The new ballistic missile was among key new weapons and military technological advances displayed by the Republic of Korea Armed Forces during Armed Forces Day on Saturday, Oct. 1. The military released a video along with the public unveiling of the missile while claiming that it has "the world's largest warhead."
The ballistic missile is called the Hyunmoo-5. According to local newspaper Chosun Ilbo, the Hyunmoo-5 is expected to be able to carry a nine-metric ton (9.92 tons) warhead. It has a range of more than 3,000 kilometers (1,864 miles) when equipped with a warhead weighing less than one metric ton (1.1 tons).
Shin Jong-woo, a senior researcher at the Korea Defense and Security Forum, deduced that the new ballistic missile will be able to carry warheads heavier than other South Korean ballistic missiles. He could not predict the maximum size and weight of the Hyunmoo-5's payload, but he believes the missile will be able to "carry the largest one Korea has ever developed."
The Hyunmoo-5 was launched using a "cold launch" method. This means the missile's engine is ignited after leaving the launcher, a method usually reserved for submarine-launched missiles wherein safety of the launchers is of utmost priority.
"Korea's previous Hyunmoo-2 uses the hot launch method, meaning the engine is ignited on the launch pad," said Shin. "However, the new missile was cold launched and we can presume that the new high-powered ballistic missile carries a heavier warhead."
The unveiling of the missile is shown to be part of the "Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation System," one of South Korea's "three-axis" strategies for targeting the leadership of North Korea if war breaks out. The axes include South Korea's air and missile defense network and its "Kill Chain" pre-emptive strike system. (Related: Kim Jong-un: North Korea "fully ready" to deploy nuclear weapons against US and its allies.)
During the Korean War, North Korea completely fortified its half of the Korean peninsula by building over 6,000 underground facilities, mostly under granite surfaces. Shin noted that the Hyunmoo-5 was developed specifically to be able to target and strike North Korean high-value targets in one of these underground facilities.
"A high-power ballistic missile with a heavier warhead has increased kinetic energy when descending, thus possessing a higher power to destroy underground facilities and bases by penetrating the ground," said Shin.
The public unveiling of the Hyunmoo-5 comes just after North Korea conducted a test launch of seven short-range ballistic missiles, including two on Saturday. This was followed up by another ballistic missile test on Tuesday, Oct. 4, which flew over Japan.
Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst in defense strategy and capability at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, noted that the Hyunmoo-5's stated maximum range of 1,864 miles makes it theoretically capable of hitting China and Japan.
"Obviously, China will respond negatively," said Davis. "But China has a massive and much more sophisticated conventional ballistic missile force that is far superior to what South Korea has."
But according to Ryu Yongwook, a specialist in East Asian studies at the National University of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, it isn't entirely clear if the Hyunmoo-5 could actually fly 1,864 miles with a heavy warhead, noting that the missile has been designed specifically to strike North Korean targets 300 to 800 kilometers away (186 to 497 miles).
Ryu added that to be able to hit most targets in China, the warhead carried by the Hyunmoo-5 won't be able to weigh any more than two metric tons (2.2 tons).
"The main purpose of South Korea's development of its cruise and ballistic missiles is to deter North Korea's aggression rather than targeting China," he added. "Of course, neighboring countries may interpret South Korea's military development differently, thereby causing an arms race."
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has attempted to assuage Chinese fears by claiming that the country's defense system is intended to deal with threats coming from North Korea, and is not aimed at China or any other country.
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Watch this clip from CNA discussing North Korea's latest long-range ballistic missile test, which flew over Japan.