'Harsh Blow to Threat-Posing Forces’: North Korea’s New Train Can Launch Hypersonic Ballistic Missiles

Following two ballistic missile launches on September 15th, North Korea revealed that the tests were carried out by a new missile train which has further diversified the range of launch vehicles Pyongyang deploys its arsenal from. 

Images of the train launching missiles seconds before entering a tunnel were published on September 16th by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) state media outlet, with Korean People’s Army (KPA) Marshal Pak Jong Chon cited as stating regarding the new asset: "The railway-borne missile system serves as an efficient counter-strike means capable of dealing a harsh multi-concurrent blow to threat-posing forces.” Marshal Pak referred to KPA plans to expand the railway-borne missile regiment to a brigade sized force in the near future, and to conduct exercises to provide “operational experience for actual war.” 

Pak was responsible for overseeing the test, and is also a member of the Presidium of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea and Secretary of the Party Central Committee - indicating a high level of importance attributed to the development. 

According to KCNA, the the Railway Mobile Missile Regiment was organised at the Eighth Congress of the Party in January 2021 to “to increase the capability for dealing intensive blows to the menacing forces in many places at the same time” in the event of war, with the latest test “aimed at confirming the practicability of the railway mobile missile system deployed for the first time for action, evaluating without notice the combat preparedness of the new regiment and its ability to perform firepower mission and mastering the actual war procedures.” 

The missile tested demonstrated a range of 800km, although its maximum range could be considerably longer. The launcher was integrated into a modified train boxcar, and moved into the launch position after the roof opened with doors on the sides also opening to allow the blast from the launch to vent outside. 

The weapons tests came three days after North Korea unveiled another asset related to its growing missile strike capabilities - a strategic cruise missile fired by a transporter-erector-launcher with a range of at least 1,500km.

North Korea’s railway infrastructure is thought to have deteriorated considerably in the 1990s when natural disaster, a loss of trading partners and Western economic warfare efforts between them sparked an economic crisis.

 The network is widely reported to have recovered during the 2010s, and its possible contribution to the country’s missile deterrent could lead to further investments in modernising and expanding infrastructure. 

North Korea also deploys ballistic missiles from submarines and from a wide range of both tracked and wheeled launch vehicles, with only an air launched weapon having yet to materialise. The Soviet Union notably relied on rail launched ballistic missiles for part of its nuclear deterrent, although this kind of nuclear weapon is not currently used widely. 

The missiles launched are thought to be yet-unnamed derivatives of the KN-26, which were first unveiled in January, and which are themselves based on the KN-23 that was unveiled in 2018 but expand on the missile’s range to be able to engage targets over 800km away. This KN-23 missile family is reportedly capable of impacting targets at hypersonic speeds  and has proven highly challenging for modern AEGIS and other defence systems to even detect. 

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