Building on the tensions of early 2024, North Korea began “missile season.” The KCNA reported that on the afternoon of January 14, DPRK’s General Administration of Rocket Science conducted a test launch of a medium-range solid-fuel ballistic missile with a hypersonic maneuverable guided warhead.
The successful launch was aimed at “confirming the characteristics of the gliding and maneuvering flight of a hypersonic maneuverable guided warhead of medium-long range and the reliability of the new multi-stage super-powered solid rocket motors,” had no impact on the security of surrounding countries, and took place quite independently of the situation in the region.
The South Korean military did not go into details about the technical specifications of the latest launch, noting that a detailed analysis was underway and pointing out that the KCNA report also did not have specific figures, such as missile speed, altitude and range, and identified the test itself as part of “regular activities of the main missile directorate and defense research institutes to develop powerful weapon systems”: the latter could mean both secrecy and failure. Detractors also noticed the absence of any statements like “Kim Jong-un and his daughter were at the launch and praised everyone,” which some believe means the test is at least not final. They may have been testing a missile with a warhead, not a missile with a warhead
However, according to the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Republic of Korea, the missile was launched from the vicinity of Pyongyang toward the Sea of Japan. The rocket flew about a thousand kilometers before falling into the sea. A report published on the Japanese Defense Ministry’s website says otherwise: “The missile traveled at least 500 km, reached a maximum altitude of 50 km, and fell into the Sea of Japan outside our country’s exclusive economic zone.”
In other words, this was the first ICBM in the new year (the previous launch of the Hwasong-18 missile took place on December 18, 2023) and, more importantly, the first known launch of a solid-fuel ICBM equipped with a hypersonic warhead. The DPRK’s military-industrial complex has reached or is about to reach a new height.
Why is it so important? First, solid-fuel missiles are harder to detect before launch than liquid-propellant rockets, which require additional preparation such as fuel injection. This adds to the quickness of preparing the missile for combat and thus the surprise of the attack.
Second, hypersonic missiles are generally difficult to intercept with existing missile defense systems. Such missiles fly at a speed of at least Mach 5 (five times the speed of sound) and are designed to be maneuverable, flying on unpredictable trajectories and at low altitudes.
The hypersonic warhead, a so-called glider that is put on a conventional missile, is among the list of high-tech weapons that Kim Jong-un has promised to develop in 2021, along with spy satellites, solid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear-powered submarines. Note that of the four items, one has not been shown so far.
In September 2021, North Korea said it conducted its first test launch of the Hwasong-8 hypersonic missile, followed by two more similar tests in January 2022, when the glider was launched on a liquid-fueled rocket. South Korea’s Defense Ministry then dismissed the North’s claim as “exaggerated.”
The ROK military believes that the solid-fuel ballistic missile being developed by Pyongyang, with a kill radius of 3,000-5,500 kilometers, is capable of hitting US military bases in Japan (including the island of Okinawa), Guam, where the B-52 strategic bombers are deployed and key US naval and air force bases are located, and could theoretically reach Alaska, which has a land-based system for intercepting intercontinental ballistic missiles. In a straight line from Pyongyang, the island of Guam is about 3,500 kilometers away and Alaska is about 6,000 kilometers away.
Yet, even this is not the point. The launch of a new solid-fuel missile with a hypersonic maneuverable warhead poses a significant threat to South Korea’s air defense system, according to analysts. A missile traveling at Mach 5 takes a minute to fly from Pyongyang to Seoul, and Kim Yeol Soo, Analyst at the Korea Institute for Military Affairs, believes that neither South Korea nor the US military currently has a credible defense against such threats. Sure, the liquid-fueled gliders tested in 2022 and 2023 reached speeds up to 10 times the speed of sound, but they were easier to detect. A switch to solid-fuel missiles could undermine, if not disable altogether, the ability of South Korea and the US to detect and defend against missile threats.
South Korea is developing long-range surface-to-air missiles to improve its air defense against hypersonic weapons, but if all goes according to plan, the new missiles won’t be deployed until 2028. Therefore, Shin Jong-woo, Senior Analyst at the Korea Defense Security Forum think tank, said that “this appears to be North Korea’s solution to our Kill Chain (preemptive strike system) and air defense under development.”
Add to that “fears that Russia, known for its advanced hypersonic missile technology, may support North Korea in developing its version of Avangard, a hypersonic nuclear-capable gliding aircraft developed by Russian scientists.”
Note that in an interview with the Yonhap news agency, South Korean Defense Minister Shin Won-sik speculated that North Korea could conduct a test launch of a new type of missile as early as January.
Reaction to the launch was extremely predictable. The United States, through the State Department spokesman, condemned the launch as a violation of numerous UN Security Council resolutions. Moreover, in response to a question from the Yonhap news agency, the official added that the launch posed a threat to North Korea’s neighbors and undermined regional security.
Washington dutifully reiterated its readiness for a diplomatic approach to the DPRK and that “our defense commitments to the Republic of Korea and Japan remain unwavering.”
In a separate statement, the US Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) said that while “this event poses no immediate threat to US personnel or territory, or to our allies, the missile launch highlights the destabilizing impact of the DPRK’s illicit weapons program,” the US is consulting closely with its allies and partners about the North Korean launch.
The ROK Defense Ministry called Sunday’s launches a “clear provocation” that violates UN Security Council resolutions banning the regime from using ballistic missile technology and warned of an overwhelming response in the event of any direct North Korean provocation.
ROK Foreign Ministry’s Special Representative for Peace and Security on the Korean Peninsula Kim Gunn, US Representative for North Korean Affairs Jung Pak and Director of the Asia and Oceania Department of Japan’s Foreign Ministry Hiroyuki Namazu characterized Pyongyang’s actions as a violation of UN Security Council resolutions, a threat to peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula. Calling North Korea’s actions, the “main causes” of instability in the region, the conversation emphasized that cooperation between Seoul, Washington and Tokyo will be strengthened as North Korea steps up unfriendly actions.
Japanese authorities “expressed strong protest to the DPRK over the incident.”
We may be in for another empty UNSC meeting, where US attempts to condemn the launch at the level of “the entire international community” will be rebuffed by Russia and China. There may be new targeted sanctions against North Korean, which there are already tons of. The South may respond with its own fire drills. All of this is now turning into a set of rhetorical figures surrounding the latest missile-related news.
Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences, Leading research fellow of the Center for Korean Studies at the Institute of China and Modern Asia of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.