A North Korean ballistic missile emerges from the waves in 2021 in what Pyongyang claimed was a successful SLBM test. Anti-North Korea initiatives dominated the Joe Biden-Yoon Suk-yeol summit on May 21, 2022, in Seoul. Photo: AFP / KCNA

Displaying serious defiance once again, North Korea on Tuesday test-fired its third (and second within a week) hypersonic missile, and on Wednesday the front page of its national daily Rodong Sinmun showed Kim Jong Un attending the event and urging scientists to “further accelerate the efforts to steadily build up the country’s strategic military muscle in both quality and quantity.”

What makes this intriguing is that after a 17-month hiatus since the two Trump-Kim summits during 2018 and 2019, North Korea test-fired more than a dozen missiles, but Kim had stopped publicly appearing at such events since March 2020.

This is partly explained as the result of nuclear and missile tests by North Korea being banned under successive United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions that not only imposed severe sanctions on pandemic-stricken Pyongyang but authorized all UN member states to interdict and inspect suspect North Korean cargo within their respective territories.

What makes this week’s test and its publicity intriguing is that only this Monday, six nations – the US, the UK, France, Japan, Ireland and Albania – had issued a joint statement urging Pyongyang to desist from such “destabilizing actions” and convened a UN Security Council close-door meeting to discuss its January 6 hypersonic missile test. 

But beyond North Korea, the US has been skeptical of its Security Council counterparts Russian and China, which have not only soft-pedaled sanctioning Pyongyang but are increasingly seen using North Korea as their proxy to undermine US global leadership. 

China and Russia have repeatedly proposed to the UNSC that it lift sanctions on North Korea because of the Covid-19 pandemic and also in view of Pyongyang’s “multiple denuclearization measures in recent years” and “to create enabling atmosphere to facilitate early start of dialogue.”

This has resulted in the US Treasury Department on Wednesday blacklisting five North Koreans, four based in China and one in Russia, for procuring material for these missile tests. South Korea and Japan also condemned these tests, and they were joined by the UN secretary general and the European Union among others expressing similar concerns.

Game-changing technology

To understand this collective sharp reaction one has to go beyond both North Korea’s defiance of UN sanctions as well as the the Russo-Chinese technology nexus with it. The quirk of fate lies deeper: in the nature and potency of the hypersonic missiles’ technology.

The advent of such novel technologies has triggered a serious rethink on all extant defense and deterrence theologies, potentially threatening to redefine major post-World War II strategic equations that have undergirded the US global leadership. Historically, the leadership of major powers has been premised on procuring advanced technologies while denying the same to their opponents.

Other than the major powers’ technological edge explaining their offensive proclivities, experts have argued that this is especially so in the case of offensive technologies like missiles. It is in this context that one needs to understand how hypersonic missiles threaten to undermine that assurance of ballistic-missile defense that is credited for having sustained strategic stability in the post-World War II nuclear competition.

What is equally intriguing is that major powers such as the US, France, Germany, Japan, China and India that seem so concerned about North Korea’s hypersonic missiles have their own hypersonic-missile programs. 

Only last Friday, the US-Japan 2+2 (foreign and defense ministers) talks had, among others, signed an agreement to collaborate to counter the hypersonic-missile capabilities of China and Russia.

The US remains equally concerned with Russian collaborations with India. After their successful supersonic BrahMos cruise-missile project, India and Russia are reportedly collaborating again, resulting in India testing a hypersonic-technology demonstrator vehicle during March 2019 and then again in September 2020. 

But more than their propensity to share technologies with their allies, which could indirectly create problems for US and its friends, Washington’s major concern remains the suspected Sino-Russian lead over the US in hypersonic technologies.

Marking perhaps its second “Sputnik moment” back in 2019, Russia showcased its lead by deploying its first submarined-based hypersonic, nuclear-capable ballistic systems Avangard and air-launched Kinzhal (Dragger) missiles with Mach-10 speed and a range of 1,700 miles.

Then last November it test-fired another hypersonic missile, Zircon, from an Admiral Gorshkov-class warship. Russia is next expected to deploy the 3K33 Tsirkon with Mach-6 speed and range up to 620 miles.

China likewise first publicized its hypersonic missile program with its Lingyun-1 (Reach the Clouds) and Starry Sky-2 projects in 2018. Last July it conducted its second test showcasing the ability to launch a missile from a parent vehicle traveling five times the speed of sound – a feat not yet mastered even by Russia. 

And now the North Korean test has showcased a further leap of technology. After release from the rocket booster, its hypersonic glide vehicle made a 600-kilometer glide jump flight and then its unique 240km “corkscrew” maneuver before hitting its target 1,000km away. 

Ceding the lead

Does this mean that the US hypersonic-missile program has fallen behind those of Moscow and Beijing? Both of them have been state-controlled projects driven from specific anti-access and area-denial perspectives. The Pentagon, by comparison, has awarded contracts to private players like Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman to work on hypersonic conventional strike weapons and another air-launched rapid response weapons. 

The US meanwhile continues to rely heavily on the global reach of its nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. But here again hypersonic missiles can overcome the defenses of even heavily defended carriers. Even the F-35 stealth fighter has a maximum radius of 600 miles, which is less than half of Russia’s long-range hypersonic missiles.

Finally, what makes the advent of hypersonic missiles the next breaking point is their unprecedented speed, between five and 10 times the speed of sound. But speed is not their only merit. Other than their hypersonic speed, what makes these missiles specially invulnerable are their unmatched maneuvering skills.  

Obviously, China, Russia, North Korea being the first to perfect these weapons has deeper strategic implications for global geopolitics.

Follow Swaran Singh on Twitter @SwaranSinghJNU

Swaran Singh

Swaran Singh is visiting professor at the University of British Columbia, fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute in Calgary, Alberta, and professor of diplomacy and disarmament at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.