nk icbm 5
Why does North Korea keep launching ICBMs?
01:14 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

North Korea has a large arsenal of short, medium and long range missiles

Pyongyang regularly conducts tests, but its true capabilities remain unclear

CNN  — 

North Korea’s recent missiles tests show it’s capable of sending rockets higher and farther than ever before.

Pyongyang’s arsenal ranges from short-range Scud-like missiles, to large intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) that may be capable delivering a nuclear warhead to the US mainland.

As soon as a missile test is announced, analysts examine the flight of the missile and its trajectory to work out what type of armament was fired, and the potential lessons North Korea could be gleaning from the test.

Here are the most commonly used North Korean missiles, based on tests conducted throughout 2017.


03 nk missile launch kcna via AP

Estimated range: 13,000 kilometers (8,100 miles)

Length: Unknown

Type: Intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)

Little is known about the Hwasong-15, which was tested for the first time on November 29, according to North Korean state TV. It set a new height record for a North Korean missile of 4,475 kilometers (2,800 miles) over a distance of 950 kilometers (600 miles).

A government statement said the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) is a new type of “ballistic rocket tipped with (a) super-large heavy warhead which is capable of striking the whole mainland of the US.”

It said the system was more advanced that the Hwasong-14, which was tested in July. With the Hwasong-15, North Korea had met its “goal of the completion of the rocket weaponry system development,” the statement said.

Experts said the Hwasong-15 appeared to demonstrate a new type of engine never before tested, and was significantly larger than previous missiles launched by North Korea.

“This isn’t just a big missile for North Korea, this is a big missile in general,” Michael Duitsman, a research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), told CNN. “There are not a lot of countries who could build a missile this big and have it work.”


hwasong 14 north korea missile

Estimated range: 10,400 kilometers (6,460 miles)

Length: 19.5-19.8 meters

Type: Intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)

Previously North Korea’s most advanced ICBM, which Pyongyang claimed was capable of reaching “the whole US mainland.”

Following a test in July, a combination of US, South Korean and Japanese analysis showed the missile flew about 45 minutes, going 3,700 kilometers (2,300 miles) high and for a distance of 1,000 kilometers (621 miles).

According to the US-based Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), the Hwasong-14 has a maximum estimated range of 10,400 kilometers (6,460 miles).

Also referred to as the KN-20, the Missile Defense Project (MDP) says it is a two-stage, liquid-fueled missile capable of carrying a high explosive or nuclear payload. MDP gives a slightly lower range estimate but one that would still put parts of the US West Coast and Alaska within reach.


hwasong 12 north korea missile

Estimated range: 4,500 kilometers (2,800 miles)

Length: 17.4 meters

Type: Intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM)

An intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM), the Hwasong-12 has an estimated maximum range of over 4,500 kilometers (2,800 miles), which would put the US Pacific territory of Guam within its strike capability.

According to MDP, testing of the Hwasong-12, also known as the KN-17, has only succeeded around 50% of the time.

A test in April 2017 “flew a distance of 60 km and reached a height of 189 km before starting to ‘pinwheel,’ landing into the Sea of Japan after 9 minutes of flight time,” MDP said.

According to North Korean state media, the Hwasong-12 is “capable of carrying a large-size heavy nuclear warhead.”


north korea military parade op-ed 04

Estimated range: 3,500 kilometers (2,200 miles)

Length: 11.5 meters

Type: Intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM)

Another IRBM, the Musudan doesn’t quite have the range of the Hwasong-12, topping out at around 3,500 kilometers (2,170 miles), according to NTI.

Unlike its larger Hwasong cousins, the Musudan is believed to be road-mobile, making detection of potential launches more difficult.

However, despite over a decade of development and repeated tests, the Musudan “barely works,” aerospace and rocket expert John Schilling told CNN in January 2017.

Of eight tests between 2016 and early 2017, seven failed according to South Korean and US assessments (though North Korea claimed some as successes or partial successes).


taepodong north korea missile

Estimated range: 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles)

Length: 30 meters

Type: Space launch vehicle (SLV)

Alongside its intercontinental and intermediate-range missile programs, North Korea has also developed several long-range rockets designed primarily to deliver satellites to space.

In the past, Pyongyang had been accused of using this program to covertly test ICBMs and other weapons technology, though the North Korean government always insisted its space program was peaceful and focused on putting scientific satellites into orbit.

Given the open testing of ICBMs and intermediate-range missiles, some analysts have suggested the two programs, if they were ever one, are now “moving on separate tracks.”

The Taepodong-3, also known as the Unha-3, is a three-stage satellite launch vehicle, with an estimated range of 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles) with a 1,000 kilogram (2,200 pound) payload, and a maximum range of around 15,000 kilometers (9,320 miles), according to MDP.

While the Unha-3 is believed to be primarily non-military, MDP said it is “still possible that North Korea could use the Taepodong-3 as an ICBM and launch an untested re-entry vehicle in the direst of circumstances.”

Scud missiles

scud north korea missile

Estimated range: 500 kilometers (310 miles)

Length: 12.18 meters

Type: Short-range ballistic missile (SRBM)

North Korea has a number of short- to medium-range missiles based on the Soviet Scud type design which dates back to the end of World War II.

Though Scuds typically carry conventional explosives, they could also be armed with nuclear warheads. Due to their much smaller size, they can also be fired from mobile launchers, making them harder to track and predict.

At a military parade in Pyongyang in April 2017, North Korea revealed the KN-18, which MDP estimates has a demonstrated range of around 450 kilometers (280 miles) but may be capable of up to 1,000 kilometers (620 miles).

Other North Korean Scud variants have demonstrated this range, such as four which were fired into the sea near Japan in March 2017, after flying over 1,000 kilometers.