GP Short Notes # 604, 8 January 2022
On 6 January, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the state media, reported North Korea testing of the second 'hypersonic missile' on 5 January. The KCNA stated: "The successive successes in the test launches in the hypersonic missile sector have strategic significance in that they hasten a task for modernizing the strategic armed force of the state."
It read: "The missile made a 120 kilometres lateral movement in the flight distance of the hypersonic gliding warhead from the initial launch azimuth to the target azimuth and precisely hit a set target 700 kilometres away." KCNA confirmed the details of the test such as the ability of operation in the winter season and flight control. In addition, the missile demonstrated its ability to combine "multi-step glide jump flight and strong lateral manoeuvring."
On 5 January, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said: "Since last year, North Korea has repeatedly launched missiles, which is very regrettable." South Korea's National Security Council convened an emergency meeting addressing the concern on the launch.
What is the background?
First, North Korea's hypersonic missile tests. In September 2021, North Korea launched its first hypersonic boost-glide vehicle called Hwasong-8. The missile flew 200 kilometres at an altitude of 60 kilometres. The Hwasong-8 has a fuel ampoule technology that permits liquid-fueled missiles to be filled during the production process and can be stored in airtight canisters, making them ready for launch. KCNA refrained from reporting the launch of the missile; thus, the payload and the intensity of the hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) remain unknown. North Korea is visibly interested in developing liquid-propellant missiles which are more energetic than solid-propellant.
Second, a brief background to the North Korean missiles. North Korea is increasing the nuclear weapons stockpile. It has tested more than a hundred missiles, including ballistic missiles starting from short to medium, intermediate, long, intercontinental, submarine-launched and hypersonic missiles. Hwasong-15, the largest and the most powerful ballistic missile, was launched in 2017. It is a liquid-fueled intercontinental-range ballistic missile (ICBM) with a trajectory of 950 kilometres with a potential range of 13,000 kilometres.
Third, North Korea's political objectives. North Korean Leader Kim Jong-Un justifies nuclear weapons as a shield from the US' hostile policy, solidifying the authoritarian regime. Initially, it was considered to be either a capacity-building technique or a bargaining chip for economic and diplomatic benefits. However, today, North Korea is seeking sufficient nuclear weapons for deterrence from the US.
Fourth, the global concerns. The US, Japan and South Korea have been wary of North Korea's repeated deployment of weapons due to the geographic proximity. The UK and Germany have consistently urged Pyongyang to resume negotiations and strongly condemned the recent test launches.
What does this mean?
First, Pyongyang's lack of interest in rejoining denuclearization talks. For a country that is struggling with food shortages and economic crisis, North Korea shows no signs of resurrecting the long-stalled talks with the US. Despite the UNSC resolutions banning nuclear missile tests, Pyongyang continues to develop and test weapons. North Korea wishes to deliver a clear message to the US that the regime will not succumb to the idea of reunification of the Korean peninsula and allow US intervention like in Iraq and Libya.
Second, the North Korean upper hand. Pyongyang has been pushing for the development of nuclear weapons with ICBMs as its priority. The North here gains supremacy over South Korea, paralyzing Seoul's defense posture and strategic planning. In a broader aperture, South Korea walks on a tightrope and questions the sustainability of South Korea's strategic ambiguity.