Last week (July 23), South Korean fighters repeatedly fired live warning shots as a Russian A-50U airborne warning and control system (AWACS) plane allegedly briefly violated Korean national airspace close to the Liancourt Rocks—a group of several small islets in the Sea of Japan, controlled by South Korea but also claimed by Japan and North Korea. This potentially dangerous incident also involved two Russian strategic Tu-95MS Bear bombers and two Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) Xian H-6K bombers. These aircraft were performing the first ever Sino-Russian joint air patrol over the Sea of Japan, the East China Sea and the Korea Strait. The Russian and PLAAF bombers intruded into the self-proclaimed Korea Air-Defense Identification Zone (KADIZ) without prior warning and without identifying themselves, but did not enter sovereign Korean airspace. The Russian air command reacted angrily to the incident, denied any violations and claimed no warning shots were fired. At the same time, it promised to reply in kind if anybody ever endangers Russian military aircraft by opening fire (see EDM, July 25).
Moscow has a vested economic and political interest in building a sound relationship with Seoul. The Russian military was apparently told to stop commenting on the July 23 incident. Coverage in the Kremlin-controlled media abruptly dried up. Meanwhile, South Korean and Russian diplomats met to discuss the fracas, and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs ultimately published a short, dry report wrapping up the story. Moscow did not apologize and maintains its pilots did nothing wrong; both sides agreed to strengthen military and non-military Russo-Korean cooperation and communication, while exchanging views on the overall Korean Peninsula situation (Mid.ru, July 25).
But despite Moscow and Seoul’s apparent return to amity, regional tensions did not evaporate entirely: On July 26, North Korea test-launched a couple of short-range missiles into the Sea of Japan and two more on July 31. The missiles have been identified as the KN-23, which the South Korean authorities believe is a modified version of the Russian 9K720 Iskander missile, or at least a close lookalike. The missile was first test-fired in May 2019, at which point the United States military designated it the KN-23. It is believed to be a solid-fuel rocket with a quasi-ballistic trajectory, similar to the original Iskander-M; and it may contain an inertial navigation system (INS) that controls it during the entire flight. On July 26, one of the KN-23 missiles flew some 690 kilometers, which means its range could potentially cover the entire territory of South Korea. The Russian Iskander-M is a precision-guided missile that can carry a conventional or nuclear warhead. According to the South Korean military, its North Korean copycat, the KN-23, may thus pose a grave threat (Militarynews.ru, July 26).
The North Koreans have a long history of reverse-engineering and modifying Soviet missiles acquired abroad, including notably the liquid-fuel R-17 (known in the West as the Scud-B), obtained from Egypt, and the solid-fuel 9K79 Tochka, from Syria. Pyongyang transformed the latter missile into the KN-02 Toksa (Hwasong-11), with an increased range of over 200 kilometers. The Tochka has an INS, which improves its targeting Circular Error Probability (CEP) to about 100 meters. Considering that the North Koreans managed to produce the KN-02, they are surely also capable of independently producing their own solid-rocket fuel and INS. It is possible the bigger and longer-range KN-23 was built by the North Koreans using the 9K79 Tochka as a technological source. Or they may have acquired an Iskander missile directly and reverse-engineered it. The North Koreans deliberately showed off the KN-23 launches and distributed images. The Iskander and the KN-23 indeed look alike, but there are differences (Utro.ru, July 26). Up to now, Moscow has neither confirmed nor denied possible military technical cooperation with Pyongyang or given any explanation as to why the KN-23 is similar to the Iskander (Avia.pro, July 26).
Moscow exported the Tochka to many Soviet allies in the 1980s. The Iskander has so far only officially been delivered to Armenia and Algeria. On top of that, however, the Russian Armed Forces deployed the Iskander-M to the Syrian theater, where the missile was used in anger, as confirmed by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (Interfax, December 22, 2017) and Deputy Prime Minister in Charge of the Defense Industry Yuri Borisov (Tvzvezda.ru, December 17, 2018). Apparently, the Iskander system in Syria was fired directly by the Russian military and not transferred to local pro-Iranian or pro–Bashar al-Assad allies. Of course, it is always possible that some Russian officers might have been bribed by locals in Syria to hand over documentation or even a working Iskander-M missile, which could have been written off as used in battle, while, in fact it was then smuggled out to Pyongyang to reverse-engineer. In the mayhem of the Syrian civil war, almost anything could have occurred; but there is no available evidence of such a scenario at this time.
The Iskander has an INS that guides it during most of its flight trajectory and an optical Digitized Scene-Mapping Area Correlator (DSMAC), which navigates the missile precisely to its target, reducing the CEP to some 10 meters or less. A digitized image of the target must be uploaded to the missile before launch. In Russia, Iskanders are test-fired on firing ranges to check the precision capabilities of their guidance systems (Interfax, October 18, 2017). The North Koreans have been test-firing the KN-23 into the Sea of Japan, which make no military/technical sense at all: It is impossible to check the optical DSMAC in the open sea or figure out the missile’s CEP when it splashes down. Seemingly, the KN-23 lacks a functional optical DSMAC and does not have the precision-targeting capabilities of the original Russian Iskander, which makes it just another Scud-range inaccurate missile, but with a reduced payload and possibly lacking the capability to carry a primitive and bulky self-made North Korean nuclear device. Of course, the North Koreans may eventually produce a functional optical DSMAC or other effective guidance missile system for the KN-23, maybe with someone else’s help. Meanwhile, the well-publicized recent launches of KN-23 missiles violate multiple United Nations resolutions and are apparently intended to blackmail Washington and terrorize Seoul into concessions, North Korean–style (Kommersant, August 1). The apparent implication of direct Russian involvement in the North Korean missile program could further worsen the already-strained relations with Seoul.