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Iskander analog? Types of ballistic missiles Russia likely gained from North Korea and risks for Ukraine

Iskander analog? Types of ballistic missiles Russia likely gained from North Korea and risks for Ukraine The launch of a North Korean KN-23 ballistic missile (Photo:

The Russian Federation has likely begun to employ ballistic missiles from North Korea to strike Ukraine. This information is being discussed by American allies, but it has not been officially confirmed yet.

For more details on the ballistic missiles from North Korea that Russia might have obtained, the characteristics of North Korean missiles, and the threat they pose, refer to RBC-Ukraine's article.

The article was prepared using statements from White House National Security Council Coordinator John Kirby, Ukrainian Air Force spokesman Yurii Ihnat, material from the American Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), The War Zone portal, analysis from the American Institute for the Study of War (ISW), and comments from experts Valerii Riabykh and Oleksandr Kovalenko.

The United States alleges strikes by North Korean missiles; Ukraine hasn't confirmed yet

During yesterday's White House briefing, National Security Council Coordinator John Kirby disclosed new information regarding the support Russia is receiving from third countries. According to him, North Korea recently transferred launchers and ballistic missiles, which have already been used to strike Ukraine.

Specifically, Russian forces utilized at least one of these missiles during an attack on December 30, 2023, likely landing in an open area in the Zaporizhzhia region. Additionally, several ballistic missiles were launched on January 2, 2024. The aftermath of this attack is still being analyzed.

Kirby also noted that these North Korean ballistic missiles have an operational range of approximately 900 km.

"We anticipate that Russia will use additional North Korean missiles to target Ukraine's civilian infrastructure and to kill innocent Ukrainian civilians...This is a significant and concerning escalation," he emphasized.

However, he declined to provide details on how the U.S. obtained this information, stating that it came from multiple sources. Due to recent widespread attacks on Ukraine, they decided to declassify and publicize the information, relying on a "a wide range of intelligence sources over a period of time."

Iskander analog? Types of ballistic missiles Russia likely gained from North Korea and risks for Ukraine

Photo: John Kirby revealed that Russia had already used North Korean ballistic missiles to strike Ukraine (Getty Images)

It's worth noting that the Ukrainian side has not officially confirmed the use of North Korean missiles.

"The statement came from the United States. Therefore, experts will study... any fragments, and then we can talk about whether this fact is true or not. I cannot confirm this yet," said Air Force spokesman Yurii Ihnat.

Andrii Yusov, a representative of the Defense Intelligence of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, has informed Suspilne media outlet that Kirby's statement is being studied, and there will be separate reports.

However, allies are already reacting. A spokesperson for the British Foreign Ministry has stated that London condemns the Russian strikes with ballistic missiles from North Korea and calls on Pyongyang to cease arms supplies. They also threatened North Korea with further sanctions.

The identification issue is explained by military expert Valerii Riabykh from Defense Express. He notes that the Air Force does not have the tools to determine specific missiles. Services dealing with debris, identifying foreign components, etc., handle this.

"So it's more of a question for the Air Force. Of course, based on the nature of the data on their detectors, they can distinguish missiles by their behavior, speed, and trajectory. As for the lack of confirmation of the fall of North Korean missiles, it is most likely only a preliminary assessment," he emphasizes in a comment to RBC-Ukraine.

What kind of ballistic technology from North Korea could Russia have used: the main characteristics

The exact names of the missiles used by Russia to strike Ukraine are not disclosed. John Kirby displayed a slide showing the launch area on December 30 and the impact site.

Judging from the graphic, the launch was conducted from the Don River area, 70 km south of Voronezh. The missile traveled 460 km and fell near Zaporizhzhia. Additionally, the illustration shows depictions of the ballistic missiles KN-23 and KN-24.

