vehicle in early 2012 carrying Kwangmyongsong-3 was third unsuccessful in a row, this led to claims that North Korea would not have an intercontinental ballistic missile in the next five years. Previously North Korea had unsuccessful launches in 1998 and 2009. In comparison South Korea also had unsuccessful launches with their own Naro rocket as was in 2009 and 2010 with the first stage designed and produced in Russia. North Korea has successfully launched Kwangmyongsong-3-2 satellite into low earth orbit on a domestic rocket in 2012 on 12th of December in 2012.
North Korea successfully launched a satellite into orbit before South Korea which had first success in 2013 on 30th of January. Unha series of space launch vehicles made by North Korea were labeled as ballistic missiles with rocket launches labeled as ballistic missile tests. Later one of the analysts retracted analysis as Unha-3 being a potential ICBM in 2015 and in the history of space programs there is no space launch vehicle that was converted to ICBM as they are inefficient in that role as that also evident on design of Unha-3 series of SLVs. Another successful launch by North Korea was on 7th of February in 2016. North Korea previously stated in 2016 that it had done static engine tests of an 80 ton force liquid fuel rocket engine that was done two weeks before South Korea did its own 75tf engine test.
On 18th of March in 2017, North Korea tests a new liquid fuel engine that went onto be used on a series of ballistic missiles such as the intermediate range/IRBM Hwasong-12 due to various similarities with RD-250 that was designed and produced in Soviet Union that used it to propel largest liquid fueled ICBM in the world, R-36 that NATO designated it SS-18 Satan which later some were converted / repurposed into SLVs under designation Tsyklon. Hwasong-12 replaced Hwasong-10 that was unsuccessful and based on Soviet R-27 liquid fuel submarine launched ballistic missile powered by 4D10 engine.
Intelligence community in the United States came to consensus that North Korea is capable of producing such an engine, such as the March 18 Revolution used in Hwasong-12 and later Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile with successful launch on 4th of July in 2017 with capability to reach continental mainland of the United States of America on 24th of July. Again, the intelligence community in the United States of America came to the consensus that North Korea can manufacture on their own an RD-250 type of liquid fuel engine that is in use by Hwasong-12 and Hwasong-14 ballistic missiles.
North Korea conducted the launch of Hwasong-15 on 28th of November in 2017 that ranges the entire United States and consensus among experts and analysts is only few countries are capable of producing missiles of such size and that has twice the thrust of Hwasong-14. Hwasong-15 is a more advanced design that does not utilize verniers for steering unlike Hwasong-12 and 14, instead its two nozzles are gimballed that doesn’t require far less fuel efficient verniers hence contributed to improvement of fuel efficiency and extension of range.
Exactly one later on 28 November in 2018, South Korea conducted a launch of a component for their Korean Space Launch Vehicle known as Test Launch Vehicle that was used to test a variant of Korean Rocket Engine 075 that is stated as 75 ton force. According to professional geologist turned rocket analyst Norbert Brugge whose worked is widely referenced among analysts and experts, engine used in Hwasong-15 has 88 ton force thrust in space vacuum compared to KRE 075 used in TLV of KSLV has 73 ton force thrust in space vacuum with burn time of former being 189 and latter 143.5 seconds for total impulse difference over 50%.
On 10th of October in 2020, North Korea unveiled a new ICBM much larger than Hwasong-15 which is dubbed as Hwasong-16 by analysts and experts, official designation is unknown and estimates of its dimensions vary with speculation of being able to deliver up to 3 ton payload to entirety of United States and that 2 to 3 RD-250 engines powering the missile with former being comparable to R-26 and latter to R-36. Norbert Brugge speculated two years ago that North Korea would develop a Medium Lift SLV and nearly a year ago came to the conclusion that there would be a new ICBM as Hwasong-16 and used in development of the MLSLV program. Brugge expects 1st stage of Hwasong-16 used as 1st stage with Hwasong-15, its first stage used as 2nd stage and its 2nd stage as 3rd stage in what he dubs as Unha-X which would be competitive with KSLV-2 when it comes to inserting of satellites into LEO.
North Korean military is and portrayed by news media around the world as having inferior equipment, outgunned and being behind technologically while the South is labeled superior. Problem with such a portrayal is that it is not factual and relies on bigotry of assumptions as reporting on North Korea in news media around the world lacks basic journalism work ethics.
