Kim’s New Year’s “presents”: what missiles could North Korea provide to Russia?

Written by Volodymyr Solovian, head of HWAG, UCMC & Anatoliy Maksymov, international observer, specialist on the Middle East and East Asia

On January 4, the White House National Security Council’s Strategic Communications Coordinator, John Kirby, announced that North Korea had transferred a certain batch of ballistic missiles and launchers to Russia. According to the US, the missiles were launched against Ukraine on December 30 and January 2, 2024. 

On January 6, Dmytro Chubenko, a spokesman for the Kharkiv Regional Prosecutor’s Office, stated that the wreckage of one of the missiles fired at Kharkiv on January 2 provides evidence that the missile originated in North Korea. Certain design elements (for example, the radius is 10 mm larger than that of the Russian counterpart, the Iskander) suggest that the product is based on North Korean models. According to Chubenko, missile debris showed Russia’s attempt to erase model numbers on parts of the missile, indicating Russia’s aim to conceal information about the missile’s origin.

Ukraine has not yet confirmed that Russia used North Korean ballistic missiles. However, rumors of Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s “gift” to his Kremlin counterpart have already provided ground for Russian information manipulation.    

In general, the Russian state media does not report for the general public on possible missile deliveries from the DPRK, considering such reports would directly contradict the official narrative of the Russian military-industrial complex; that it is capable of producing missiles and other types of modern weapons. However, war correspondents close to the Russian Defense Ministry and other members of the Z-community are actively commenting on the news. It is worth noting that, unlike in the fall of 2022, when Russia attempted to conceal the use of Iranian-made drones, the Kremlin is now subtly hinting that the Russian army has indeed received North Korean missiles. 

Today, the Kremlin’s argument is based on the standard “ifism” strategy: if Ukraine is armed by a coalition of 50 countries, Russia believes it has every right to use the resources of its “allies.” Russian propagandists also use this information as a pretext to discredit Kyiv and the West’s assistance, claiming Ukraine is “a test site for the DPRK’s missile weapons.” 

Given the closed workings of Pyongyang’s regime, Russia’s military-technical cooperation with the DPRK is frequently manipulated, resulting in lively media hype. Therefore, in the absence of official confirmation from Kyiv, the HWAG team sees reason to investigate this matter.

In an exclusive commentary for HWAG, Anatoliy Maksymov, an international political analyst and expert in the Middle East and East Asia, analyzes the issue of the type of missiles that Pyongyang could transfer to the Russian Federation.

Unlikely choices: the old Scud family of missiles 

The Hwasong-5 and Hwasong-6 were North Korea’s first ballistic missiles, built on modified Soviet R17s (classified by the US and NATO as SS-1c Scud B). Egypt gave them to the DPRK as a token of appreciation for its assistance during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. These missiles are classified as short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs), with a range of up to 300 kilometers. 

North Korean weapon manufacturers developed the Hwasong-7 (Rodong-1) medium-range missile in the 1990s. Pyongyang is thought to have 200-300 of these missiles, however, they are outdated even by DPRK standards. US intelligence believes there are fewer than 100 launchers for them. The Hwasong-7 is believed to be capable of flying up to 1000 km. 

The KN-18, one of the most recent versions in the family of missiles of this type, was displayed at a Pyongyang parade in 2017 and launched once during an exercise. It features a maneuverable nose section (MaRV) with stabilizers to help the warhead fly more accurately after re-entry. It has a theoretical flight range of 450 kilometers.

Iskander’s elder brother 

The most likely option would be to redesign and improve the Iskander. The North Koreans could have built this missile themselves, inspired by Russian developments, or received drawings from the Russians. The North Korean code for this Iskander analog is KN-23 (Hwasong-11GA). It was intended to replace the long-outdated Hwasong 5 and Hwasong 6.

The missile has a few modifications: 

A (a close analog to the 9M723 Iskander).

B (similar to the US ATACMS and the Soviet Tochka-U, also known as KN-24).

C (tactical missile for combat zone with enlarged warhead)

D (short-range missile) 

S (Underwater missile)

Ukraine was most likely hit by type A or B missiles. These are solid-fueled missiles, which can be mounted, launched, and removed from their position much faster than liquid-fueled missiles. 

The KN-23 is larger than Russia’s Iskander. Officially, the KN-23’s nose section holds 500 kg of explosives. However, given the size, the actual load could be up to 1.5 tons, whereas the Iskander can carry a maximum of 800 kg. North Korean engineers unveiled an enlarged version of the KN-23 during a parade in 2021. On September 15, 2021, the Kim regime launched two KN-23s, which Pyongyang claims flew 800 km. 

In such a scenario, we have two options: either the missiles have never been tested for maximum radius, or they have been modified, such as reducing the charging nose or lightening the motor. Interestingly, both were launched from trains. 

It is currently believed that the DPRK possesses approximately 120 such missiles. This is a small number, and Russia is unlikely to receive more than a dozen from Pyongyang. Additionally, Ukraine can shoot down these missiles using the latest Patriot missile defense system. However, these systems can only cover 2-3 of Ukraine’s largest cities. For the time being, other parts of the country have virtually no protection against KN-23/KN-24.

HWAG Summary

Thus, as the expert’s commentary shows, North Korean missiles pose a threat to Ukraine’s defense system due to a lack of missile defense systems capable of shooting down targets on a ballistic trajectory. The potential strikes of North Korean missiles at greater operational depths, where Russian Iskanders “cannot reach,” is rather alarming. Particularly because the KN-23 missile can carry a larger warhead than its Russian counterparts. 

At the same time, the weapons that Pyongyang could have transferred to Moscow cannot hide surprises for Ukrainian anti-aircraft fighters, as the DPRK’s missile arsenal is based on Soviet and Russian developments. Furthermore, the presence of North Korean missiles does not automatically tip the scales in Russia’s favor since the DPRK’s industry is unable to manufacture a large number of missiles and launchers in a short period of time. Therefore, Russia can use a batch of North Korean missiles in order to exhaust the Ukrainian missile defense system. This is how the Russian army mainly uses the outdated and extremely inaccurate Soviet X-22 missiles.

Therefore, the factor of North Korean missiles is not capable of shaking the scales in favor of Russia. Moreover, the fact of DPRK’s assistance to the Kremlin in the field of missile technology indicates a significant production deficit in Russia. In the future, Moscow will try to buy time to accumulate a missile arsenal by attracting missile weapons from Iran and North Korea.

In this situation, Ukraine needs to increase supplies of Western anti-missile defense systems. The passivity of Western politicians and the military industry in the issue of assistance to Ukraine leads to the deepening of military-technical cooperation between Moscow and Pyongyang. The lack of investment in Ukraine’s security may lead to the destabilization of the situation on the other side of the Asian continent.