Seoul, Jan 31 (Reuters) – North Korea capped one of its busiest months of missile tests ever with the launch of its Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile on Sunday (Jan 30), highlighting efforts to ensure it has reliable systems for delivering nuclear warheads.
January’s testing schedule began with the launch of a new “hypersonic missile”, and went on to include long-range cruise missiles, and short-range ballistic missiles launched from railcars and airports, underscoring the nuclear-armed state’s rapidly expanding and advancing arsenal amid stalled denuclearisation talks.
North Korea has not tested its longest-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) or nuclear weapons since 2017, but the Hwasong-12 launch signalled it could soon resume such testing, officials in South Korea and the United States said.
Here are the different types of weapons tested so far this month:
North Korea said it tested a new type of “hypersonic missile” on Jan 5 and again on Jan 11, with Kim Jong Un reported to have attended the second launch.
Hypersonic weapons usually fly towards targets at lower altitudes than ballistic missiles and can achieve more than five times the speed of sound – or about 6,200km per hour.
Despite their name, analysts say the main feature of hypersonic weapons is not speed but their manoeuvrability, which can help them evade missile defence systems.
South Korean officials questioned the claimed capabilities of the missile after the first test, but said a second test appeared to demonstrate greater performance.
Analysts said if Pyongyang can perfect such weapons, it would represent a potential major upgrade in its striking power against its nearby adversaries.
On Jan 14 North Korea launched a pair of short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) from a train near the northern border with China, in what state media said was a short-notice drill aimed at boosting the proficiency of the troops operating the missiles.
Despite the country’s limited and sometimes unreliable rail network, rail mobile missiles are a relatively cheap and efficient option to improve the survivability of their nuclear forces, making it difficult for enemies to detect and destroy them before being fired, according to analysts.
The missiles appeared to be KN-23 SRBMs, which were first tested in May 2019, and are designed to evade missile defences by flying on a lower, “depressed” trajectory, experts said.
North Korea later fired another pair of KN-23 missiles this time from a wheeled launching vehicle.
The tests confirmed the “explosive power” of its conventional warhead, state media said, while analysts noted it travelled on its lowest trajectory yet.
North Korea launched two SRBMs in a rare test from an airport in its capital, Pyongyang, on Jan 17.
The pair of missiles “precisely hit an island target” off the east coast, according to state media.
Analysts said the missiles appeared to be KN-24 SRBMs which were last tested in March 2020 and appear to have entered mass production and deployment with military units.
The KN-24 resembles the US MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) and, like the KN-23, is designed to evade missile defences by flying on a flatter trajectory than traditional ballistic missiles.
LONG-RANGE CRUISE MISSILE
State media reported two long-range cruise missiles were fired on Jan 25, travelling 1,800km before hitting a target island in the sea off North Korea’s east coast.
The cruise missile would play a role in “boosting the war deterrence of the country”, state news agency KCNA said.
In September, North Korea tested a new “strategic” cruise missile for the first time, seen as possibly the country’s first such weapon with a nuclear capability.
Analysts said the latest cruise missile appeared to be similar, but also showed signs of being a possible variant.
North Korea’s cruise missiles usually generate less interest than ballistic missiles because they are not explicitly banned under UN Security Council Resolutions, but analysts say land-attack cruise missiles can be no less a threat than ballistic missiles.
North Korea first launched the Hwasong-12 IRBM in April 2017, in a test that “pinwheeled” out of control and was considered a failure by US and South Korean officials.
Two more test flights that month also ended in apparent failure, with the missiles exploding seconds after launch or breaking up in flight.
The first successful flight was in May 2017, and North Korea went on to launch two more Hwasong-12s that year, flying them over the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido.
In Sunday’s test, North Korea said it fired the missile on an elevated trajectory “in consideration of the safety of neighbouring countries”.
The test “confirmed the accuracy, safety, and operational effectiveness of the produced Hwasong-12 type weapon system”, KCNA said. South Korea reported the missile reached an altitude of about 2,000km and flew to a distance of 800km.
The Hwasong-12 has an estimated range of 4,500km, which would put the US territory of Guam and the far western tip of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands chain within reach, according to the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
It can carry a “large-size heavy nuclear warhead”, according to state media, and in 2017 North Korea threatened to use it to target Guam with “enveloping fire”.