In his report to the Eighth Party Congress held from Jan. 5 to 7, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said North Korea is “conducting research into perfecting the guidance technology for multi-warhead rockets at the final stage,” according to the Korea Central News Agency (KCNA).
The “guidance technology for multi-warhead rockets” Kim mentioned seems to refer to multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) technology. Usually, a single ballistic missile carries a single warhead. When a missile carries multiple warheads, it is called a multiple reentry vehicle (MRV). MIRVs take this one step further. All of the warheads in an MRV follow the same trajectory, while a MIRV’s warheads can be directed at different targets.
However, since Kim said research is in the “final stage,” it appears North Korea has yet to acquire this technology.
Quoting a source in North Korea, Daily NK reported last October that the new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) unveiled at the Party Foundation Day military parade could carry two warheads, and that North Korea plans to increase this to four by 2022 by miniaturizing and refining its nuclear warheads.
Daily NK also reported at the time that North Korea had not yet secured MIRV technology by attaching a Post Boost Vehicle (PBV) to the warheads that would allow them to separate and independently hit different targets after launch.
Daily NK’s report further said the new submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) revealed during the same parade can carry four warheads, and that North Korea was conducting research to allow the SLBMs to carry eight warheads.
With North Korea researching technology to place multiple warheads on both ICBMs and SLBMs, there is concern that the nation will pose a significant military threat.
According to the KCNA, Kim said in his report that the Central Committee had chosen to move forward with developing “a nuclear-powered submarine and an underwater-launch nuclear strategic weapon which will be of great importance in raising [North Korea’s] long-range nuclear striking capability [sic].”
The KCNA report also said that “the standard of the goal in the modernization of medium-sized submarine was set correctly and it was remodeled experimentally to open up a bright prospect for remarkably enhancing the existing subsurface operational capabilities of our navy” and “the design of new nuclear-powered submarine was researched and was in the stage of final examination.”
This suggests North Korea is developing a submarine powered by nuclear reactors rather than diesel engines, and that the new submarines will carry SLBMs.
Quoting a source, Daily NK reported in 2019 that Kim had established plans to complete nuclear-powered submarines armed with nuclear weapons by 2022, and that they would carry the Pukkuksong-5, the country’s finalized SLBM.
By pledging to develop nuclear-powered submarines that can remain submerged for long periods of time – as well as SLBMs that can carry nuclear warheads – North Korea appears to be doing little to hide its intention to bolster its military strength. This appears aimed at boosting the country’s leverage vis-à-vis the United States ahead of the launch of the Joe Biden administration.
The KCNA also said “the key to establishing new DPRK-US relationship lies in the US withdrawal of its hostile policy toward the DPRK” and that Kim’s report “solemnly clarified the [Workers’ Party of Korea]’s stand that it would approach the US on the principle of power for power and goodwill for goodwill in the future, too.”
The KCNA report further noted that “the tasks were brought up to develop and introduce hypersonic gliding flight warheads in a short period” and that the country “finished research into developing warheads of different combat missions including the hypersonic gliding flight warheads for new-type ballistic rockets and was making preparations for their test manufacture.”
The KCNA report confirms a recent Daily NK story that said North Korea had recently created a new research center for hypersonic missiles under the Academy of National Defense Science.
Hypersonic missiles are next-generation weapons that can travel at over Mach 5, rendering missile defense networks powerless.
A source told Daily NK in the article that North Korea had chosen hypersonic missiles as its next strategic weapon after nuclear weapons, and that it would invest considerable resources into their development.
The KCNA also confirmed that North Korea is developing solid fuel ICBMs.
KCNA reported that North Korea will “push ahead with the development of solid-fuel engine-propelled inter-continental underwater and ground ballistic rockets as scheduled.”
Daily NK reported in 2019 that Kim had ordered engineers to complete the development of solid fuel-propelled engines and join them to missiles carrying multiple warheads before the US presidential election. Daily NK further noted at the time that North Korea had carried out a test of a three-stage rocket using a solid fuel engine, a necessary stage for the completion of multi-warhead ICBMs.
North Korea’s public unveiling of its development of advanced weaponry and its future plans is not only a message to the international community, but also suggests the desire to promote regime unity to gain control over public sentiment disaffected by economic difficulties.