N. Korea claims to have successfully launched solid-fuel hypersonic IRBM

January 15, 2024

North Korea said Monday it successfully test-fired a solid-fuel intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) carrying a hypersonic warhead the previous day as part of regular activities to develop powerful weapons systems.

The missile loaded with a hypersonic maneuverable controlled warhead was launched Sunday afternoon in a bid to verify the warhead’s gliding and maneuvering capabilities and the reliability of newly developed multi-stage high-thrust solid-fuel engines, according to the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). It did not disclose the missile’s flight details.

The Missile General Bureau said the test is part of the agency and its affiliated defense science institutes’ “regular activities for developing powerful weapon systems,” according to the KCNA.

North Korea also said the test-fire “never affected the security of any neighboring country and had nothing to do with the regional situation.”

South Korea’s military said Sunday it detected the launch from an area in or around Pyongyang at about 2:55 p.m., and the missile flew approximately 1,000 kilometers before splashing into the sea.

It marked North Korea’s first missile launch since firing the solid-fuel Hwasong-18 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on Dec. 18 and its first known firing of a solid-fuel IRBM loaded with a hypersonic warhead.

In an interview with Yonhap News Agency last week, South Korea’s Defense Minister Shin Won-sik said North Korea could test-fire a new type of IRBM as early as this month after the repressive regime staged solid-fuel engine tests for a new IRBM in November.

Solid-fuel missiles are known to be harder to detect ahead of launch than liquid-fuel ones that require more preparations, such as fuel injection.

Seoul military officials believe Pyongyang’s solid-fuel IRBM under development is capable of targeting U.S. military bases in Japan and Guam. IRBMs have a range of 3,000-5,500 km.

Guam, approximately 3,000 km southeast of North Korea, hosts key U.S. naval and air force bases.

Hypersonic missiles are usually hard to intercept with existing missile defense shields. Such missiles travel at a speed of at least Mach 5 — five times the speed of sound — and they are designed to be maneuverable on unpredictable flight paths and fly at low altitudes.

A hypersonic warhead is among the list of high-tech weapons that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un vowed to develop at a party congress in 2021, along with spy satellites, solid-fuel ICBMs and nuclear-powered submarines.

In September 2021, North Korea said it test-fired the Hwasong-8 hypersonic missile for the first time, followed by two more similar tests powered by liquid fuel in January 2022. South Korea’s defense ministry rejected the North’s claim as “exaggerated.”

South Korea’s military did not elaborate further on the specifications of the latest launch, noting that a detailed analysis is under way.

“A comprehensive analysis is still being conducted, so there aren’t a lot of details to explain,” Col. Lee Sung-jun, spokesperson of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a regular briefing Monday.

He also said Seoul, Washington and Tokyo shared warning data on the North’s missile in real time through the data-sharing system they fully activated last month in a joint effort to counter the North’s military threats.

Meanwhile, Seoul’s defense ministry called the Sunday firing a “clear act of provocation” that violates U.N. Security Council resolutions banning the regime from using ballistic missile technology.

It warned of an “overwhelming” response in the event of any direct North Korean provocation against the South.

Experts said North Korea is expected to further raise tensions with provocative acts ahead of South Korea’s parliamentary elections in April and the U.S. presidential election in November.

At a year-end party meeting, the North’s leader urged stepped-up war readiness to deter what he called “unprecedented” acts of U.S.-led confrontation against his country.

Branding inter-Korean ties as relations between “two states hostile to each other,” he ordered preparations for “a great event to suppress the whole territory” of South Korea in the event of a contingency.

During his inspection of munitions factories last week, Kim also said he has no intention of avoiding war with South Korea and threatened to annihilate the South if Seoul attempts to use force against the North.