Iskander analog? Types of ballistic missiles Russia likely gained from North Korea and risks for Ukraine

Photo: Infographic of the launch of a North Korean missile (slide from John Kirby's presentation)

According to the latest data, the shelling of Kharkiv on January 2 was carried out by missiles not of Russian origin. According to the head of the regional military administration, Oleh Syniehubov, the markings on the fragments have been erased. However, it can be said with certainty that the country of origin is not the Russian Federation, and the missiles that struck the city were of the Iskander-M type.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, USA, provides the following characteristics of the KN-23 and KN-24 missiles.

KN-23 (Hwasong-11GA)

This is a short-range ballistic missile first tested in May 2019. It follows a quasi-ballistic trajectory and visually resembles the Russian Iskander-M, leading analysts to consider the KN-23 a potential copy.

According to CSIS estimates, the missile can carry a warhead weighing 500 kg up to a distance of 450 km or a lighter one up to 690 km. Its length is approximately 7.5 meters, diameter 0.95 meters, with a total mass of 3,415 kg. In the terminal phase of flight, the KN-23 is capable of maneuvering, complicating interception. Its trajectory could pose a problem for missile defense systems. The use of fins for maneuvering complicates interception prediction. It remains unknown whether the North Korean missile has sophisticated guidance systems for accurate targeting after evasion maneuvers.

"This is a new missile that the Koreans likely made not without Russia's help. It matches the Iskander's primary parameters, and the frequency of successful launches indicates that the technologies on it were not being developed but already prepared," says Valerii Riabykh.

Iskander analog? Types of ballistic missiles Russia likely gained from North Korea and risks for UkrainePhoto: KN-23 missile (from open sources)

According to him, it is likely that the KN-23 uses the same chassis as the Iskander, produced by the Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant (MWTP). However, the Korean missile has a greater range than the Russian version, which hits at 500 km. Regarding the characteristics, they are mostly based on assumptions and were determined from photos and test results.

"On the one hand, everything seems clear. On the other hand, there are uncertainties; it's unclear about their quality. It's hard to say something when there are no official statements confirming that the debris belongs to the North Korean missile," adds the expert.

KN-24 (Hwasong-11NA)

This is also a short-range ballistic missile, likely with a maximum range of 410 km. At least during tests in March 2020, the KN-24 reached this distance at a maximum flight altitude of 50 km.

North Korean state media reported the possibility of conducting pull-up maneuvers, similar to the Russian Iskander-M, for guidance and evasion systems. It is unknown whether the KN-24 has a radar or a self-guided head.

Externally, it resembles the American Army's tactical missile ATACMS. It has a length of approximately 4.57-5.55 meters and a diameter of 0.7-0.85 meters. Analysts believe the missile carries a unitary warhead with a useful payload of 400-500 kg.

According to a military and political analyst for the Information Resistance Group, Oleksandr Kovalenko, the KN-24 (Hwasong-11NA) is based on the Soviet Tochka-U.

"How advanced it is now is another question. As well as whether the Russians possess it," he emphasizes in an interview with RBC-Ukraine.

Iskander analog? Types of ballistic missiles Russia likely gained from North Korea and risks for Ukraine

Photo: KN-24 missile launch (

As reported by the Ukrainian portal Defense Express, North Korea also possesses a stockpile of ballistic missiles, which are versions of the Soviet R-17 Elbrus complex, better known under the NATO designation Scud.

In particular, the Hwasong-9 has a maximum range of up to 1000 km and a warhead of 500 kg. The older versions, Hwasong-5 and Hwasong-6, have ranges of 300 and 500 km respectively, with warheads weighing between 700-770 kg and 960 kg. These possibilities regarding the missiles that Russia could have obtained from North Korea are not exhaustive, but they represent the primary ones. The exact answer to what exactly was launched towards the Zaporizhzhia region will only be revealed through the analysis of the debris.

Regarding Kharkiv, Kovalenko leans towards the version involving the KN-23 missile. He emphasizes that it is a twin of the 9M723 Iskander missile, with slight structural peculiarities.

"For instance, the gas-dynamic rudders on the tail section of the North Korean missile have a rectangular shape with clipped corners. Whereas in the 9M723, they are more rounded. This might indicate that Kharkiv was targeted not by a Russian but by a North Korean-made missile," he explains.

