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North Korea Developed A Hypersonic Weapon In Record Time

October 25, 2021
Via North Korean media.

Barely a month since its mysterious flight was teased by a state news agency the hypersonic missile equipped with a “gliding warhead” was put on display at the “Self Defense 2021” exhibition held in mid-October. The occasion was supposed to advertise North Korea’s growing military power as a matter of national pride even as Kim Jong Un’s regime grapples with a dwindling economy and a pandemic whose impact is never fully acknowledged. The new road mobile missile supports a large glider that looks nuclear-capable–meaning it can be armed with a nuclear warhead–by the size of it. North Korea is now the third country after China and Russia to possess an operational hypersonic weapon.

North Korean media dubbed the new missile “Hwasong-8” after its test was reported on September 28 and then promptly scooped up by the world’s press agencies the following day. The state’s official news outlet Rodong Sinmun didn’t obfuscate the missile’s characteristics and revealed “the test results proved that all the technical specifications met the design requirements.” The Hwasong-8’s introduction was the latest in a succession of weapon tests that included a road mobile launcher for a long-range cruise missile and another mobile launcher on a train car for a short-range ballistic missile resembling the Russian-made Iskander-E. How North Korea’s military-industrial sector assembled these new missiles amid the current sanctions imposed on the country is baffling; the existence of a North Korean variant of the Iskander SRBM alone rubbishes the idea that foreign technology is inaccessible to Pyongyang.

It’s important to explain the context of using the term “hypersonic missile” when discussing strategic weapons. Although many different aircraft types can travel at speeds exceeding Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound, the term “hypersonic missile” is convenient for a large munition that carries a glider vehicle. Glider vehicles are characterized by the simplistic geometry of their airframes allowing them to maneuver at speeds that defy rapid detection and tracking. Hypersonic missiles aren’t limited to intercontinental ranges either. The US military recognizes at least three categories of hypersonic weapons that span surface-to-surface munitions, air-launched munitions, and munitions deployed on a naval platform. The Russian military adheres to the same principle in its hypersonic weapons with the Zircon naval cruise missile, the Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missile, and the Avangard glider vehicle designed for road mobile ICBMs.

The rapid adoption of hypersonic missiles across the Asia-Pacific originates from perceived imbalances in nuclear and strategic arsenals among the US’ geopolitical foes. Faced with sophisticated anti-missile defenses, from satellites to the THAAD system, that diminish their ICBM’s potential effectiveness how else can nuclear arsenals be enhanced to deter the US from launching a hypothetical attack in the future? The North Korean military seem to have taken cues from China and Russia whose militaries have operational hypersonic weapons. Unlike the PLA’s DF-17, however, the North Koreans eschewed a conventional missile and chose an intermediate-range model for their purposes. This can be gleamed from the Hwasong-8’s transporter, which uses a 10×10 chassis, that’s unlike the elongated transporters for ICBMs such as the Hwasong-14, Hwasong-15, and an immense missile type revealed in 2020.

For comparison’s sake, when the PLA showed its road mobile hypersonic missiles at a parade in 2019, the resulting analysis emphasized how the DF-17 was meant for neutralizing anti-missile defenses rather than a strategic weapon for a nuclear war. The type of rocket booster attached to the glider vehicle indicated a range between 1,500 kilometers and 2,000 km. Of course, if the DF-17 undergoes modifications it may evolved into a genuine IRBM reaching beyond the first island chain, thereby protecting China’s adjacent seas from intruding navies. When it comes to North Korea’s Hwasong-8 there are more indications, such as the rocket booster type it uses, that it’s meant for neutralizing the establishment of anti-missile defenses (technology for detecting road mobile ICBMs) in Japan. If it should be armed with a tactical nuclear warhead, however, then perhaps it’s supposed to complement the four long-range road mobile nuclear missiles and at least two submarine-launched nuclear missiles developed by North Korea so far.

The significance of the Hwasong-8 transcends whatever role it was meant to fulfill. In the context of North Korea’s economic hardship and isolation it’s now clear how building domestic military industries pays enormous dividends for countries ostracized by the international community. If North Korea is able to assemble an entire family of ICBMs in five years along with hypersonic gliders and varied missile types then other states, regardless of their resources, can accomplish the same. This is a serious blow to global security and rubbishes prevailing ideas about keeping the spread of nuclear-capable weapons in check.

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