North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watches the launch of a Hwasong-12 missile in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on September 16, 2017. Photo: KCNA via Reuters
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watches the launch of a missile in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency. Photo: KCNA

SEOUL – In apparent defiance of new sanctions announced by the United States two days ago, North Korea unleashed yet another projectile Friday.

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff announced on Friday afternoon that North Korea had fired “an unidentified projectile eastward.” Meanwhile, the Japanese government tentatively identified it as a ballistic missile test.

If, as looks highly likely, this was indeed a test of a North Korean missile fired into the Sea of Japan, it will be the third in less than 10 days. And it comes only two days after the US announced new sanctions against North Korea.

After tests on January 5 and January 12, North Korean state media indicated that the first launch – overseen by state leader Kim Jong Un in person and accompanied by his powerful sister Kim Yo Jong – had finalized tests of a hypersonic missile.

The Korea Central News Agency said the “superior maneuverability” of the missile had been “strikingly verified through the final test-fire.”

The strategy being pursued in Pyongyang’s corridors of power is unknown to the outside world and state media is not always a pillar of integrity.

However, if the KCNA is to be taken at its word, Friday’s firing was either an additional test to check reliability; the test of a different class of weapon; and/or a show of defiance against recent steps taken by Washington.

“Though they have said they have achieved their capability, it does not hurt to shoot off another one,” Chun In-bum, a retired South Korean general, told Asia Times. “I’d guess that one goal is to prove reliability – and another is to show the world that North Korea has their own agenda and nobody is going to deny them their so-called rights.”

A North Korean ballistic missile. Photo: WikiCommons

Retaliating against retaliation

North Korea is banned by UN resolutions from owning ballistic missile technologies – and hypersonics are highly advanced versions of ballistic missiles.

Washington has shot back. The US Treasury Department announced on January 12 – the same day (allowing for time differences) of a North Korean hypersonic test – that five North Korean individuals connected with the procurement of technologies related to weapons of mass destruction (WOMD) and/or missile programs were being sanctioned.

One of the sanctioned individuals is based in the Russian Far East, the others in China. Moreover, the Treasury press release said a Russian individual, albeit of apparent Korean ethnicity, is being sanctioned on similar charges by the US State Department.

The action follows “six missile launches since September 2021, each of which violated multiple United Nations Security Council Resolutions,” the US Treasury said.

And Washington is waving an even bigger stick.

On the same day the Treasury announced its move, US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield tweeted: “The US is proposing UN sanctions following North Korea’s six ballistic missile launches since September 2021, each of which was in violation of UN Security Council resolutions.”

Given the fractious state of US relations with UNSC Permanent Members China and Russia, it is not clear at present whether such a proposal would pass the world body.

It is also far from clear if they would have the desired effect. Though North Korea has been suffering under heavy UNSC sanctions since 2016, the sanctions clearly have not trammeled its arms-development programs – as witnessed by Pyongyang’s latest advances.

Hypersonics are a kind of ultra-high-speed, highly maneuverable ballistic missile that confounds all current-generation missile defenses. North Korea announced the development of hypersonics in its latest Five-Year Plan in January.

The KCNA noted that Wednesday’s test had made a “600 kilometer (375 mile) glide jump flight,” followed by a 240-kilometer of “corkscrew maneuvering” before hitting its target.

“I think it is pretty credible that they have been able to achieve that flight path,” Chun said.

The North American Aerospace Defense Command. Photo: WikiCommons / US Department of Defense / Thomas Paul

Fear and loathing

These capabilities are causing jitters across the Pacific.

According to reports from the US, Tuesday’s test firing, for several minutes, alarmed the US Northern Command and the Northern American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, which initially feared the missile might be aimed at the Aleutian Islands or California.

Amid the uncertainty, the Federal Aviation Authority grounded a number of civil flights for about 15 minutes on the US west coast.

While the ongoing launches may be defiant, they are clearly not designed to strike the United States and ignite a cross-Pacific missile war that North Korea could not win. Yet North Korea’s hypersonic missiles are a potential game-changer for the South Korean-US defensive posture.

If perfected and deployed in sufficient numbers, they could feasibly act as area-denial weapons. As such, they could deter or prevent American assets – be they ground forces deploying to bases in South Korea or aircraft carriers taking position off the peninsula – from reinforcing its ally in a time of crisis.

Follow Andrew Salmon on Twitter at @Andrewcsalmon