As the reader may recall, on January 5, 2022, the DPRK National Defense Academy conducted a test launch of a hypersonic missile, which “reconfirmed the flight control and stability of the missile in the active-flight stage and assessed the performance of the new lateral movement technique applied to the detached hypersonic gliding warhead.” The rocket flew at a maximum speed of Mach 6, made a “120 km lateral movement … from the initial launch azimuth to the target azimuth and precisely hit a set target 700 km away.”
The new missile creates a lot of problems for the DPRK’s opponents. Hypersonic missiles usually fly at a speed of at least Mach 5, which is five times the speed of sound and gives enemies little time to react. According to the South Korean experts, in the fall of 2021 the rocket flew less than 200 km at a speed of about Mach 3, and this time it reached the designed Mach 5 and twice the distance. Add to this the technology of lateral (horizontal) maneuvering complicating the work of the enemy missile defense and the fact that “during the test, the reliability of the fuel ampoule system was also confirmed in winter weather conditions.” Compared to conventional missiles that require hours of liquid fuel injection before launch, an ampoule (that is, a container with liquid fuel) can significantly reduce the fueling time and provides continuous and fast launches comparable to launches using solid fuel.
The reaction to the launch was generally expected, but the South Korean military actively talked down Pyongyang’s statements as exaggerated.
On January 10, the United States and five other countries, including Albania, Britain, France, Ireland, and Japan, called on North Korea to stop missile tests and begin negotiations on denuclearization, noting that “the DPRK makes these military investments at the expense of the well-being of the North Korean people. The people of North Korea continue to suffer under a strict authoritarian regime and through an increasingly serious humanitarian crisis.” In addition, the six countries argued that the missile test would not only expand the North’s capabilities, but also increase its illegal arms exports. “The DPRK’s record of weapons proliferation is clear. Each missile launch serves not only to advance the DPRK’s own capabilities, but to expand the suite of weapons available for export to its illicit arms clients and dealers around the world.” It is, however, unclear and, frankly, irrelevant how Pyongyang sells weapons amidst a “self-isolation of the whole country”.
The joint call was made shortly before the UN Security Council was to hold a meeting behind closed doors on the launch. However, the Chinese Foreign Ministry urged to show calm and refrain from overreaction, and the condemnation of the North at the UN Security Council did not work out this time.
On the same day, January 10, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said that North Korea’s missile test was a violation of the UN Security Council resolutions.
On January 11, the DPRK again launched a hypersonic missile, which was attended by Kim Jong-un and a number of high-level officials of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK). The place of the launch was in the Chagang Province, from where the previous missile was launched on January 5. The published photos of the missile launch show that it looks similar to the one launched on January 5, but the results were much better. “The hypersonic gliding warhead detached from its booster at 600 kilometers, after which it hit an established target at sea at a distance of one thousand kilometers.” The Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Republic of Korea also confirmed that the missile flew more than 700 kilometers at a maximum altitude of 60 km and with a maximum speed of Mach 10, that is 10 times the speed of sound.
What was the response? On January 11, the National Security Council under the President of the Republic of Korea held an emergency meeting. A few hours after the launch, President Moon Jae-in also expressed his concern, noting that the latest test launches took place before the presidential elections in the Republic of Korea.
The Ministry of Unification issued a statement saying that “North Korea should prefer cooperation for peace to actions that contradict efforts to establish peace on the Korean peninsula, such as missile launches.”
On January 13, representative of the Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Korea Pu Seung-chan stressed that “South Korea’s military possesses capabilities to not only detect this projectile but also intercept it”.
And again, the government avoided the term “provocation”, although the opposition conservative media and their politicians have used it to the fullest, since the “North Korean threat” is playing into their pocket. According to presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol, “the growing missile threat of North Korea is due to the negligence of the Moon Jae-in administration.” Moreover, Yoon said that since it was impossible to intercept a hypersonic missile with a nuclear warhead by the missile defense forces of the Republic of Korea, they may have to use a preemptive strike.
In the West, the reaction was much more cautious. Firstly, the use of a missile with an engine identical to the first stage of the Hwasong-14 ICBM as a rocket platform for launching a “hypersonic unit” created in the first dozens of seconds of the launch a picture (for both radars and missile flare detection systems) identical to an ICBM launch towards the United States. The missile further changed its trajectory, but apparently it was enough for a false alarm.
Military experts pay attention to the characteristics of the flight trajectories of the new missile systems. What matters is not so much the hypersonic speed but the ability to perform vertical and horizontal in flight maneuvering with large overloads instead of a simple ballistic curve. The missiles are very effective in overcoming missile defense systems originally designed to intercept conventional short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. In DPRK’s new complexes, the calculation windows and effective firing zones are greatly reduced compared to simple ballistic trajectories. In certain cases, a missile defense interception is simply impossible because of high speed (like a normal medium-range ballistic missile), the fact that most of the flight takes place at an inconvenient altitude (too high for some anti-missiles, and too low for the others), and the missile’s ability to reach its target from an undisguised direction or at an inconvenient angle (anti-missile guidance radars have limited sectors).
