North Korea’s hypersonic missile is a game-changer

North Korea on Tuesday (January 11) morning test-fired a missile that South Korea confirmed later in the day flew at hypersonic speeds.

Given that the missile fell far short of the intercontinental ranges required to hit the United States, the test may have generated yawns among newsreaders accustomed to Pyongyang’s frequent projectile launches.

But a closer look points to an ominous trend in the state’s military capabilities that is shattering decades of conventional strategic wisdom.

The missile launched from an inland site in North Korea into the Sea of Japan reached speeds of Mach 10 and flew at altitudes of up to 60 kilometers for more than 700 kilometers, South Korea’s military said.

Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the North Korean test showcased a missile that was “improved” over a test conducted six days earlier.

Pyongyang state media had called its earlier, January 5 event, the test of a hypersonic missile. While Seoul was skeptical a week ago, South Korea’s military has now confirmed that North Korea is hypersonic-capable.  

A hypersonic missile is an ultra-high-speed weapon, either ballistic or cruise, that travels at more than five times the speed of sound, or Mach 5, at under 90 kilometers altitude. Hypersonic speeds negate all current-generation missile defense systems. And North Korea’s latest test far exceeded Mach 5.

It is not entirely clear if North Korea’s missile meets the complete definition: some experts say hypersonic missiles also showcase extreme maneuverability, and its targeting capabilities are not known.

However, North Korea has been testing what it claims are hypersonic weapons since last September and has demonstrated variable flight paths in prior tests.

Last week’s test led to a closed-door meeting of the UN Security Council in New York on Monday. The North’s latest test, only one day later, made clear how impotent the global community is. Though the UN has passed resolutions and placed heavy sanctions on North Korea since 2016, Pyongyang’s arms tests continue.

Experts in Seoul largely agree that North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs have, so far, largely been aimed at deterring the US.

While North Korea prioritized conventional forces in the 1950s, and unconventional forces in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, it has been on the defensive since the collapse of the USSR and its own impoverishment in the 1990s. These weaknesses are what led to Pyongyang’s weapons-of-mass-destruction deterrents.

Now, experts detect a new and alarming shift that could potentially change the strategic balance of power away from the South Korean-US alliance toward North Korea.

This raises wider risks in the region. Due to the current lack of counters to hypersonics – defenses such as laser and electromagnetic weapons have not yet been perfected or deployed – states may be compelled to turn to pre-emptive tactics.

New arms, new strategies

“What they are doing is exactly what they said they were going to do,” General Chun In-bum, a retired South Korean general, told Asia Times. “They said they were going to develop hypersonic weapons, and they are.”

A promising summit between the leaders of North Korea and the United States broke down in 2019. No significant negotiations have resumed since and Covid-19 subsequently placed massive stress on North Korea’s already sanctions-hit economy, as well as its people and leadership.

Weapons tests are one bromide the Kim Jong Un regime can offer its people. Following the 8th Korean Workers Party Congress in January 2021, North Korea announced a roadmap for new arms developments, including UAVs, hypersonic missiles and tactical nuclear weapons.

“They published a program of what they are going to do – their nuclear program is remarkably open,” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korean expert who teaches at Seoul’s Kookmin University. “They publish a lot to show their capabilities and to confirm that they are not bluffing.”

This requires testing. “With capability comes credibility,” Go Myong-hyun, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Asan Institute, told Asia Times.

Tuesday’s test shows the North’s stated programs should not be taken lightly.

Neither roving US assets, such as aircraft carrier strike groups, nor US bases in South Korea, can reliably defend against hypersonics. This could prevent Washington – which maintains a skeleton force of 28,000 troops in South Korea that is designed to be massively reinforced in a crisis – from moving forces to Seoul’s aid in the event of hostilities.

“It is an anti-access, area-denial strategy,” Go said. “Instead of attacking the US mainland, they can prevent the US from reinforcing the peninsula, as there is no missile defense capable of shooting down the missiles they are developing.”

