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Why Is North Korean Missile Technology So Advanced?

February 21, 2022
Test launch on January 11. Via North Korean media.

The first month of the year saw the impoverished dictatorship flex its missile arsenal with consecutive launches that state media publicized. The most significant happened between January 5 and 11 involving “hypersonic” missiles–these are equipped with separating warheads that deliver payload at speeds exceeding Mach 5. North Korea’s military branch responsible for deploying its nuclear-capable missiles have at least one known road mobile ballistic missile equipped with a glider vehicle. It appeared at the “Self Defense 2021” exhibition last October.

The sequence of North Korea’s publicized missile tests last month began with two suspected IRBMs on January 5 and January 11. Then on the 15th a locally made variant of the Russian Iskander SRBM, usually designated as the “KN-23,” was transported by train and tested on its “railway-borne” launcher. Conventional missiles were launched again on January 19, 25, and 27. These involved a very large diameter SRBM, a long-range cruise missile, and another SRBM model on a tracked chassis. Finally, the “Hwasong-12” IRBM was launched on January 30.

The rapid test launches of its missiles across four weeks inspired commentary that sought to explain the motivations behind these events. One line of argument goes that Pyongyang is trying to blackmail US allies like Japan and South Korea so that Washington, DC revives high level diplomatic exchanges. However, this is unlikely for the Biden administration as doing so will prove as meaningless as the earlier summit where former President Trump and Kim Jong Un settled on a non-binding agreement. A more practical explanation is the North Korean armed forces, particularly the “rocket force” branch, needed to familiarize themselves with so many different weapon systems as these enter service.

The most controversial among the recent launches are the hypersonic IRBMs that flew on January 5 and January 11. Although much of the North Korean military’s conventional arsenal remains dangerous these are meant for deterring South Korea and the US should conflict become unavoidable in the near future. The missiles equipped with hypersonic gliders are a greater threat outside the peninsular where they can used to attack Japanese cities and US bases as far as Guam or even Hawaii. Low resolution footage from January 5 and later on January 11 revealed a missile armed with small gliders that have canards on their edges. Proper identification has yet to be made for either missile but it’s safe to assume North Korea now has a single operational IRBM equipped with hypersonic warhead delivery and these are in production at a needed rate. North Korean media reported the January 5 launch saw the deployment of its glider and struck a target 700 kilometers away.

The astonishing pace of North Korea’s current effort at updating its military has defeated serious analysis. A comprehensive report from the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) released in 2021 failed to acknowledge the emergence of a North Korean hypersonic weapon on an IRBM that same year. In the report titled North Korea Military Power the authors provided a useful summary of Pyongyang’s nuclear missile development and categorized their estimated performance. The problem is the same report offers a very low estimate of the nuclear weapon stockpile controlled by Kim Jong Un, measuring it as only 50 to 60 warheads in total, and points out the successful development of space launch vehicles. There’s still a scarcity of serious unclassified research on North Korea’s advancements in hypersonic technology.

It’s now clear that North Korea’s peculiar armed forces have an impressive selection of weapon systems for delivering nuclear warheads at the tactical and strategic level. This indicates its military-industrial sector know how to assemble miniaturized warheads, including ones for a hypersonic glider, and this can’t be halted or interrupted by sanctions. But Pyongyang is only keeping up with a regional trend in its neighborhood. Russia introduced conventional hypersonic missiles to its air force and navy from 2018 onward. Meanwhile, China and Japan have ongoing programs for new hypersonic vehicles and South Korea will likely follow suit. Farther east, India and Iran have poured their own resources at assembling hypersonic weapons.

It seems North Korea’s progress in some specific military technologies is so rapid that even well-funded intelligence gathering and deep research can’t anticipate its trajectory. This reflects a vast internal network of laboratories and manufacturing facilities, no doubt funded and supplied through a variety of sources, that are way ahead in their research and development.

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