North Korea began 2022 by testing what Pyongyang claims is a new type of "hypersonic missile," in the country's first weapons test since autumn 2021. As the reclusive East Asian nation continues developing high-tech weapons systems, some tests over the past months show potentially big steps, while other tests look like adaptations of previously available technology.
North Korea's hypersonic ambitions
A cause for concern has been the North's development of hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs), an advanced weapons system being developed by major militaries around the world. HGVs involve a projectile launched on a rocket booster with a velocity at least five times the speed of sound, featuring increased maneuverability that can evade detection and interception.
While most ballistic missiles can already fly at hypersonic speeds, analysts say it is the HGV's ability to fly at low altitudes and maneuver in-flight that make them a greater threat. According to Jeffery Lewis, an arms expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, the type of HGV launched this week looks to be a type of conical hypersonic glider, also known as a "maneuvering reentry vehicle (MaRV)." The weapons system tested this week flew a total 700 kilometers (435 miles), including a lateral maneuver that flew for 120 kilometers.
However, MaRV is not a novel type of weapon, and North Korea has tested similar vehicles before on less-powerful boosters, such as the 2017 launch of a MaRV on a short-range scud missile. The missile fired this week appears to have first been shown off at the "Self-Defense-2021" expo in Pyongyang in October 2021, according to Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Nuclear Policy Program.
In late September, North Korea surprised the world by announcing for the first time that it had tested an HGV. North Korean state media said the missile system was called "Hwasong-8," Hwasong, being the name North Korea gives to a series of missiles that translates to "Mars" in English. According to a photograph of the September launch analyzed by 38 North, a think tank, an "arrowhead-shaped vehicle with stubby wings resembling an HGV" was atop an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM), a booster resembling a shortened version of a Hwasong-12 ballistic missile.
The shape of the hypersonic glider launched in September appeared wedge-shaped, different than the conical-shaped glider launched this week. The missile boosters used in the launches reportedly used more mobile type of pre-loaded storable liquid propellant called a missile fuel ampoule. "Hypersonic glide vehicle technology requires very advanced materials science and industrial techniques, to the extent that in my opinion North Korea likely received foreign assistance in the endeavor," Ian Williams, deputy director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for International and Strategic Studies (CSIS), told DW .
However, according to 38 North, an HGV would only make a niche contribution to the North's existing large ballistic missile force, "primarily in providing another option to evade missile defense." It is also difficult to verify North Korea's claims of successful launches, without direct data on where projectiles may have flown or if they reached their intended targets.
Submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) are another adavanced weapons system the North is pursuing. Following North Korea's first hypersonic test, it claimed to have test-fired an SLBM in October. "The missile itself is something we haven't seen before. It is smaller than the sub-launched missiles that Pyongyang displayed in recent military parades and appears to more closely resemble the land-based KN-23 missile," Williams said. A short-range ballistic missile (SRBM), the KN-23 has a range of 450 kilometers, which means a submarine would theoretically need to move relatively close to targets in order to be effective. This would make the subs more vulnerable to advanced detection systems.
The last time North Korea claimed it had launched an SLBM, it was a larger "Pukguksong" (Polaris) missile with nearly three times the range of the KN-23. According to 38 North, the "new type" of SLBM fired in October had more to do with political messaging to South Korea, than a display of increased strategic capability. Seoul had launched a very similar SLBM in September. And analysts point out the effectiveness of SLBMs would still depend on the effectiveness of North Korea's aging submarines. "North Korea's recent missile tests have been of new technologies, although add only incrementally to its already formidable missile capabilities," Jenny Town, director of 38 North, told DW .
What other types of missiles does North Korea use?
Some of these capabilities include, the Hwasong-14, an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which was tested in 2017 and has a range of over 10,000 kilometers, which could potentially threaten targets anywhere in the United States. However, to strike targets in South Korea or Japan, which are home to the largest overseas contingent of U.S. military personnel, smaller missiles with a shorter range are enough to present a major threat. "Other developments included launches of missiles we had seen before 2021, but fired from new kinds of platforms. Most notably, the launch of a KN-23 ballistic missile from a rail car," Williams said.
In September, the North also fired a long-range cruise missile, claimed to be a "strategic weapon of great significance" North Korea has also tested a satellite launch vehicle called "Taepodong-2," which can carry a 1,000 kilogram payload up to 10,000 kilometers, including vehicles capable of reentering the atmosphere.
Pyongyang has also developed nuclear weapons, and analysts carefully watch satellite images of its Yongbyon nuclear research center for signs that the program could be advancing. The North has carried out six tests of nuclear weapons, but the last one was in 2017. "Much of the work of developing missile systems doesn’t involve flight testing. North Korean engineers require time to design, and build, which takes time. Just because we don't see flight tests, doesn't mean North Korea isn't continuing to develop its missile capabilities," said Williams.
Why test now?
North Korea is banned by international sanctions from testing ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, the Kim Jong Un-led regime in Pyongyang has pushed ahead with weapons tests, arguing that it has a right to self-defense, and that diplomacy with its adversaries can only be conducted from a position of military strength. The United States and its allies, Japan and South Korea, condemn North Korea's missile tests as a threat to regional stability. Negotations between the U.S. and North Korea on curbing weapons development in exchange for sanctions relief fell flat in 2019. "Given the hardships North Korea is facing at the moment, there are likely calculations about what kinds of weapons testing can be done without galvanizing the international community against it," said 38 North's Town.
Town added that, unlike in 2017, the North is more likely to tread lightly with its weapons testing. "Pyongyang seemed to be willing to sacrifice its foreign relations at that time to achieve a certain level of success, but these days, with a real focus on economic development as part of its national strategy and an urgent need to forge a path to economic recovery in the near term, some level of foreign relations and support is necessary," she added.