Another important detail is that a thousand kilometers is a conditional boundary between the distance of short- and medium-range missiles. This is NOT yet a violation of the moratorium, because Kim promised not to launch ICBMs, the distance of which begins with five thousand km, but a kind of signal confirming the thesis put forward at the December plenum of the WPK’s Central Committee that the international situation is becoming increasingly unstable.
Incidentally, the former chief of the US Armed Forces in Korea Curtis Scaparrotti said on January 14, 2022 that if data on North Korea’s recent self-proclaimed hypersonic missile launches isf true, it can be a reason for South Korea and the United States to be “very concerned,” citing the absence of “sure means” to counter them, given their “speed… and the maneuverability”.
That is why Washington condemned the launch. According to a representative of the US State Department, it violated a large number of UN Security Council resolutions. In addition, this action is regarded as a threat to the countries neighboring the DPRK and the world community as a whole. Nevertheless, he noted the US commitment to maintaining a diplomatic approach in relations with Pyongyang. According to him, Washington will continue to urge Pyongyang to return to the negotiating table. The US State Department also noted that the US remains committed to ensuring the protection of Seoul and Tokyo.
The United States Indo-Pacific Command stated that it closely monitors the missile launches by Pyongyang and conducts close negotiations with its allies and partners, and that the missile launch does not pose an immediate threat to the US or its allies, but indicates the destabilizing effect of the illegal actions of the North on the security situation.
On January 12, the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control imposed sanctions on five North Korean citizens responsible for purchasing goods related to Pyongyang’s development of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles. They are employees of the DPRK Defense Research Institute and were previously included in the US sanctions list in 2010. At the same time, US representatives said they were still ready for a diplomatic solution to the issue. Sanctions were also imposed on one Russian citizen and one Russian company with links to North Korea’s development of WMDs. In addition, Washington called on the UN Security Council to adopt additional sanctions. However, their adoption requires the consent of China and Russia, which will require additional discussion.
On January 13, the US Ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, tweeted that the United States insists on additional UN Security Council sanctions against North Korea. On the same day, the United States imposed sanctions on six North Koreans involved in programs to create weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles.
Afterwards, on January 14, a representative of the DPRK Foreign Ministry issued a press statement in which he noted that “the US accusation of the DPRK’s legitimate exercise of the right to self-defense is an evident provocation and a gangster-like logic,” while “North Korea’s recent development of a new-type weapon was just part of its efforts to modernize its national defense capability.” “While Washington may talk of diplomacy and dialogue, its actions show it is still engrossed in its policy for isolating and stifling North Korea,” the statement said. Therefore, “if the United States stands on such a confrontational position until the end, there will be a stronger and certain reaction.”
On January 14, North Korea launched two unidentified ballistic missiles. At the moment it seems most likely that these were either KN-23, also known as the “Iskander”, or KN-24 class (the North Korean equivalent of the American ATACMS), which are able to make abnormal maneuvers. Missiles were launched from Ŭiju County in the North Pyongan Province in the North West of the country, bordering with China, and at a maximum speed of about Mach 6 flew about 430 kilometers at an altitude of 36 km (according to the Republic of Korea) or 400 km and 60 km respectively (according to Japan).
But more important is the fact that the missiles were fired by a railway-mobile missile regiment, which “after having unexpectedly received a firing task from the General Staff, made an emergency maneuver to the specified launch site and accurately hit the target in the Korean East Sea (Sea of Japan – editor’s note) with two tactical guided missiles.” Recall that last fall, the DPRK tested for the first time an “atomic train” equipped with short-range missiles, although, according to experts, this train can carry not only a pair of KN-23s but also a transport and launch container with one large missile of higher power.
The National Security Council of the Republic of Korea again expressed deep regret. Members of the National Security Council noted that North Korea’s weapons tests did not contribute to the stabilization of the situation on the Korean peninsula, and again called on Pyongyang to return to dialogue. The US, in turn, reiterated that “this launch is in violation of multiple UN Security Council Resolutions and poses a threat to the DPRK’s neighbors and the international community”. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said the US would use “every appropriate tool” to address the issue.
At the moment of writing this article, the missile news is over, and the question that remains is whether this series of launches will grow to become something bigger. Unfortunately, it may for a number of reasons.
Firstly, the DPRK closely monitors military development of its supposed opponents and will develop its nuclear missile complex proportionately.
Secondly, if the United States moves from ritual sanctions to something more, it could destroy the de facto “double freeze” regime established during the Trump administration.
Thirdly, it is highly likely that Conservatives will come to power in the South. Although their presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol is not a classic right-wing politician, he may well, following the logic of factional struggle and the need to strengthen party unity by negotiating with other groups in the conservative camp, nullify Moon Jae-in’s achievements, and relations between the two Koreas will worsen more. The remark about a possible preemptive strike in this context is already a signal.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.