Russia is firing North Korean-made missiles that some fear could change the war.
An expert believes that North Korean short-range ballistic missiles could hit pinpoint targets.
Even if that's the case, the missiles won't win the war for Russia.
Russia's use of North Korean-made ballistic missiles in Ukraine has sparked fears that this could prove a powerful new weapon able to degrade Ukraine's arms industry or blast a path through the deadlocked battlefields.
Yet while the prospect of yet more intensive bombardment is hardly good news for war-weary Ukrainians, these weapons appear to be far from a silver bullet. Their power derives not only from their accuracy, but also the size of the arsenal North Korea has provided and its ability to manufacture more — all of which are unclear. Nor can Moscow assume that additional missile strikes will break Ukrainian morale where waves of earlier attacks have failed.
In early January, the White House announced that North Korean-made missiles had been launched from southwest Russia into southwest Ukraine, near the city of Zaporizhia. The weapons are apparently Kn-23 and Kn-24 short-range ballistic missiles, or SRBM, according to US intelligence.
North Korean arms are known for being cheap rather than good, as Moscow discovered when it recently began importing shoddy North Korean ammunition. But these North Korean ballistic missiles are not some knockoff of the notorious 1950s Soviet Scud, a liquid-fueled rocket that takes more than an hour to launch. The Kn-23, with an estimated range of up to 500 miles and a one-ton warhead, bears some resemblance to Russia's SS-26 Iskander SRBM. The Kn-24, with a range of 250 miles and a one-ton warhead, looks like a US ATACMS missile.
"These are more sophisticated, solid-fueled missiles that can be launched without much preparation time," Masao Dahlgren, a missile defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, told Business Insider. "They may have some design heritage with Russian systems, but they borrow heavily from North Korean expertise."
The world has tended to focus on North Korea's ICBM and nuclear weapons programs, which may have the potential to hit the United States with an atomic weapon. Short-range ballistic missiles have received less attention, weapons that could target South Korea command centers and US bases and ships. "These theater-range missiles are often overlooked," Dahlgren said. "There hasn't been enough focus on these shorter-range missiles that North Korea and Iran are exporting."
As North Korean SRBMs are used in Ukraine, knowledge of their capabilities will grow from analysis of impact sites and missile debris. But for now, not much is known about their capabilities, especially their accuracy.
"The real secret sauce" will be learning about their guidance systems, Dahlgren said. "We hope to learn a little bit more from parts that the Ukrainians will be picking up in the next couple of months."
Older ballistic missiles like the Scud, and its ancestor the Nazi V-2, were area bombardment weapons that might land within a couple of miles of the target. However, Dahlgren believes that North Korean SRBMs could be accurate enough to hit pinpoint targets, just as Iranian missiles did during recent strikes in Iraq, Pakistan and Syria. "I wouldn't underestimate North Korea's capability to make tactically relevant systems that could strike at military targets."
But for Moscow, quantity may be more important than quality. To compensate for the poor performance of its ground troops and air force, Russia has expended vast quantities of guided missiles and artillery shells, so far without decisive effect. This suggests that Russia will need a lot of North Korean missiles, which in turn raises the question of North Korea's rocket manufacturing capacity.
"There have been numbers thrown all over the place," said Dahlgren. "The problem here is that North Korea has substantially advanced the state of its production base as of the past couple of months." In 2023, the International Institute for Strategic Studies estimated that North Korea has built a dozen ICBMs and intermediate-range missiles apiece, plus at least 70 SRBMs.
A worry for Ukraine – and the US, Japan and South Korea – is what Pyongyang will get from Moscow in return for missiles. Payment could include money for the cash-strapped regime, food or weapons such as advanced jets. But Russia could also turn over missile designs and components, such as for hypersonic weapons. For the Kremlin, this would mean a chance to import more missiles, and allow Russian industry to focus on producing other weapons. For Kim Jong Un's regime, this would boost its capabilities to threaten its neighbors and opponents, and generate cash as the new global arms race spurs nations to buy more rockets.
But for now, the issue is whether Russia can use North Korean missiles to either achieve victory on the battlefield, or to break civilian morale and compel Kyiv to sue for peace. Yet for two years, Ukraine has withstood relentless bombardment by everything from hypersonic missiles to waves of Iranian-made kamikaze drones.
Unless Moscow can obtain massive numbers of North Korean SRBMs, this would seem an incremental addition to Russian firepower. If Russia's existing missiles can't break Ukraine, then neither will North Korea's.
Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds a master's in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.
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