As example is North Korea having in its inventory Russian 9M133 Kornet that is one of most advanced infantry portable SACLOS type anti-tank guided missile using laser beam riding guidance that can penetrate 1300mm of rolled homogeneous armor equivalent after explosive reactive armor and more if there isn’t ERA as it has tandem warhead configuration. Syria provided North Korea examples of 9M133 and funded reverse engineering of the missile before 2006 as examples of North Korean copies of the missiles were provided to Hezbollah before 2006 Israeli-Lebanese war as 9M133 copies were used to destroy Israeli armor such as Merkava. Most advanced ATGM that South Korea had was 9K115-2 Metis-M which is inferior in penetration capabilities, range and guidance by being wire guided hence North Korea had for roughly a decade a more advanced ATGM until AT-K1 Raybolt was being introduced into service of the Southern military in 2017 yet even recently retired lieutenant general admits in 2020 that South Korean armor is ill-equipped to defend from 9M133 Kornet.
This lead to development of AT-4MLB which adapted technology from 9M133 as a low cost SACLOS laser beam riding ATGM which were demonstrated to Myanmar’s military attache in 2008 and later this weapon was further developed for which is known as Bulsae-2 that was sold to Hamas which they used it to destroy Merkava tank just outside Gaza strip.
On 4th of May in 2019, North Korea tested a new missile similar to Russian 9K720 Iskander and South Korean Hyunmoo-2, first publicly shown over a year ago in a military parade on the 70th anniversary of Korean People’s Army and with official designation unknown it is referred as KN-23 with KN stands for Korea, North. This missile has a maximum altitude of 50km and demonstrated a maximum range of 690km with hypersonic velocity of Mach 6.9 maximum along a quasi-ballistic / aero-ballistic trajectory, making it comparable to 9K720 Iskander-M.
Japan could not keep track of KN-23 and there were public expressions of insecurity in South Korean media because of the fact that North Korea demonstrated advanced ballistic missile capabilities of KN-23 that rival or outdo that of Hyunmoo-2 and questioning domestic capability to intercept KN-23 that is comparable to Russian 9K720 Iskander-M. Reactionary articles published by Yonhap, news outlet owned by South Korean government with military authorities sources behind anonymity, for example it is stated that South has larger arsenal of attack and interceptor missiles than that of North as they mention Hyunmoo-2, Haeseong cruise missiles and Taurus air launch missiles while omitting vast array of advanced guided multiple rocket launchers that North has in its arsenal. Also claims that South can intercept KN-23 as according to experts without mention the name of these alleged while elsewhere experts such as Elleman do warn that KN-23 flies in between the gaps of PAC-3 and THAAD which makes it difficult to intercept, PAC-3 longest range interception is against air breathing targets such as fixed wing aircraft and cruise missiles, another are tactical ballistic missiles which have range of below 300km such as MGM-140 ATACMS and OTR-21 Tochka while KN-23 has over double the range with nearly 700km.
Another curious example, again from anonymous military sources hiding behind anonymity assert that Hyunmoo-2 already has capability to conduct quasi-ballistic trajectory maneuver and that it was developed before the North did so with KN-23. Article from 2017 by Joongang Daily, independent news agency, has speculated that Hyunmoo-2 was derived from a lesser known American project involving Pershing-2 missile that is known as Pershing-2 RR which stands for Reduced Range that was cancelled due to missile treaties and end of Cold War. Pershing-2 is a medium range missile with two stages and a detachable warhead that can maneuver in a terminal phase with its terminal guidance system while Hyunmoo-2 A and B model is single stage ballistic missile with a warhead that can’t separate from the main body of the missile. Hyunmoo-2C model is one most close to Pershing-2 RR in design with evident detachable warhead which implies maneuvering during final phase with terminal guidance. This disqualifies it as a quasi ballistic missile because it is the warhead and not the missiles that maneuvers and at that only in terminal phase.
North Korea has tested the concept of maneuverable reentry vehicle with KN-18 that is Hwasong-6 equipped with such a warhead in May of 2017, about a month before South Korea tested their Hyunmoo-2C for the first time in June.
Another edge that North Korea has is the longer range of their guided multiple rocket launcher systems that are known as KN-09 and KN-25 due to official designations not being known. GMRLS KN-09 was first fired in 2014 when its 300mm diameter guided rocket demonstrated range of 190km and in 2016 it was extended to 200km which outdoes South Korean GMRLS K239 Chunmoo at best has 160km range with 239mm guided rockets. North Korea upgraded older 240mm MRLS with longer range unguided rockets from 60 to 70km which isn’t much behind the 239mm unguided rocket for K239 Chunmoo that has 80km range which Yonhap stated as maximum range of the system without mentioning if its for guided or unguided.
