N. Korea’s hypersonic missile can be detected, intercepted, S. Korean officials say

Posted on : 2021-09-30 17:35 KST Modified on : 2021-09-30 17:35 KST
North Korea claims that it tested a hypersonic missile on Tuesday, but South Korea’s military says it won’t be deployed for combat any time soon
A news report on North Korea’s test of its hypersonic missile, the Hwasong-8, plays on a TV at Seoul Station on Wednesday morning. (Yonhap News)
A news report on North Korea’s test of its hypersonic missile, the Hwasong-8, plays on a TV at Seoul Station on Wednesday morning. (Yonhap News)

North Korea officially announced Wednesday morning that the missile it fired the previous day was a hypersonic cruise missile called Hwasong-8.

Now that North Korea is testing hypersonic missiles, which are regarded as a “game changer” in next-generation warfare, concerns are being raised that the arms race on the Korean Peninsula will heat up. But the South Korean military has said that “it will take some time before [the missile] can actually be deployed for combat.”

“The Academy of Defence Science of the DPRK test-fired a hypersonic missile Hwasong-8 newly developed by it in Toyang-ri, Ryongrim County of Jagang Province (also spelled Chagang) on Tuesday morning,” the state-run Rodong Sinmun reported on Wednesday. The DPRK is an acronym for the official name of North Korea.

The Rodong Sinmun said that the results of “the first test-launch [. . .] proved that all the technical specifications met the design requirements.”

A hypersonic missile is one of the cutting-edge weapon systems that North Korea promised to develop in the coming years at its eighth Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) back in January. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said at the time that “we have completed research and development on various warheads, including a hypersonic glide vehicle equipped on our new ballistic rockets.” Eight months later, the North has now carried out a successful test of such a vehicle.

In a report on hypersonic weapons published in March 2020, the US’ Congressional Research Service called hypersonic weapons a “game changer” for the international security order that will replace nuclear weapons, which are unlikely to be actually used. Hypersonic weapons can travel at Mach 5 (6,120 kph), fly at a low altitude, and change course while en route. They’re also difficult for air defense networks to detect or shoot down.

In short, hypersonic weapons are cutting-edge weapon systems that are only deployed — or close to being deployed — for action in a handful of countries, including the US, Russia, and China. If North Korea successfully develops and deploys this weapon, it could penetrate the missile defense network the US has worked to build at bases in South Korea and Japan. It could even threaten carrier battle groups near the Korean Peninsula and elsewhere in the Pacific Ocean in the event of war.

But the South Korean military said that North Korea’s claim that it has test-launched a hypersonic missile is not a serious threat. “At the moment, we regard this as being at a level that can be detected and intercepted by South Korea and the US’ joint assets,” said an official from the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“Given the technical specifications, including the speed at which it was detected, we believe that the missile is at an early stage of development and that it will take some time before it can actually be deployed for combat.”

“Looking at the various reports released by North Korea, the new missile appears to be at an early stage that lacks the characteristics of a hypersonic missile,” a source in the military said.

Hypersonic missiles can travel at more than Mach 5 (6,120 kph), or five times the speed of sound. Since the North Korean missile was traveling around Mach 3 (3,672 kph), it would classify as a supersonic missile, not a hypersonic missile.

“South Korean and American intelligence are conducting a detailed analysis of the distance traveled, altitude, and speed of the North Korean missile that we detected,” a source in the military said.

Russia and the US’ developmental experience shows that it takes a great deal of money and time — around 20 years — before hypersonic missiles can be deployed for action. Last year, the US allocated US$440 million for developing long-range hypersonic glide vehicles.

Any competition between South and North Korea to develop such a missile would likely be regarded as a wasteful arms race.

Even if North Korea has a long way to go before it can deploy hypersonic missiles, the North has prompted concerns by testing a number of missiles this month and by taking steps to develop and refine new weapon systems. The US, the UK, Germany, and other members of the international community have denounced these missile tests as being yet another breach of the North’s responsibilities under UN Security Council resolutions.

The Blue House exercised caution by refraining from offering an immediate response.

“Our first priority is working with the US to carry out a precise and comprehensive analysis of the specifications of the missile North Korea announced. Any statement will have to wait until that is complete,” said Park Soo-hyun, Blue House senior secretary for public communication, in an interview with a South Korean broadcaster on Wednesday.

The Blue House appears to be struggling to tamp down tensions and sustain momentum in the Korean Peninsula peace process, which has been showing signs of life after South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s proposal for an end-of-war declaration and after several statements by Kim Yo-jong, sister of Kim Jong-un and a vice department director in the WPK Central Committee.

“North Korea’s actions are always ambiguous. We think the proper approach right now is not to respond until we have accurately determined North Korea’s intentions through meticulous analysis,” Park said during the interview.

By Kwon Hyuk-chul, senior staff writer

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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