North Korea’s ‘Guam Killer’ Missile Just Flew Far Into Space, Took Pictures of Earth, Then Struck its Target

On January 30 North Korea conducted its first test launch of the Hwasong-12 intermediate range ballistic missile since 2017, which marked the missile’s fourth successful test as well as the country’s seventh missile test launch of 2022. The missile has an estimated 4,500km range, and has been dubbed ‘Guam Killer’ similarly to the Chinese DF-26 for its apparent primary purpose of threatening both Andersen Air Force Base and Guam Naval Base on the territory. The state run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported: “The test-fire was aimed to selectively evaluate the missile being produced and deployed and to verify the overall accuracy of the weapon system. It confirmed the accuracy, security and effectiveness of the operation of the Hwasong-12 type weapon system under production.” The missile was notably launched on an extreme trajectory that saw it fly deep into space, well above the Armstrong Limit of 18km, up to altitudes of 2000km. Cameras installed on the missile subsequently took pictures of the earth from space, before the missile returned to strike its target 800km from its launch point in Jagang Province. Such extreme altitude trajectories allow the missiles to demonstrate their full endurance without needing to land too far from Korean territory.

The Hwasong-12’s latest test is expected to both place pressure on Washington to return to the negotiating table, with the U.S. notably calling for talks shortly after the launch, while also advancing North Korea’s intermediate range strike capabilities. The missile was first unveiled in 2017, and retains an important role in the country’s armed forces due to the key importance attached to American facilities on Guam which are vital to its power projection operations in the region. North Korea is expected to significantly strengthen its intermediate range missile capabilities, and could pursue further ‘Guam Killer’ programs including a missile with multiple warheads capable of striking the target. Signs of improving capabilities are already apparent with the testing of the Pukkuksong-5 submarine launched ballistic missile, which places Guam within its range, as well as the Hwasong-8 hypersonic missile. The United States military for its part has shown signs of spreading out its assets in the Western Pacific to avoid overeliance on Guam, which is increasingly vulnerable to both Chinese and North Korean strikes, including plans to open a major new airbase on Tinian Island and expansion of a base on Wake Island. The U.S. Air Force in early 2021 also began training for ‘Austere Airfield’ operations on Guam to be able to operate combat aircraft in a limited capacity even if runways sustained some damage, and plans in future to base its bombers further away in Australia at a safer distance from Korean missile strikes.

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