Then there is KN-25 with 600mm diameter guided rocket that has a range of roughly 400km with heavy warhead 300kg to 400kg and was first tested on 31st of July 2019. KN-25 outdoes tactical ballistic missiles such as MGM-140 ATACMS in capability of payload range delivery. Another is KN-24 similar to ATACMS while being larger, demonstrated a range of over 400km and estimated warhead of 400kg to 500kg warhead, first test was on 10th of August in 2019.
Involving air defense such as man-portable air defense system, South Korea has in operation 9K310 Igla-1 which it got from Russia as a form of debt repayment with 750 missiles and 50 launchers were delivered to the South. North Korea since 1970s produced 9K32 Strela-2 and in 1980s 9K36 Strela-3 from Soviet Union and American FIM-92A Stinger MANPADS, along in the 1990s as a recipient of 9K310 Igla-1 with 1250 missiles delivered to North Korea, those were all reverse engineered and produced by North Koreans. South Korea producing in 2005 their own MANPADS known as Chiron for export and domestically as KP-SAM Shin-Gung while heat seeker on missile wasn’t domestically made until 2014, hence imported.
North Korea unveiled Pon’gae-5 surface to air system similar to Russian S-300P series on 10th of October in 2010 during military parade, it demonstrated range of 150km in 2011 with research and development of this SAM was finished in 2017. Design and performance of it is inline with S-300PMU1 and S-300PMU2 Favorit which is equivalent in anti-aircraft and ballistic missile defense to the American MIM-104 Patriot PAC-2 that is in use by South Korea.
Exactly a decade later after unveiling long range SAM Pon’gae-5, a new short range SAM system was paraded which is similar to Russian Tor with considerably greater performance that of South Korean K-SAM Pegasus in range and altitude of interception of aircrafts, Pegasus is based on French Crotale-NG. Pegasus had no modernization program, still relies on DOS operating system, Intel’s 286 8bit CPU along vacuum tubes involving some radar components compared to North Korea which deployed all digital processing and modern radar of passive phased array type on Pon’gae-5 which is also evident on Tor-like systems.
North Korean Kumsong-3 anti-ship missile is similar to Russian Kh-35 which demonstrated range of 240km and use of infrared thermal cameras such as Kh-35U during final phase with waypoint guidance which indicates possible use as a land attack cruise missile. North Korea had been developing cruise missiles in the 1990s and had in possession Kh-35 in the 1990s. South Korean SSM-700K Haeseong cruise missile has a range of 150km which is lower than North’s Kumsong-3 and announced in 2020 to extend the range of SSM-700K to over 200km. There is doubt in South Korea over the ability to intercept Kumsong-3 as K-SAAM Sea Bow defense systems for South Korean ships did not perform well against Kh-35 type targets. There is mention that SSM-700K also has an air launched version with range claim of 250km yet there is no source to confirm such, on other hand there is speculation by intelligence community in the United States that North Korea has air launched cruise missile program since 1980s which evolved from Styx to use of Kh-35 in air launched configuration which is classified as KN-05, Kumsong-3 being air launched would certainly have longer range.
North Korean ballistic missile and nuclear weapons program gets almost exclusive attention unlike its conventional military which is cause of perception that is detached from reality on state of Korean People’s Army and its conventional capabilities as in South Korea there is now worry about North Korea focusing on conventional forces even more while admitting yet subtly in denial involving missile technology that North has parity and even edge over South. Western experts also note North’s focus on improving their conventional capabilities further and I have wrote article that gives a summary of what has been shown during October 10th parade on 75th anniversary of Workers Party of Korea along analysis of system that may be a long range cruise missile comparable to Kh-55 or RK-55 in class of BGM-109 Tomahawk.
North Korea had some technological partnerships with some countries such as Syria while facing hypocritical United Nations sanctions enacted by the Security Council and its double standards involving ballistic missiles and nuclear energy while ignoring American blackmail that led to North Korea developing nuclear weapons and pursuing intercontinental missiles. Pursuit of modernizing its conventional forces partially stems from the fact that South Korea is occupying North Korean territorial waters in violation of the United Nations Convention of Law of Sea.
There were expectations and predictions that North Korea would collapse in the 1990s and early 2000s yet here we are stronger than ever since the Korean War.
It is a far cry from the state it was in the 1990s when it was the weakest in its history during peacetime and now we see a military force that it clearly can face South on its own which is contrary to what those in South believe that they would certainly win.