In September of 2021, North Korea “successfully launched ballistic missiles from a train for the first time,” with the country’s official news agency stating “the missiles were launched during a drill of a ‘railway-borne missile regiment’ that transported the weapons system along rail tracks in the country’s mountainous central region and accurately struck a sea target 500 miles away.”
These ballistic missiles entered Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). In a meeting of the United Nations Security Council after North Korea’s missile launch, the French ambassador to the U.N., Nicolas de Riviere, was quoted as saying the Council had agreed to condemn the test and perceived it as a “major threat,” as it was “a clear violation of the Council’s resolutions.”
Initial outside estimates by the North Korean analysis website 38 North, determined the missiles launched were KN-23 short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs). According to Vann Van Diepen, a career intelligence analyst and former assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, “The 800-km range demonstrated in the latest launches is substantially greater than the 600-km range claimed by the North Koreans in March, much less than the 450 km demonstrated by the original KN-23.” Van Diepen further stated that this new method of missile delivery would “certainly diversify the force” as the rail-mobile delivery is more “survivable than fixed-based ones” in addition to the fact that this launch system would “bolster the size of the SRBM force.”
Joseph Bermudez, a renowned expert on North Korea’s military, more warily described the potential for this launch, writing, “it is unclear if what was demonstrated at the recent launch was an operational rail-mobile missile launch platform or a testbed/prototype… Despite North Korean statements, there are no practical means of assessing the size or viability of any North Korean rail-mobile missile force. Analysts and pundits need to be extremely careful in assigning capabilities to North Korea’s ballistic missile force that may not be there.” Bermudez stressed that North Korea could easily have manipulated or staged the event to give off the perception “of a strong and prosperous nation.”
Many other noted experts on Asian military strategy, ballistic missiles, and general warfare have commented on these developments as well. William Gallo, the Seoul bureau chief for Voice of America (VOA), noted that “A rail-based ballistic system reflects North Korea’s efforts to diversify its launch options, which now includes various vehicles and ground launch pads…” However, Gallo added that “some experts say North Korea’s simple rail networks running through its relatively small territory would be quickly destroyed by enemies during a crisis.”
If North Korea’s railway-launched missile system is based on completely stationary lines that can move only forward or backward at limited speeds, they could be targeted and destroyed rather easily.
As for the intent of this system, Fred Kaplan, a prolific writer on foreign policy and international relations, writes in Slate that this new system is not meant for a first-strike capability, but rather “to make it very hard for the United States to launch a nuclear strike on North Korea.” He expands upon this: “[North Korea is] making some of their missiles mobile – hence the launches from trains and submarines – so that the U.S. (or any enemy) would have a hard time finding, tracking, and hitting them… they’re trying to ensure that we can’t nuke them without worrying that they will nuke us back—in which case we probably won’t nuke them in the first place.”
It is very apparent from the above that the most significant development of the September test is not necessarily the missiles themselves, but rather North Korea’s usage of railway lines to conduct the launch.
This form of missile delivery, transportation, and launching is rather ingenious and innovative. North Korea, as of 2018, has slightly over 5,000 kilometers of railway, most of this being on the global standard gauge rail. In total, North Korea’s railways are predominantly (around 80 percent) electric powered, having largely moved away from steam-powered engines (though a few remain active in an auxiliary capacity).
Young Pioneer Tours, a China based tourism company specializing in North Korea, has described North Korea’s railway system as “extremely well-connected” with “eleven lines that link the whole of the country together.”
However, North Korea’s rail system is neither completely foolproof nor incredibly effective. In fact, North Korea’s railway system is actually in immense disrepair and prone to numerous problems.
A significant amount of North Korea’s railway lines – roughly 97 percent – are single track only. According to NK News, “This means that the trains have to stop frequently, to give way to trains moving in the opposite direction,” which limits the speed at which trains can travel.
DailyNK, an online North Korea-focused newspaper, writes that “…the country’s electricity supply, aging infrastructure, and lack of technology means that trains running on the main Pyongyang-Sinuiju line can only run up to 60 km per hour.” In addition, the railway tracks are poorly constructed: “the widespread lack of fuel means that chemically-untreated wood is often used to build the tracks, with the track ballast being improperly placed at times. This can result in significant damage to the tracks during strong rains.” As mentioned also in NK News, it seems to be a real challenge for North Korea’s railways to maintain an effective electrical grid and keep enough supplies to benefit the rail system.
Returning to the railway missile delivery systems, then, it is obvious that North Korea is not currently in a position to adequately develop their railway lines to become fully operational as a defense system. Such missiles would be prone to massive delays or even failures in getting equipment to the proper location. The North Koreans could solve these problems by better developing their rail system, ensuring stability along the electrical grid, and concealing their missile launch trains from satellite or air reconnaissance using foliage or through night operations.
While this launch system is ingenious and shows real promise in working, certain problems that are endemic to North Korea as a whole will keep the dream of railway-launched missiles from reaching its full potential.