How many missiles could North Korea transfer and what are its reserves?

According to John Kirby, North Korea provided the Russian side with launchers and several dozen ballistic missiles. The Washington Post reports that its sources in American intelligence confirm these data.

"Russia’s deployment of North Korean-supplied ballistic missiles...indicates North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s growing support for Moscow’s war effort. It also shows Moscow’s ability to lean on pariah countries to make up for deficiencies in its own arsenal as the war in Ukraine approaches its third year," writes the WP.

There is no information in open sources about how many ballistic missiles North Korea possesses. However, the report by the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation (CACNP) provides some insight into its potential.

Iskander analog? Types of ballistic missiles Russia likely gained from North Korea and risks for Ukraine Photo: Under Kim Jong-un, North Korea could have produced hundreds if not thousands of ballistic missiles (Getty Images)

The foundation of North Korea's missile program was based on cooperation with the USSR during the 1960s and early 1970s. The ballistic program began in 1976 when North Korea acquired the Scuds. The first trials of their developments started in 1984, and since then, about 300 launches have been conducted. The percentage of unsuccessful tests decreased and is currently around 15%.

Kim Jong-un's rule has marked an expansion of efforts in the missile program. Between 2012 and 2023, North Korea conducted over 214 tests and showcased various missiles of short, medium, and long ranges. At present, it's challenging to assess its arsenal or speak about the number of missiles ready to be transferred to Russia.

"The arsenal is enormous, the range is wide, and there are many different ballistic missiles with different properties. It's not just hundreds but thousands of these missiles. This is the problem because they were produced in large quantities," says Oleksandr Kovalenko.

What is the danger and are the Ukrainian air defense systems capable of intercepting such missiles?

The Ukrainian Air Force has repeatedly highlighted the difficulty of countering ballistic missiles. Therefore, the replenishment of Russian stocks through North Korea could become a significant issue, writes the American portal The War Zone.

Previously, it was reported that the Russian ballistic arsenal had been reduced to minimal levels after the invasion of Ukraine. However, now, with the aid of North Korea, the ability to rapidly replenish these stocks has emerged, allowing for more intense missile strikes.

It is worth noting that the Ukrainian troops can intercept missiles like Iskander and Kinzhal using American anti-aircraft missile systems Patriot. However, the capabilities remain limited, as confirmation has been received for only three batteries. Consequently, there is a risk of overloading the Ukrainian air defense system during massive attacks, particularly during Russia's attempts to strike these systems.

Analysts from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) believe that ballistic missiles are more effective in targeting objectives in Ukraine. Russia regularly employs them to strike front-line cities and, presumably, successfully bypasses defense systems due to the ballistic trajectory.

Iskander analog? Types of ballistic missiles Russia likely gained from North Korea and risks for UkrainePhoto: Ukraine's ability to intercept North Korean missiles depends on whether the target is covered by a Patriot-type complex (Getty Images)

It's noted that during intensive attacks since December 29, 2023, Ukrainian air defense systems intercepted 149 out of 166 cruise missiles, but only a few ballistic ones. The adversary reprofiled the S-300/S-400 complexes for ground attacks; officials in Kyiv admit that intercepting them is challenging. Ukrainian forces were less successful in intercepting Iskander missiles but managed to shoot down all 10 Kinzhals on January 2. ISW summarizes that the effectiveness of Russian ballistic weapons depends on Ukraine's air defense configuration within the target area.

Yurii Ihnat, Air Force spokesman, commented today on the difficulty of intercepting North Korean-produced ballistic missiles.

"I believe their armament, taking North Korea, has a lot of Soviet technology passed down from the USSR. Perhaps even identical. So, expecting something significantly different from an Iskander is unlikely, maybe some minor differences," he has noted.

Expert Valerii Riabykh is cautious in his assessments.

"No one has dealt with North Korean missiles yet, and our specialists will have to draw conclusions. It's hard to say how difficult it is to intercept them. Some information about them exists, but not detailed characteristics," he says.

