North Korea's Hypersonic Missile Test
The Pulse

North Korea's Hypersonic Missile Test

In this edition of The Pulse, experts and senior APLN members offer their assessments of the DPRK’s hypersonic missile test launch and make recommendations for policy responses from relevant actors.

On Wednesday September 29th, North Korea claimed to have conducted a test of a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) atop its Hwasong-8 missile, the first such test to come out of the DPRK. The test, conducted on Tuesday the 28th, is the culmination of a program announced at the January 2021 party congress in the DPRK. According to the Rodong Sinmun, the HGV is one of the “five most important” weapon systems among those being pursued as part of the DPRK’s five-year military development plan. The test comes three days after North Korea made an additional offer for conditional talks with South Korea and as its U.N. diplomat criticized the United States’ “hostile policy” against the DPRK.

APLN senior network members and experts analyze this development:

Kim Won-soo

APLN Member, Chair Professor of Incheon National University, former Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs 

Typical of its behavioral pattern, North Korea is sending two contradictory signals simultaneously. From the strategic perspective, its launch of the hypersonic gliding missile was both worrying and surprising. The launch was also synchronized with some overtures for dialogue. In my view, these signals contain another pair of conflicting messages: 1) a clear warning to us to take its military advances seriously; and 2) a coded confession about its growing internal difficulties.

Our response to these complex messages sent by North Korea must be two-pronged. On the one hand, we need to carefully assess the implications of North Korea’s continuing advances in its nuclear and missile capabilities and make necessary adjustments in our deterrence and defense postures. On the other, we need to work harder with the US and other friends to explore a diplomatic path ahead. It will be a tough task. But a negotiated settlement is still the best possible, or the least bad option. The pursuit of a negotiated settlement backed by robust deterrence should be the preferred way forward.

Jessica J. Lee

APLN Senior Associate Fellow, Senior Research Fellow in the East Asia Program at the Quincy Institute

In January, the DPRK announced its intentions to build “hypersonic gliding flight warheads,” so we knew Pyongyang was pursuing this technology at least nine months ago. Assuming that the recent missile was indeed a hypersonic weapon, it underscores a dangerous reality: the United States and North Korea must prioritize diplomacy that involves real give-and-take rather than be intransigent in the face of a destabilizing arms race.

The Pentagon Spokesperson John Kirby’s recent comment that the United States is “open to a discussion about an end of war declaration,” as well as the State Department’s statement that the United States “harbors no hostile intent toward the DPRK,” are encouraging but too vague to have real impact. For North Korea’s part, its missile tests are unhelpful, as they undermine support for engagement not just on the nuclear issue but political and diplomatic issues such as formally ending the Korean War.

North Korea offers President Biden the clearest opportunity to demonstrate what he described at the UN as “relentless diplomacy.” The question is whether two sides are willing to do the hard work of advancing peace and denuclearization or will stick to one-sided narratives that have led us to this dangerous point.

Jeongmin Kim

NK News Seoul Correspondent

The test serves as a marked sign that Pyongyang intends to test the weapons in Kim Jong-un’s January wish list. This means military officials and defense scientists will have to test them now and then.

It is unlikely North Korea will go as far as breaking the moratorium which would prompt too much political risk. But for lower-profile weapons — toned down with Kim not noted as in attendance — now is the best time to test them. North Korea may think the U.S. appears indifferent to the DPRK’s “business as usual” weapons, and that it is more difficult for South Korea to refer to the DPRK’s missile testing as a “provocation” amid North Korea’s call for “goodwill” and the optics of a double standard when Seoul’s own weapons development and testing is going on.

This means North Korea will push for both a peace drive and weapons tests, continuing to float the possibility of a future détente before the end of Moon Jae-in’s presidential term. To curtail the speed of DPRK weapons development, the U.S. should make an effort to understand that the ROK will be stuck in a difficult position until the March 2022 presidential election and seek ways to convince Kim that diplomacy is a more efficient bet than focusing on missiles — such as demonstrating that President Joe Biden is not indifferent to DPRK issues.

Masakatsu Ota

APLN Member and Senior and Editorial Writer at Kyodo News

North Korea’s announcement about its first test-launch of its Hwasong-8 hypersonic missile is a source of concern. They claimed the test met key technical requirements such as maneuverability and flight characteristics of a “detached hypersonic gliding warhead.”

Kim Jong-un’s strategic intention is crystal clear— 1. No illusion about future diplomatic rapprochement with the US that “betrayed” Kim’s negotiation-benchmark in Hanoi; 2. Strengthening multi-layered deterrent strike-forces to securely “betray” US-initiated missile defense.

One thing to be wary of is potential action-reaction instability accelerated by a hypersonic arms race in the region. North Korea’s hypersonic missile testing might trigger new tensions in the region where the strategic environment has already deteriorated in part due to Russian and Chinse developments of hypersonic weapons.

At the recent Japanese Liberal Democratic Party’s presidential debate, candidates — including new Prime Minister Fumio Kishida – insisted on introducing a strike capability to retaliate against enemy military bases. Also, the option of employing an EMP weapon to disable an enemy’s strike capability was discussed. These conservative politicians consider hypersonic missiles a rising threat.

We have to pay close attention to future developments of North Korea’s hypersonic program. However, we also have to be prudent enough to avoid pitfalls dug by “Phantom of Hypersonic.” We should re-energize arms control diplomacy before the “Phantom” becomes a real threat.

Image: APLN /