Is North Korea Preparing for a Second ICBM Test?

US intelligence expects North Korea to test a Hwasong-14 ICBM very soon. Image Credit: Stefan Krasowski/ Wikimedia Commons

North Korea could carry out a second test of its Hwasong-14 ICBM any day now according to news reports that have cited US government sources.

The Hwasong-14, also called the KN20, is a two-stage liquid-fuelled intercontinental ballistic missile. North Korea conducted its first test of the Hwasong-14 on July 4. The test launched the missile at steep trajectory, reaching a maximum altitude of 2,800 kilometres, roughly seven times the altitude of the International Space Station. Upon re-entering the earth’s atmosphere, the missile splashed into the waters of Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), 930 kilometres from its launch point.

Using a shallower trajectory, the Hwasong-14 is estimated to have a range of 6,000-7,500 kilometres.

A source reportedly told The Diplomat’s Ankit Panda the test was ‘likely to occur from near Panghyon Airport or elsewhere near Kusong, in North Korea’s North Pyongan province.’ According to the story by, US military intelligence detected a Hwasong-14 transporter-erector and firing table transporter in Kusong. The transporter-erector is believed to be a modified Chinese logging truck, the WS51200. (Incidentally, the WS51200 is powered by a US-made 700-horsepower Cummins turbo-diesel engine.)

The second test was expected by some to occur on Thursday, to mark 64th anniversary of Armistice Day- or Victory Day, as the North calls the last day of the Korean war.

However, any launch plans may be delayed by forecasts of bad weather.

‘Currently, there’s no sign of an imminent North Korean missile launch,’ Colonel Roh Jae-cheon, spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), told the press on Thursday. ‘Our military is continuing to closely monitor North Korea’s every possible provocation, mobilizing combined surveillance assets with the United States.’

Submarine surprise?

The North might also be preparing to launch a missile from sea. Last week CNN reported that a North Korean submarine was spotted in international waters. North Korea has a fleet of about 70 submarines, though most are ageing and incapable of firing a submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM). Any SLBM test is likely to be of the Pkkuksong-1, also called the KN11. (The most recent test of this missile, in July 2016, was a failure.)

A longer range?

The maximum range of the Hwasong-14 is generally estimated to be around 7,500 kilometres based on the trajectory of the July 4 test. However, the missile may in fact be capable of traveling greater distances. As missile expert Jeffrey Lewis argues, it is ‘likely that North Korea simply did not test the missile to its full range, wanting to bring it down into the sea.’

It’s possible a second test could see the Hwasong-14 showcase a greater range. Ever since its highly provocative 1998 test of the Taepodong-1 satellite launch vehicle, which flew over the Japanese islands, North Korea has shown more restraint, launching its missiles on a steep trajectory. However, any test of longer range Hwasong-14, even if on a lofted flight path, will still likely mean the missile will splash down nearer to Japan’s coast.

North Korea’s neighbours will be closely watching the skies for the next few days.

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