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North Korea’s Hypersonic Missile Test: Shifting Focus from South Korea to the U.S.?

North Korea Reveals Nuclear Attack Weapons Against South
Showcases missiles for attacking the U.S.
Shift from liquid to solid fuel
Expected additional provocations for performance verification

The Korean Central News Agency, a North Korean state-run media, reported on the 15th that “The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s Missile General Bureau conducted a test launch of a medium-range solid-fuel ballistic missile equipped with a hypersonic maneuvering combat compartment yesterday afternoon.” ⓒKorean Central News Agency


Amidst North Korea’s recurring provocations, involving various short-range missiles capable of carrying tactical nuclear weapons and even rhetoric mentioning the aim of “taking over” South Korea, they have recently conducted missile provocations featuring medium-range ballistic missiles equipped with solid engines and hypersonic capabilities.

North Korea, which has made substantial strides in developing new weaponry geared towards potential nuclear threats to South Korea, appears to be shifting its focus towards the United States.

The North Korean state-run media outlet, Korean Central News Agency, reported on the 15th under the headline ‘Hypersonic Missile Test Launch Conducted.’ The report stated, “Yesterday afternoon, the Missile General Bureau conducted a successful test launch of a medium-range solid-fuel ballistic missile equipped with a hypersonic maneuvering warhead.”

The communication mentioned the purpose of the test launch as confirmation of “the flight and maneuvering characteristics of the medium-range hypersonic maneuvering combat compartment, and the reliability of the newly developed multi-stage high-thrust solid fuel engines.”

Since North Korea has provoked hypersonic missiles for the first time since January 2022, there is interest in whether there has been specific technical progress.

Lee Sung-Jun, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff public relations office, addressed questions during a regular briefing at the Ministry of National Defense. In response to a query about how this launch differs from the one two years ago, he stated, “We are currently conducting a comprehensive analysis.” He noted, “The missile launched in 2022 used liquid fuel, whereas North Korea claims to have used solid fuel this time, so there might be differences.”

While acknowledging the ongoing analysis, he added, “Since this is North Korea’s first announcement of using solid fuel for this type of missile, we need to accumulate data.”

Professor Kim Dong-yeop from the University of North Korea commented on the limitations in assessing North Korea’s technical progress with medium-range applications based solely on a single released photo. He pointed out the difficulty in identifying any changes or differences without detailed results, especially when the test was only briefly reported as “successfully conducted.”

The hypersonic missile launched by North Korea on January 11, 2022 (data photo) ⓒKorean Central News Agency

Increasing solid fuel missiles in North Korea
Linked with launch origin diversification
Main focus on increasing missile survivability

While further verification is required, it is significant to note that North Korea is ramping up its production of solid-fuel engine missiles.

Recently, North Korea successfully launched a solid-fuel engine intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) named Hwasong-18. This success demonstrated the applicability of solid fuel to both medium-range and long-range missiles, showcasing its versatility.

One key advantage of solid-fuel engines is their ability to be launched quickly and discreetly compared to liquid-fuel engines, which require several days for fueling. This feature is particularly crucial as North Korea is pursuing a strategy to ‘diversify launch sites’ by deploying various missiles from mobile launch platforms (Transporter-Erector-Launcher or TEL). The proliferation of solid-fuel missiles is expected to enhance missile survivability significantly.

In particular, this development has the potential to bolster North Korea’s threat capabilities against the United States, particularly concerning medium-range missiles targeting Guam, a location considered a gathering point for U.S. strategic assets.

Kim Jong Un, Chairman of the State Affairs Commission of North Korea ⓒKorean Central News Agency

Evasive maneuver hypersonic missile
‘Impairment’ of detection and interception capabilities of South Korea, the U.S., and Japan
“Expected to launch additional missiles under Kim Jong Un’s supervision”

In the same context, it is worth noting that North Korea’s recent announcement of hypersonic technology, characterized by the unusual maneuvers of its warheads, deserves attention.

By showcasing the ability to rapidly and discreetly execute attacks through various solid-fuel engine missile launches using TELs, North Korea appears to be gradually acquiring hypersonic technology to potentially evade detection and interception by South Korea, the U.S., and Japan.

The applicability of hypersonic technology to submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) is of particular significance, which could further bolster North Korea’s military capabilities and pose additional challenges in the future.

Professor Kim emphasized, “For hypersonic missiles, the exceptional maneuverability and velocity of the reentry vehicle after separating from the propulsion unit are crucial.” He added, “In practice, a full-scale test launch is necessary, and I anticipate that Kim Jong Un will supervise another such test soon.”

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