North Korea Launches Hypersonic Hwasong-8 Missile in Second Test of New Glide Vehicle

North Korea has announced that a ballistic missile test launched on January 5 was its new Hwasong-8 platform, which had first been launched in September 2021 and housed a hypersonic glide vehicle. State media outlet Rodong Sinmun announced that the test accelerated work on "modernising the national strategic force,” verified the ability of the fuel ampoule system to operate "under winter weather conditions,” and demonstrated an improved ability to stabilise and control the hypersonic glide vehicle. Such vehicles are boosted by rocket engines before detaching and gliding toward target with unpredictable flight paths, which combined with their speed and manoeuvrability makes them extremely difficult to intercept. The state paper referred to it as a “combined a multi-stage gliding jump flight and a strong lateral movement.” North Korea is one of the three countries to field such weapons alongside China and Russia, although the Russian armed forces do not field a ground-based tactical system comparable to the Korean one with the only similar weapon being China's DF-17. The United States for its part has struggled to develop such weapons, with its third attempt to test the AGM-183 air launched hypersonic missile in December ending in failure as the preceding two tests also did.

Hypersonic weapons provide less warning time to their targets and are considerably more difficult to track, much less intercept, than conventional ballistic missile attacks. The latest Korean test reportedly struck a target 700km away, although the missile was launched on an extreme incline flying 120km into space. This indicates that its actual range on a more standard lower altitude trajectory would be several times as long. The booster rocket from the Hwasong-8 was notably taken from the Hwasong-12 missile with an estimated 4,500km range, which the new missile is expected to come much closer to matching when entering service. The Hwasong-12, dubbed ‘Guam Killer’ for its expected purpose to target American military facilities there, was first tested in 2017 and is currently in service. Following the launch of the Hwasong-8, North Korean policy envoy Kim Sung emphasised regarding its importance: “The possible outbreak of a new war on the Korean Peninsula is contained not because of the U.S.’ mercy on the DPRK (North Korea’s official name - Democratic People’s Republic of Korea), it is because our state is a growing reliable deterrent that can control the hostile forces in the attempts of a military invasion." This has been the premise for North Korea's development of its nuclear and missile forces, with the country having been technically at war with the United States for over 70 years and as recently as 2017 considered a possible target for American nuclear strikes. Such weapons tests by North Korea have been criticised in the Western world, and are seen to challenge the prevailing order in Northeast Asia based on U.S. and Western military dominance. 

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