North Korea claims to have launched a hypersonic missile

North Korea claims to have launched a hypersonic missile
Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP

Sadly, after a couple of years of calm on the Korean Peninsula, we’re now back to a routine where it seems like there a missile launch taking place at least every other week. This week was no exception, with Kim Jong-un announcing yet another supposed advancement in his tactical weapons technology. This time, North Korea claims to have launched a hypersonic missile. The payload cone at the top of the missile, shown in a photo released by the country’s state-run news service, is claimed to be detachable and capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, or so they are implying. There are other technological differences from some of their previous efforts that make all of this interesting, though still almost entirely unconfirmed. (Associated Press)

North Korea said Wednesday it successfully tested a new hypersonic missile it implied was being developed as nuclear capable, as it continues to expand its military capabilities and pressure Washington and Seoul over long-stalled negotiations over its nuclear weapons.

The missile test early Tuesday was North Korea’s third round of launches this month and took place shortly before North Korea’s U.N. envoy accused the United States of hostility and demanded the Biden administration permanently end joint military exercises with South Korea and the deployment of strategic assets in the region.

A photo published in North Korea’s state media showed a missile mounted with a finned, cone-shaped payload soaring into the air amid bright orange flames.

As the AP report correctly points out, these launches are usually performed as part of a larger media campaign to influence the actions of both the United States and South Korea. This one seemed to be no exception, since the launch coincided with a new demand from North Korea that the Americans permanently halt all joint military exercises with South Korea.

But how about that missile? We have definite confirmation that a launch took place, but precisely how new or advanced this technology is remains unknown. Launching a true hypersonic missile is no easy feat. The United States, China, and Russia have all been testing a new generation of hypersonic missiles and others are working on them, including Japan, the Brits and even Australia. But the technological challenges are daunting in such research. Russia had one explode on them not all that long ago.

North Korea is still fairly new to the missile game by comparison. Could they really have come this far so fast? Nothing is impossible, but the folks at Jane’s Defence seem skeptical. North Korea’s missile is also reportedly a liquid fuel model, which seems like a step back from their recent solid fuel booster advances. Then again, a liquid fuel missile can be stored in a ready-to-launch state for a longer period of time.

South Korea has already analyzed the available data and believes that North Korea really is working on a hypersonic vehicle, but they assess it to be in the very early stages of development. They conclude that it will probably be a considerable period of time before they could test a fully functional model.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep an eye on them, however. The future battlefield is changing and it’s particularly worrisome when some of the most dangerous weapons are in the hands of a madman. The next generation of hypersonic missiles are steerable, unlike traditional ballistic missiles. That means that they can more easily avoid today’s missile defense systems and still reach their targets. Some day, something is going to have to be done about the North Korea problem. But we have too many balls in the air right now to worry about it, and Kim’s capabilities are still at least somewhat limited.

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