Did North Korea Really Test a Hypersonic Missile?

commentary

Apr 9, 2024

North Korea launches what it says is a new mid- to long-range solid-fuel hypersonic missile, at an unknown location in North Korea, April 2, 2024, photo by KCNA via Reuters

North Korea launches what it says is a new mid- to long-range solid-fuel hypersonic missile, at an unknown location in North Korea, April 2, 2024

Photo by KCNA via Reuters

This commentary originally appeared on The National Interest on April 9, 2024.

North Korea is working toward the deployment of hypersonic missiles that it claims could render South Korean and U.S. missile defenses useless. Still, its claims of a successful test this month appear greatly exaggerated.

An advanced, fully developed hypersonic missile could allow the North to pose a serious threat against South Korea. Such a missile could fly very fast, very low, maneuver to counter defenses, and accurately hit its targets, potentially defeating South Korean and U.S. missile defenses and making targets in South Korea vulnerable. North Korea's bluster about its test is clearly aimed at creating an environment of fear in South Korea and elsewhere.

On April 2, North Korea launched what it claimed was an intermediate-range missile equipped with a “newly developed hypersonic gliding flight warhead.” North Korean state media announced that “the hypersonic glide warhead reached its first peak at a height of 101.1 kilometers and the second at 72.3 kilometers while making a 1,000-km-long flight as planned to accurately hit waters in the East Sea.”

While South Korea, Japan, and the United States don't reveal their full technical findings on missile tests, the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) showed that this North Korean missile is still early in development and thus is not currently a serious threat. Consider this evidence.

The JCS said the missile launch was designed to test its ability to fly. The missile did fly, though neither as far as an intermediate range (3,000 to 5,500 km) nor to the exaggerated North Korean claim of 1,000 km—it only went 600 to 650 km, according to South Korea and Japan. So, was the North Korean flight at least a partial failure, if not a significant one, or was it a partial test with limited fuel? The North claimed that it “…intentionally delayed the ignition of the missile's second-stage engine and changed the direction of flight.” However, the South Korean JCS says the intentional ignition delay was also an exaggeration.…

The remainder of this commentary is available at nationalinterest.org.


Bruce W. Bennett is a senior international/defense researcher at nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND. He works primarily on research topics such as strategy, force planning, and counterproliferation within the RAND International Security and Defense Policy Center.

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