North Korea on April 17 confirmed a test of a new short ranged solid fuelled ballistic missile, which follows the country’s first ever allusions to the possibility that its nuclear arsenal could be used for short ranged tactical strikes. State media outlet KCNA highlighted that the new weapon was tested largely with such strikes in mind, stating “new-type tactical guided weapon … is of great significance in drastically improving the firepower of the frontline long-range artillery units and enhancing the efficiency in the operation of tactical nukes.” The Korean nuclear arsenal was previously considered to be aimed exclusively at targeting American territories with longer ranged missiles in strategic strikes, which would be initiated in response to any potential attack by the U.S. The two countries have been at war for over 70 years since 1950, although with an armistice in place since July 1953. The U.S. has since come close on multiple occasions to launching nuclear attacks on the East Asian country, and previously deployed over 950 warheads in South Korea before advances in submarine and cruise missile technologies made such close range deployments obsolete in the 1990s. North Korea detonated its first test nuclear warhead in 2006, but was suspected by U.S. intelligence of having a rudimentary nuclear strike capability since at least 1994.
North Korea suspended testing of ground launched strategic missiles in late 2017 after testing its first ICBM capable of striking the entire U.S. mainland in November. From early 2019, following the collapse of talks with the U.S. in February, North Korea carried out frequent tests of short ranged tactical ballistic missiles including some capable of travelling at hypersonic speeds. These were not previously thought to be capable of carrying nuclear warheads but they were prized for their ability to quickly neutralise sensitive targets such as airbases and command centres in a war’s opening stages – thus providing an asymmetric response to the fast improving aerial warfare capabilities of South Korea and the United States. Allocation of nuclear warheads to tactical roles indicates North Korea’s nuclear industry and the size of its arsenal have reached a satisfactory level to meet the priority requirements of strategic deterrence. It may also reflect concerns that a change in administration in South Korea will lead to a rise in tensions as the President-elect Yoon Suk Yeol has indicated he will take a much harder line against Pyongyang. The announcement of an intention to deploy nuclear warheads tactically followed a rise in international tensions after the outbreak of war between Russia and Ukraine in the final week of February. Iskander tactical ballistic missiles closely resembling the North Korean KN-23 have been used extensively by Russian forces in the conflict, and have been considered one of the most successful assets in the campaign, which may well influence Pyongyang to invest more in such capabilities.