North Korea on Monday claimed to have again tested a missile that could become one of the world’s fastest and most accurate weapons – with the potential to ultimately be fitted with a nuclear warhead.
Kim Jong Un’s regime successfully tested a hypersonic glide vehicle that was fired aloft using solid-fueled engines on Sunday, the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said, marking the fourth such test claimed by Pyongyang and the first with a potentially game-changing method of propulsion.
The test was aimed at “verifying the gliding and maneuvering characteristics of intermediate-range hypersonic maneuverable controlled warhead and the reliability of newly developed multi-stage high-thrust solid-fuel engines,” KCNA said.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said the missile flew about 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) before landing in the waters off the east coast of the Korean Peninsula on Sunday afternoon.
The launch was a clear provocation that “seriously threatens the peace and security of the Korean Peninsula,” JCS said.
Missiles with hypersonic glide vehicles can theoretically fly at many multiples of the speed of sound and can be very maneuverable in flight, making them almost impossible to shoot down, according to experts.
North Korea first tested a hypersonic missile on September 28, 2021, followed by two further tests in early January 2022. But Sunday’s test showed a jump in North Korean technology, according to the South Korean military.
“The ones tested in 2022 were launched using liquid fuel. This time, the difference between the previous ones and this one would be that North Korea is claiming that it used solid fuel,” Lee Sung-joon, spokesperson for the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a news briefing Monday.
Compared to their liquid-fueled counterparts, solid-fueled missiles are more stable and can be moved more easily to avoid detection before a launch that can be initiated in a matter of minutes, experts say.
If North Korea can successfully produce and deploy a hypersonic weapon, analysts say it could even change the military equation in the region.
“Pyongyang is making progress on capabilities aimed at defeating missile defenses of US bases and allies by developing more maneuverable warheads as well as solid-fuel missiles that are easier to move and launch on short notice,” Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ehwa Womans University in Seoul, told CNN on Monday.
Expert assessments were even more stark following North Korea’s previous claimed hypersonic glide vehicle tests.
In 2021, Lionel Fatton, an assistant professor at Webster University in Switzerland and researcher at Meiji University in Japan told CNN: “If true, it means current South Korean and Japanese missile defense systems become close to impotent.”
Those systems are designed for defense against ballistic missiles, which descend on their targets from much higher altitudes than hypersonics.
“A hypersonic missile that can defeat advanced missile-defense systems is a game changer if a nuclear warhead is mated to it,” said Drew Thompson, a former US Defense Department official and a visiting senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, in 2021.
KCNA said after the 2021 launch that developing the “strategic” weapon was one of the five “top-priority tasks of the five-year plan” for North Korea’s defense.
How a hypersonic glide weapon works
Like ballistic missiles, hypersonic glide weapons are launched by rockets high into the atmosphere. But while a ballistic missile warhead is largely powered by gravity once it begins its descent to its target from as high as 1,000 kilometers, hypersonics dive back to Earth sooner before flattening out their flight path – flying just tens of kilometers above the ground, according to a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The weapon then uses internal navigation devices to make course corrections and keep it on target while traveling up to 12 times the speed of sound, the report said.
Roderick Lee, director of research at the American Air University’s China Aerospace Studies Institute, said in 2021 that the lower altitude flight paths of hypersonics mean they stay below radars for longer periods.
“That makes things really complicated for the defender,” Lee added.
Only two countries are thought to have deployable hypersonic missiles: China and Russia.
In December 2019, Russia said its hypersonic missile system – known as Avangard – had entered service. In a speech to the Russian Parliament in 2018, President Vladimir Putin called the Avangard system “practically invulnerable” to Western air defenses.
At a 2019 military parade, China showed off its DF-17 missile, which it can use to deploy a hypersonic glide vehicle.
A report from the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, citing US defense officials, said the DF-17 can deliver a warhead to within meters of its intended target at a range of up to 2,500 kilometers (1,553 miles).
The US has its own hypersonics program. The US Navy said in November that in cooperation with NASA and Sandia National Laboratories it has conducted tests that “demonstrated advanced hypersonic technologies, capabilities, and prototype systems.”
According to a 2021 report from the Arms Control Association (ACA) in Washington, hypersonics are contributing to “a burgeoning arms race with all sides rushing the deployment of the new weapons lest they be perceived as falling behind the others in mastery of the new technologies involved.”
Extending North Korea’s threat
International concerns about weapons proliferation have increased in recent months with the appearance of North Korean missiles on the battlefields of Ukraine.
The US said earlier this month that Russia fired North Korean-supplied short-range ballistic missiles into Ukraine on December 30 and January 2.
“This is a significant and concerning escalation in the DPRK’s support for Russia,” White House National Security spokesperson John Kirby said, referring to North Korea by the acronym for its official name.
“We expect Russia and North Korea to learn from these launches,” he said.
Analysts echoed that sentiment, saying the use of North Korean missiles in Ukraine can give Pyongyang data it can’t get from a testing program that has seen dozens of the weapons fired over the past few years.
“It will be interesting to see how these missiles perform in a more operational environment and outside of North Korea’s propaganda machine, particularly any indication of accuracy and indeed the guidance systems utilized,” said Joseph Dempsey, research associate for defense and military analysis at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Fears are growing that Moscow’s cooperation with Pyongyang will increase further as North Korean Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui will make an official visit to Russia this week.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Sunday that Choe will hold “negotiations” with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
Besides adding North Korean missiles to its arsenal, Russia has also imported more than 1 million artillery shells from Pyongyang, according to South Korea’s National Intelligence Service.
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