According to the Defense Intelligence of Ukraine, Russia produces up to 30 Iskander-M and about 4 Kinzhals per month. Essentially, these are artificial specimens for Russia, but thanks to deliveries from North Korea, it can constantly overload Ukrainian air defense.

"This concerns directions where we have Patriot and other systems capable of intercepting ballistic missiles. The increase in the number of such missiles in the RF creates significant threats. We saw this in the case of Kinzhals. Of course, all 10 were successfully shot down, but it seriously drains our air defense as several interceptors are needed for one ballistic missile," Riabykh adds.

Not just North Korea. Why Russia needs the help of global pariahs?

Due to sanctions and increased export controls, Russia is becoming more isolated. Hence, it's compelled to seek arms from its kindred spirits. North Korea became one of them.

According to assessments by the White House, in exchange for ballistic missiles, Pyongyang turns to Moscow for fighter jets, surface-to-air missiles, armored vehicles, and other advanced technologies.

As ISW analysts note, the relative success achieved by Russian forces using ballistic missiles in combination with cruise missiles and drones may prompt Russia to intensify efforts to acquire ballistic missiles to continue massive strikes.

Moreover, not just from North Korea. Recently, John Kirby reminded that Russia was trying to purchase short-range ballistic missiles from Iran. As of today, there's no confirmed data on deliveries. However, Washington is concerned about active negotiations.

"In September of 2023, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps — the IRGC — hosted Russian Defense Minister Shoigu in Iran and showcased its Ababil close-range ballistic missile and other missile systems. This event marked the first public display of ballistic missiles to a senior Russian official visiting Iran since February of 2022," Kirby added.

It's worth noting that it involved Ababil short-range missiles with a range of up to 86 km and Fateh-110, the third generation of which reaches 300 km. The latter has a warhead weight of 650 kg, making it more destructive than Tochka-U, S-300, and Iskander based on its parameters.

Iskander analog? Types of ballistic missiles Russia likely gained from North Korea and risks for UkrainePhoto: Demonstration of Iranian missiles for the Russian military delegation (

More on this in a separate article "Ababil and Fateh-110: Potential transfer of Iranian ballistic missiles to Russia, implications for Ukraine's security."

In connection with this, Washington announces measures in response. Purchasing ballistic missiles from North Korea violates United Nations Security Council resolutions, so this issue will be raised at one of the upcoming meetings to try to hold Moscow accountable. Additionally, the U.S. will impose additional sanctions on those who assist in the supply of weapons from Pyongyang and Tehran. Kirby believes that the strikes with North Korean ballistic missiles confirm the necessity for further support to Ukraine, and Congress must immediately approve the White House request for over $60 billion in funding.

However, official figures are not commenting on another fact. It's no secret that North Korea is within China's sphere of influence, and without Beijing's approval, the transfer of rockets from Russia would likely be impossible. But does this mean that China will join Iran and North Korea in directly supporting Moscow in the future?

"I don't think China will go for that. It acts more cautiously and won't engage in confrontation with the West. But the fact that North Korea transferred ballistic missiles with China's tacit consent is indeed true. And this is a worrying sign for the U.S. primarily because, in the future, they'll have to address not only the issue of North Korean missiles but also the fact that Pyongyang has indeed shown readiness to participate in a conflict of global proportions," says Oleksandr Kovalenko.

If the use of missiles from North Korea for strikes against Ukraine is officially confirmed, this should change the approach of Western partners. Firstly, it would require agreeing to allocate multi-billion-dollar aid packages, and secondly, expanding the range of weapons supplied, believes Valerii Riabykh.

"If Russia proposes new rules of the game, an asymmetric response should be given. One of the options could be to equip Ukraine with long-range missiles. And it's not just about ATACAMS, which have a range of 300 km. We need even longer-range missiles to strike the places of ballistic missile production located thousands of kilometers away from Ukraine's borders," adds the expert.