January 13, 2022
SEOUL – North Korea successfully conducted the second consecutive test-firing of a “hypersonic missile” in less than a week for “final verification” on Tuesday, while the country’s leader Kim Jong-un urged bolstering “strategic military muscle” according to state media reports the following day.
The North Korean state media suggested that the country successively test-fired an identical maneuverable reentry vehicle (MaRV) to the one launched on Jan. 5, although Pyongyang labels the projectile as a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV).
“The test-fire was aimed at the final verification of overall technical specifications of the developed hypersonic weapon system,” the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported in an English-language report.
The state media said that the second missile flew further, and that the reentry vehicle had “superior maneuverability” during the final test-fire compared to the previous week’s test launch.
The reentry vehicle “made glide jump flight from 600 km area (after being released from the missile) before making a 240 km corkscrew maneuvering from the initial launch azimuth to the target azimuth and hitting the set target in waters 1000 km off.”
The KCNA had reported that the previous week’s MaRV flew 700 kilometers and made a “120 km lateral movement.”
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff on Tuesday said North Korea test-fired what appeared to be a ballistic missile with “advanced” capabilities in respect to detected specifications, including speed and flight distance.
The missile flew more than 700 kilometers at a top speed of around Mach 10 and at a maximum altitude of 60 km.
“The first test was seemingly a sufficient success to prove the concept that for the second test, the envelope of this new system was pushed much further in terms of range, speed and the claimed maneuverability of its warhead,” Joseph Dempsey, research associate for defense and military analysis at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told The Korea Herald.
“It is unclear if any changes were made to the design in the intervening period.”
Dempsey also explained that “multiple tests of the same new system within a relatively short period are not uncommon.”
Implications for missile defenses
Despite questions remaining on missile capabilities, analysts point out that the consecutive test-firings of missiles armed with maneuverable reentry vehicles have significance in view of missile defense systems.
The tests appear to seek ways to penetrate American, South Korean, and regional missile defenses, given that MaRVs can change their trajectory aerodynamically generally after re-entry.
“North Korea has demonstrated multiple types of maneuverable missiles to defeat missile defenses, either by evading allied interceptors, or by traveling around or under the ranges of those interceptors,” Adam Mount, director of the defense posture project at the Federation of American Scientists, told The Korea Herald.
Pyongyang has been pursuing multifaceted maneuverable systems, including KN-23 and KN-24 short-range ballistic missiles.
“North Korea continues its efforts to circumvent or saturate allied missile defenses. It may believe these capabilities provide more options to strike preemptively or to keep a conflict limited,” Mount added.
Kim Jong-un’s attendance in 2 years
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un conspicuously attended the weapons test, which is his first appearance in about 22 months since March 2020, when the country test-fired a pair of single-stage solid-fuel KN-24 missiles.
Kim’s presence explicitly showed the significance of the test-firing of the “hypersonic missile.” The state media also said the development of the hypersonic weapons system has the “most important strategic significance in the five core tasks of the five-year plan for building up the national defense capability.”
The party congress “set forth a strategic task” of prioritizing the development of hypersonic weapon system to “bolster up the country’s war deterrent,” the KCNA reported, underscoring the party-led vigorous efforts in leading the entire process to fulfill the task.
After the missile test, Kim Jong-un conspicuously emphasized the need to “further accelerate the efforts to steadily build up the country’s strategic military muscle both in quality and quantity and further modernize the army.”
Kim also encouraged researchers in defense science to continue to make achievements with the goal of “remarkably increasing the war deterrent” and following the ruling party’s “strategic policy of national defense development and strategic guidelines.”
Analysts view that the consecutive missile tests early in the year as Pyongyang‘s determination to push forward the ruling party’s plan to bolster national defense capabilities and pursue military buildup as scheduled. So, there could be more weapons tests to come.
“Hypersonic” missile test and more to come
Cha Du-hyeogn, a principal fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, pointed out the domestic implication of Wednesday’s announcement is that it “set the example of actualizing” the party’s plans.
North Korea announced that it conducted the test launch for final verification after test-firing two different types of what it claims as “hypersonic missiles” three times since last September.
Regardless of actual fulfillment, Cha said, Pyongyang would impart the significance of the final verification of the missile in respect to carrying out the task set by Kim Jong-un. And the country would move forward to implementing other tasks proposed at the Eighth Party Congress, in which Kim ordered to develop a wide range of conventional and nonconventional weapons.
“My view is that North Korea processes tasks –which are supposed to be completed in specific time frames — one by one,” Cha told The Korea Herald.
“Against that backdrop, Pyongyang would step forward to fulfill other goals set at the Eighth Party Congress, which entail launching a submarine-launched ballistic missile, building a medium-sized submarine, and developing unmanned air vehicles.”
Despite North Korea’s pronouncement, Cha forecasted that North Korea would not be able to deploy “hypersonic missiles” for the foreseeable future, given that there are high chances that the country has not yet developed nor acquired light and miniaturized nuclear warheads that can be mounted onto a hypersonic glide vehicle.
But North Korea needs to conduct additional nuclear tests to miniaturize nuclear devices, breaking the self-imposed moratorium. Do we expect more nuclear tests on the horizon?
“That leaves open the possibility,” Cha said. “Kim Jong-un would probably agonize over an additional nuclear test, which is a political decision.”