During a speech given to assembled delegates during the Eighth Party Congress of the Korean Workers’ Party in January, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un outlined future avenues for the development of North Korean military capabilities. Kim’s long wish list of potential future military capabilities included:
-the development of multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) for use with North Korea’s long-range ballistic missiles;
-the introduction of solid-fueled ballistic missile engines for its intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs);
Also reportedly on the list were hypersonic missile weaponry, with North Korean state media reporting that the DPRK had “finished research into developing warheads of different combat missions including the hypersonic gliding flight warheads for new-type ballistic rockets and was making preparations for their test manufacture.” Additional media reports suggested that North Korea had established a research center related to the development of hypersonic missiles under the purview of the Academy of National Defense Science.
Is North Korea Really Serious?
The level of progress into the research and development of hypersonic missiles reported by North Korean state media is almost certainly an exaggeration, and it is likely that North Korea remains many years away from the actual development and deployment of such a capability. Still, the possibility that North Korea at some point in the future will be confirmed to be in possession of hypersonic missile weaponry should not be dismissed entirely.
What Are Hypersonic Missiles?
Hypersonic missiles represent a potentially very significant improvement over the missile weaponry currently operated by militaries around the world. The major capability on offer with hypersonic missiles is the substantial threat that these missiles will pose to currently deployed missile defense systems. As their name implies, hypersonic missiles are capable of traveling at very high speeds – potentially as high as Mach 5 – while also flying at unusual and unpredictable altitudes, the combination of which makes hypersonic missiles significantly more difficult to intercept than existing ballistic missiles. Hypersonic missiles are being developed in two primary forms: hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs) – reportedly the focus of North Korean hypersonic research and development – as well as hypersonic cruise missiles (HCMs). HGVs are launched almost into space by a rocket where they are released before gliding to their targets, while HCMs are powered by advanced engines or rockets for the duration of the flight to their target.
Hypersonic missiles are emerging as a major area of military competition, particularly between the United States and both Russia and China, and their most immediate significance will likely stem from their role in those countries’ respective anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategies. While a North Korean A2/AD strategy is also a possibility, the DPRK is also likely to place significant value on hypersonic missiles as a means to improve its capabilities for holding the continental U.S. at risk, thereby improving its ability to deter the United States.
Could North Korea Suprise the World?
With hypersonic missiles only recently entering into the inventories of the world’s most technologically advanced militaries – and with anything resembling large-scale deployment of the missiles still likely years away – it is very unlikely that North Korea will be armed with hypersonic missiles any time soon. Still, it is worth noting that North Korea has surprised analysts in the past with both the pace and scope of its ballistic missile development; when in 2017 North Korea successfully tested ICBMs on three separate occasions, many analysts had assumed that the DPRK was still several years off from crossing the ICBM threshold, and North Korea has since then developed an array of advanced short-range ballistic missiles that increasingly appear capable of challenging ballistic missiles defenses in South Korea.
Those developments involved the pursuit of technologies that have existed and been operating for decades, and do not inherently suggest that North Korea will suddenly emerge with hypersonic missiles. They do, however, suggest that as hypersonic missile technology becomes more diffuse, North Korea may quickly adapt it for its own use. Indeed, North Korea has shown itself to be very adept at doing just that; the engine that powered the country’s first successful ICBM model likely came from a stockyard in Ukraine, while its advanced KN-23 SRBM bears a striking resemblance to a particular Russian missile system.
The proliferation risk of hypersonic missile technology is significant, but it may be particularly acute with regard to North Korea. Given the substantial investment in hypersonic missiles on the part of both Russia and China, it is possible that the relevant technology could make its way into North Korea at some point in the future. It is even more likely that North Korea will make use of more covert and illicit means of acquiring the technology and know-how needed for the production of hypersonic missiles.
North Korea likely remains many years away from credibly threatening to deploy hypersonic missiles. But North Korea has exceeded expectations before regarding the development of its strategic weapons capabilities, and the possibility that it will do so again at some point in the future should not be discounted.