This Is Our Best Look Yet At North Korea’s Hypersonic Missile

North Korea has staged an unprecedented exhibition of some of its most advanced weapon systems, including a recently revealed hypersonic boost-glide vehicle missile system, as well as an intriguing new missile design apparently intended for launch from a submarine. The display of military technology comes amid rapid developments in the field of missile systems, both in the North, and its adversary in the South.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was on hand to review the weapon systems that were on display yesterday as part of the Self-Defense 2021 exhibition held in the capital, Pyongyang, to mark the 76th birthday of the ruling Workers’ Party. Kim took the opportunity to declare that the country was building up an “invincible military” to face off perceived aggression from the United States. The North Korean leader also pointed to military developments in the South and described his country’s efforts in this direction as being “to prevent war itself and to literally increase war deterrence for the protection of national sovereignty.”

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un addresses officials in front of the road-mobile Hwasong-16 intercontinental ballistic missile., North Korean State Media

Attracting the most interest at the Pyongyang exhibition was what North Korea claims is a new hypersonic missile, apparently intended to carry a nuclear warhead. The first test of this weapon, called the Hwasong-8, was reported late last month. As predicted, the weapon comprises a ballistic missile carrying a boost-glide vehicle. Previously, the North Koreans had released only one photo of this weapon, but we now have the chance to get a better look at the boost-glide vehicle, in particular, which appears broadly similar to that used on China’s DF-17 missile.

However, the North Korean boost-glide vehicle is still, for all intents and purposes, a “shape,” and we have no idea as to whether it has been tested in flight after separation from its ballistic missile carrier, or what other kinds of test articles might exist to support the program. As the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said last month, “It appears to be at an early stage of development that would require considerable time for actual deployment.” That said, it is evidence, at least, of North Korea’s grand ambitions to enter an exclusive club of nations with hypersonic missile capabilities, as well as developing ever more advanced rockets in general, including the apparent introduction of factory-furnished liquid-fuel “ampoules” for increased reliability and stability.

Perhaps the other standout item was an apparently new weapon displayed among an array of known submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) designs. The new missile is significantly smaller than the previous SLBMs, especially the Pukguksong-5 first revealed in January this year, but its position in the display and black-and-white markings suggest that it, too, is intended for submarine launch. Unusually, the new missile features a distinctive grid-fin arrangement at the base, similar to that found on certain Soviet-era short-range ballistic missiles. The compact possibilities offered by folding grid-fins could have resulted in their choice for a submarine-launched weapon. 

It should be noted that Pyongyang has a new missile submarine of some description currently under conversion, in addition to the ones it has used for testing in the past. Smaller weapons would of course mean a single boat could potentially carry more of them, while the shorter range such a weapon would offer would not necessarily be an issue for targets in South Korea or Japan, for example.

Another new missile type shown is an apparent short-range ballistic missile, the so-called “March 2021” SRBM, displayed alongside the previously known KN-23 and KN-24. The new weapon reportedly flies on a depressed trajectory, on a lower and flatter profile, which reduced the time between launch and impact, like the Russian-made Iskander. Of the earlier pair, we now also know that the KN-24 has the official name Hwasong-11NA. We have seen the KN-24 in the past, of course, when it was shown publicly for the first time at a parade in January before examples were fired into the Sea of Japan in March this year.

The huge Hwasong-16 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that made its public debut during a military parade in October last year was also on show, on its 11-axle transporter erector launcher (TEL) vehicle. According to experts, however, this missile is yet to be test-fired.

Kim in front of the Hwasong-16., KCNA

Another recently revealed North Korean missile included in the array at Self-Defense 2021 is a surface-to-air missile (SAM), displayed alongside what appeared to be two new types of air-defense radars. This was our closest look yet at the new SAM, which features a two-stage configuration and no fewer than four sets of control fins.

Other missiles on display included another ICBM that was tested in 2017 and the rail-mobile ballistic missile that was first revealed last month, and which you can read more about here. Another recently revealed system, a ground-launched cruise missile, was shown outside of its launch canister, while its five-round wheeled TEL was also on display.

As well as all these missiles, various other kinds of conventional weapon systems were shown, including antitank guided missiles, small arms, and a main battle tank, which we have profiled in the past. Outside the exhibition halls, there was also a flypast by military jets, plus a demonstration of martial arts, and a lycra-clad parachutist trailing an enormous flag.

While not all the weapons displayed at Self-Defense 2021 have been tested, and there are question marks about the practicality of fielding some of the missiles in particular, it seems clear that Pyongyang aims to apply pressure on both South Korea and the United States, while negotiations about its nuclear weapons program remain stalled. At the same time, officials in Pyongyang are aware of the value of high-profile weapons programs, exhibitions, and parades for domestic consumption, especially at a time when sanctions are hitting hard and the COVID-19 pandemic is compounding an already precarious domestic economy.

North Korean militia and personnel in hazmat suits during a parade in the North Korean capital last month., North Korean State Media

While the Biden administration has made it abundantly clear that it is willing to resume talks with North Korea, offering to discuss lifting sanctions if Pyongyang gives up its nuclear weapons, these overtures have so far been rejected. Instead, North Korea has doubled down on reinforcing the very same capabilities that it’s being encouraged to give up. At the same time, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) believes that North Korea has likely restarted its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, which is believed to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons.

In the meantime, a growing arms race is developing between North and South Korea, too, with new missiles, in particular, seeming to surface with regularity. Indeed, the past few months have seen an almost tit-for-tat situation on the peninsula, with each new development on one side seemingly met by a response in kind from the other.

With a generally more modern feel than previous events of this kind in North Korea, Self-Defense 2021 also marked a prominent reversal compared to the style of the previous parade in the capital, in which missile systems and other key weapon systems took a distinct back seat. Overall, the latest exhibition provides ample evidence of the remarkable expansion of North Korea’s military capabilities — and especially its development of an increasingly wide variety of missile systems.

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