Signs Of Multiple Warheads In New North Korean ICBM

North Korea's latest ICBM design.
Credit: Korean Central Television

SEOUL, SYDNEY—What was presented as a new and larger North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on Oct. 10 may be intended to carry multiple warheads or to reach targets unattainable by its predecessor.

The new liquid-propellant weapon appeared to be an enlargement of North Korea’s previous ICBM, Hwasong 15, which implicitly has insufficient payload-range capability for all of North Korea’s purposes.

The second stage, at least, appeared to have been lengthened in the new missile, which was unveiled during a parade in the country’s capital Pyongyang.

The presence and shape of backward-facing slots at the forward end of the second stage suggest an arrangement of small rockets for detaching the payload or its fairing. The presence of the fairing on the new ICBM raises the possibility that multiple warheads are carried, threatening larger areas of destruction for a given payload, whereas Hwasong 15’s nose is the exposed reentry vehicle. 

No test of this weapon has been reported. Indeed, there is no guarantee that what appeared in the parade was in fact a missile, not a mockup.

But the second-stage engine of this ICBM type was tested in December 2019, a South Korean military source told the Chosun Ilbo newspaper in Seoul. That would be consistent with the main modification from the Hwasong 15 being an enlarged second stage.

Hwasong 15 has been tested only once, in 2017, raising great doubts about its operational value.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington estimates the range of Hwasong 15 at 8,500-13,000 km (5,300-8,100 mi.), meaning the weapon could at least reach Alaska and Washington state and possibly—as North Korea has claimed—all of the U.S.

The longest estimated reach for Hwasong 15 now looks questionable, since an obvious reason for developing a larger weapon is to increase range—though another is to increase payload for an unchanged range. Multiple warheads could easily weigh more than a unitary payload. Also, adding decoys would add weight.

The Chosun estimated the new ICBM carries two or three warheads and has a length of 22-23 m (72-75 ft.). CSIS reckons the Hwasong 15 is 21-22.5 long and has a diameter of 2-2.4 m.

Some media are referring to the new ICBM as the Hwasong 16, but North Korea has not stated its name. The U.S. refers to the Hwasong 15 as the KN-22. “Hwasong” means “Mars.”

The new ICBM appeared on an extraordinary mobile launcher with no fewer than 11 axles, two more than the one designed for the Hwasong 15 launcher, itself unusually large. The cab design of the new launcher, at least, was different. Consistent with greater missile length, the heave arms on each side are mounted further from the rear—ahead of three axles instead of two.

The greater size of the launcher must reduce mobility, demanding larger radiuses for turns and stronger bridges, and increases the target size. It will be harder to hide and easier to hit.

Road-mobile ballistic missiles generally have solid propellants, making them more robust and easier to launch.

North Korea has been working on solid-propellant strategic missiles, too, however, and showed a new submarine-launched type in two versions in the same parade.

Kim Minseok

Kim Minseok covers South Korean defense. He has worked as a journalist for South Korean military magazines Military Review and Defense Times. Mr Kim is also a research fellow at the Korea Defense and Security Forum, a think tank.

Bradley Perrett

Bradley Perrett covered China, Japan, South Korea and Australia. He is a Mandarin-speaking Australian.


The comment on weight and bridge stressing needs clarification. An empty liquid fuel rocket is not fantastically heavy, and, will all those tires the weight is well distributed. No fuel missile weight perhaps toward the low end of 5-10 tonnes. I would think a solid fuel would be a much bigger problem on the road. Of course they need tankers to go with it, and they might be a bigger problem, although, of course, liquid propellants can be divided at will.
Bernard Biales
ICBMs armed with nuclear warheads, perhaps several per missile, in the hands of Kim Jung Un is of course scary. We all say that, but then our minds quickly move on to other things like elections, the pandemic, race relations, and so on, but I don’t think we quite understand the nature of the Kim Jung Un with nukes danger. Of the nine nuclear armed nations, North Korea is the only one whose leader threatens war regularly, threatens to employ nuclear weapons regularly, and who regularly takes deadly actions in the normal course of his political processes. I think the very real danger is that Kim Jung Un seems not to mentally operate in the same world everybody else does. I think it is actually possible he could launch one (or more) of his nuke ICBMs at his most hated nemesis, the US in a terrible miscalculation of its utility in an armed conflict involving the US. Even if it misses its target it should still hit North America somewhere with catastrophic results. I believe the US president would then immediately order the US military to use all means to totally eliminate the possibility of another hit, meaning, we use nukes to guarantee this. Kim loses, but so what. Our “win” would be so costly, to South Korea and us. And maybe Japan. The US presidents need to stop hoping the Korea nuke problem will just go away if we ignore it. It is the most likely scenario for nuclear disaster in the world today, and the roll out of the new, huge mobile “ICBM” should not be met with yet another round of “yea, yea, yeas” from the White House. Negotiations in earnest must never stop until the threat is eliminated.