Kim Jong Un’s ‘Son of Scud’ Poses New Threat to U.S. Troops

(Bloomberg) -- North Korea’s latest weapons tests suggest the regime has developed a new missile that’s easier to hide, harder to strike down and capable of hitting all of South Korea.

Military exercises conducted by North Korea on Thursday and the previous Saturday featured the launch of solid-fuel, short-range ballistic missiles that look like a local variation on Russia’s Iskander. The so-called Son of Scud is “an extremely flexible battlefield system” designed to strike military units and capable of carrying nuclear warheads, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Kim Jong Un’s ‘Son of Scud’ Poses New Threat to U.S. Troops

While international attention has focused on Kim Jong Un’s quest to acquire intercontinental ballistic missiles that could strike the U.S., the short-range weapons pose a more immediate threat to South Korea and the some 28,500 U.S. troops stationed there. The launches -- Kim’s most significant military test since November 2017 -- have cast new doubt on U.S. President Donald Trump’s effort to secure a disarmament deal with North Korea.

Weapons experts who have examined satellite images and photos released by North Korean state media say the new systems appear similar to the Iskander, although there’s not yet enough data to say how their performance compares to their Russian peers. The North Korean version was unveiled at a February 2018 military parade, but wasn’t launched until last Saturday.

One of the missiles fired Thursday flew about 420 kilometers (260 miles), South Korea’s Defense Ministry said. If launched near the border and traveling at the same speed as an Iskander, the missile would be able to strike southern cities like Busan in less than five minutes and Seoul in about a minute, giving U.S. and South Korean forces little time to intercept.

Kim Jong Un’s ‘Son of Scud’ Poses New Threat to U.S. Troops

“They are 100% for attacking South Korea,” said Cheon Seong-Whun, a visiting research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies and a former presidential secretary for security strategy from 2014 to 2017. “The shorter, the deadlier to South Korea.”

U.S. Forces Korea referred requests for comment Friday to the Pentagon. The Department of Defense didn’t immediately respond. A department spokesman had earlier said analysts determined that North Korea launched “multiple ballistic missiles” Thursday.

North Korean state media described the latest test as a “long-range strike dill” and didn’t mention the word “missile.” That was similar language to its reports on the Saturday weapons test, which North Korea said involved “modern large-caliber long-range multiple rocket launchers and tactical guided weapons.”

One reason the weapon is believed to be more dangerous is that it’s more mobile. It’s solid-fuel propulsion system means it can be stored fueled and deployed faster.

Launch Vehicles

North Korean photos also showed the regime tested two different launch vehicles -- a heavy-duty wheeled truck and another with caterpillar treads. Such mobile platforms can be moved around the country by train and then hidden in tunnels and warehouses, said weapons expert Melissa Hanham, director of the One Earth Future Foundation’s Datayo Project.

“We can’t ever tell what kind of warhead it is carrying, so South Korea and the U.S. will have to be prepared for it to either carry a nuke or high-explosive warhead,” Hanham said. “This is a risky situation because it always leaves room for doubt and overreaction.”

While the launch of short-range ballistic missiles doesn’t breach Kim’s pledge to refrain from ICBM tests, it violates UN Security Council resolutions. Trump told reporters Thursday that Kim launched “smaller missiles,” adding that “nobody’s happy about it.”

Averting Interceptors

Still, neither the U.S. nor its allies in Seoul have so far accused North Korea of breaching UN bans or threatening South Korea, claims that could speed the break down of nuclear talks. South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Thursday said Kim was “protesting” to express his frustration with the negotiations.

The missile appears to fly too low to be intercepted by a U.S.-operated system antimissile system known as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD. And it’s too fast to be stopped by Patriot surface-to-air missiles that defend against low-altitude rockets, according to Kim Ki-ho, a former army colonel and defense studies professor at Kyonggi University in Seoul.

Kim Ki-ho said the type of mobile launcher that North Korea used Thursday was capable of climbing hills or bulldozing through forests and trees, adding to the concealment factor by making missiles launchers more capable of hiding under cover.

“With the current defense system operated by South Korea and the U.S. forces in Korea, there is nothing we can do in defense,” he added.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.