And in South Korea, the threat of a tactical nuclear attack could invalidate Seoul’s powerful and high-tech conventional force. So far, Pyongyang has not tested a tactical nuclear device – a small kilotonnage weapon aimed at military targets by artillery or aircraft – but has conducted successful tests of strategic nuclear devices – a large kilotonnage weapon aimed at a major target such as cities via missile.

Given North Korea’s record, it would be unwise simply to hope Pyongyang is not proceeding with research on tactical nukes. The changing situation is reflected in the state’s changing defense priorities.

From invasion to subversion to deterrence

In the 1950s, North Korea built up a conventional force that stormed into the South and rapidly defeated South Korea’s under-equipped military. Unification under the red banner was only stopped by the intervention of the US and other free world forces.

In the 1960s, watching how Vietnamese communists successfully fought against the US, North Korea’s strategy changed.

“They saw how you can fight with the Americans and beat them,” said Lankov. “It was about special forces and dreams about guerilla resistance in South Korea.”

So, instead of an all-out invasion, the plan was to subvert South Korea.

This strategy, which extended into the 1980s, encompassed DMZ firefights, a commando assault on the South Korean presidency and the bombing of an airliner and a South Korean cabinet delegation.

However, despite massive protests against the authoritarian government in Seoul in the 1980s, no communist uprising took place and the strategy was halted with democratization in 1987.

For Pyongyang strategists, worse was to come. The collapse of the USSR in 1991, Pyongyang’s key sponsor, combined with natural disasters, led to impoverishment and famine in North Korea. As the US embarked on a range of military adventures in the Middle East, Pyongyang switched to regime survival.

While it launched pinprick attacks against South Korea – with a submarine attack and artillery fire – its main developments were investments into nuclear arms and delivery platforms designed to deter the US. Pyongyang’s first successful nuclear test was conducted in 2006; its first successful ICBM test was in 2017.

Now, experts see a move beyond deterrence.

“Until recently I kept saying that North Korean nukes were largely for self-defense,” said Lankov. “But now, they are gradually developing offensive capabilities: What began as a self-defense project is graduating to a project that can be used for an offensive operation.”

New situation, new risks

“Their logic is very sound,” said Go. “North Korea already possesses deterrents – they have the ability of retaliation if they are attacked. But what they are building in terms of capabilities is beyond the deterrent they have: they are diversifying their attack options as they want to control the escalation.”

The global community’s inability to stop North Korean tests means more are inevitable.

“There will be more rounds of testing,” predicts Lankov. “And more rounds will be more unfavorable for the Americans and the South Koreans.”

This does not mean a war is imminent on the Korean peninsula. Weapons back up talks and North Korea has made clear it is willing to negotiate away some elements – but not all – of its arms programs.

“By adding capabilities, they are not doing it purely from a military standpoint,” said Go. “It is part of their political strategy against South Korea and US.”

“I think the priority is to have the ability to threaten the US, thereby gaining the upper hand to seek a better negotiating position,” added Chun.

But risks are rising. If they no longer feel fully protected by the US defense umbrella, allied states may seek strategic sovereignty. This means militaries in Japan and South Korea may feel compelled to adopt new, pre-emptive doctrines that are higher-risk than strictly defensive doctrines.

“This [missile] makes it difficult not only for South Korea to defend against, but what is the only option when an opponent has this?” Chun asked. “Develop your own and strike first are the only military options.”

Related developments are already underway. South Korea has announced a “kill chain” strategy designed to pre-emptively hit North Korean command and control assets and the Pyongyang leadership in the event of a crisis, and last year, tested submarine-launched missiles.

Japan decided not to adopt the US-designed Aegis Ashore missile defense system in 2020 and its leadership has raised the possibility of a first-strike capability. Amid these alarming developments, jitters are spreading.

“I am really concerned,” Chun said. “It is not nice,” Lankov added.