Yesterday North Korea launched four ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan.
The missiles reportedly traveled an average of 1,000 km (620 miles), and landed within 300 to 350 km (185 to 220 miles) of Japan. The four launches were said to be “simultaneous,” leading to speculation they were intended to be a barrage attack to overwhelm a missile defense system.
The missiles were launched from Tongchang-ri, in northwest North Korea, where the Sohae Satellite Launch Station is located. Missiles of this range would not need the facilities at Sohae, so it’s not known if there was a particular reason they were launched from this facility.
A South Korean briefing gave the apogee of the missile as 260 km (160 miles). That implies the missiles reached essentially their maximum range (unlike some recent North Korean tests that were tested on highly lofted trajectories, so that their maximum range would be longer than the range seen in the test).
That rules out anything like an ICBM.
North Korea has three missiles that have ranges similar to this: Extended-Range Scud (“Scud-ER”), Nodong, and Pukguksong-2. The latter, which is solid-fueled, has been flight tested only twice (once from sea and once from land), and is probably not what the North launched since it has little information about its reliability and would be unlikely to try launching four simultaneously.
Instead, this set of tests instead looks very similar to a multiple-missile test North Korea conducted last September 5. In that case it launched three missiles in rapid succession from mobile launchers sitting on a road south of Pyongyang. These missiles flew about 1,000 km and landed off the coast of Japan.
A careful analysis of those launches indicate they were Extended-Range Scud (“Scud ER”) missiles, which are modifications of short-range Scud missiles, lengthened to carry additional fuel and lightened by making the body out of aluminum rather than the usual steel. This analysis suggests the missile could carry a warhead of roughly 500 kg to 1,000 km.
A video of the September launches show that the first and second launches were less than a minute apart, and the second and third launches were separated by just seconds.
This analysis notes that these modifications lead to “the maximum performance that a single Scud-B engine can achieve in a missile.” They believe this is not a new missile, but may date back to 2000 or earlier.
More information may make clear whether yesterday’s test was of Scud-ERs, Nodongs, or something unexpected.