North Korea conducted the first test launch of the Pukguksong-3 Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) on October 2nd, 2019 at 07:11 Local Time (October 1st 18:11 US-EDT). All information released by North Korean State Media, the United States Military, and the South Korean Government point to this being a successful test of this weapon system. This was the first strategic weapons test conducted by North Korea since the test launch of the KN-22 (Hwasong-15) Intercontinental Ballistic Missile on November 28th, 2017.
What we know
Based on available information about the missile test, we know that the Pukguksong-3 was cold-launched from an Underwater Launch Platform positioned off the coast of Wonsan, North Korea. Several unidentified support vessels were also present at the launch site. The missile was fired eastward along a lofted trajectory with a maximum altitude of 565.5 miles (910 km) and a reported range of 280 miles (450 km). This caused the missile to land within Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone, or within 200 nautical miles (230.2 mi; 370.4 km) of the Japanese coast. Initial reporting indicated that two projectiles were fired during this test. However; the second projectile was later confirmed to be the missile’s first stage separation.
What we have gathered
Dimensions: We do not have the exact dimensions of this missile, as is the case with most information following North Korean missile tests. We can tell that the Pukguksong-3 has several structural similarities to the KN-15 (Pukguksong-2) Medium-Range Ballistic Missile based on photos released by KCNA. However; there have been considerable changes made to the Pukguksong-3’s nose cone based on these photographs. It is unclear if this redesign was done to accommodate the Pukguksong-3’s submarine launch capabilities or if it is designed for testing purposes only. This redesigned nose cone is around half the length of the KN-15’s. We assess that these missiles are around 25.4 feet (7.75 m) in length based off this information, with the potential for these missiles to be as long as 26.6 feet (8.1 m) when accounting for the possibility of photographic perspective. The Pukguksong-3 is also roughly the same diameter of the KN-15 at 4.6 feet (1.4 m). The KN-15 and Pukguksong-3 were also observed having a similarly sized component detach following cold-launch in photographs of their respective launch tests. This assisted with assessing the dimensions of the Pukguksong-3’s nose cone and confirmed suspected similarities between these missiles.
Flight Capabilities: It is best to assume the Pukguksong-3 can be used to attack targets out to 280 miles (450 km) in the short-term. While it is sound to assess that at a flat trajectory launch could increase the missile’s maximum range to as far as 1,242.7 miles (2,000 km), it is unclear if North Korea’s Navy can do this outside of a test environment. However; we may see a demonstration of this capability during a follow-up test launch from the underwater launch platform in Wonsan. Regarding speed, we assess that the Pukguksong-3 maxes out around Mach 10 (11,253.3 ft/s; 3,430 m/s). This is primarily because of existing allegations that the KN-15, a previously tested North Korean missile that shares design similarities with the Pukguksong-3, was developed from technology found in the CSS-5 (Dong Feng-21), which reportedly has a maximum speed of 10 Mach. However; higher speeds cannot be ruled out due to the potential for continued engine developments by North Korea, with the maximum potential speed being estimated around 12 Mach (13,503.9 ft/s; 4,116 m/s). We also assess that the Pukguksong-3 is, at minimum, capable of utilizing Inertial guidance due to the widespread proliferation of this technology and its use onboard previously developed North Korean missile systems.
What we do not know
Launch Mass: No official statement has been given in regard to the launch mass of the Pukguksong-3. This information is likely to remain unavailable for the foreseeable future.
Payload: There has not been an official statement regarding the Pukguksong-3’s payload. However; it is likely capable of mounting nuclear or conventional warheads in a similar manner to the KN-15. North Korea previously conducted a nuclear test in September of 2016 for a 10 to 30 kiloton fission warhead designed for use on strategic missiles such as the Pukguksong-3.
Countermeasures: It is not known if the Pukguksong-3 was designed to utilize countermeasures to increase resistance to electronic warfare or circumvent ballistic missile defense systems.
The Pukguksong-3 represents North Korea’s continued commitment to developing a robust and survivable strategic missile capability to deter threats from the United States. While this specific missile is unable to directly threaten the US or its territories, it can be used to attack most major populations centers and military installations within South Korea from the observed range of 280 miles (450 km). Furthermore, this allows the Pukguksong-3 to attack any location on the Korean Peninsula, as well as parts of Japan, if positioned wisely during an armed conflict. When accounting for the missile’s potential maximum range of 1,242.7 miles (2,000 km), any target on the Korean Peninsula or within Japan can be attacked from a submarine positioned in the Sea of Japan. This can also be said of the middle ground range assessment of 869.9 miles (1,400 km). While the Pukguksong-3 has the potential to threaten any US military post in North Asia, the current state of the North Korean Navy may not allow for the use of these missiles to their full effectiveness. Even today, North Korean submarines are limited to operating in the coastal waters around the Korean Peninsula and have a limited capability to operate along the South Korean coast. Only time will tell if technological developments, such as the Sinpo-class SSB, can overcome these limitations.