North Korean missile launch – IHS Markit analysis

Alison Evans, deputy head of Asia-Pacific Country Risk, IHS Markit

Key points:

  • The missile launched on 28 November was described by North Korean state news agency KCNA as a “new” type – the Hwasong-15[1].
  • The missile appears to be a modified version of the Hwasong-14 (KN-20) inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) launched in July, although the nature of the modifications are as yet unclear.
  • Compared to North Korea’s previous missile tests, the 28 November launch reached the highest altitude to date but did not fly over Japan, indicating North Korea’s commitment to developing its ICBM programme and maintaining pressure on the US, while making conservative choices about provocative actions to mitigate the risk of retaliation by the US or its allies.

Analysis:

A test on 28 November comes after a period of relative quiet for North Korea’s nuclear and missile programme: the last test was on 14 September 2017 when North Korea launched a Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM).

Nonetheless, a lull in missile launches is common for North Korea in Q4 (when much of the military is mobilised to help with harvests); IHS Markit assessed that North Korea would likely launch another missile before 2018, most likely around the US holidays of Thanksgiving or Christmas.

In order to demonstrate progress in its ICBM programme, North Korea could have launched the Hwasong-14 for a third time but on a flatter trajectory over Japan.

However, North Korea’s decision to instead launch a new missile again on a lofted trajectory – not threatening Japan or US military assets there – highlights two elements of its leadership’s decision-making: (1) Commitment to developing a nuclear-capable ICBM, and (2) Choosing tests and provocative actions that pose the least threat to North Korea.

[1] https://kcnawatch.co/newstream/1511929851-215959348/dprk-govt-statement-on-successful-test-fire-of-new-type-icbm/