What North Korea’s Missile Testing Means for the Korean Peninsula

What North Korea’s Missile Testing Means for the Korean Peninsula

If North Korea continues to reject denuclearization negotiations, then there is no way for it to obtain relief from international sanctions, and U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises will continue.


Since January 5, in the space of less than a month, North Korea has launched missiles, including “hypersonic missiles” and medium-range ballistic missiles, on seven separate days. Last September it also tested missiles for five days. Thus, this is not the first time that Pyongyang has tested missiles for multiple days in the past year. However, this year’s launches are connected to the rapidly cooling relations with the United States, and this is what makes them different from those of last September.

North Korea’s Hypersonic Missile Tests


North Korea tested hypersonic missiles first back last September in Chagang Province. It followed up this test with another on January 5, launching a hypersonic missile from an inland location into the East Sea (Sea of Japan). Following this, on January 6, North Korea revealed through its Rodong Sinmun newspaper that Kim Jong-un was very pleased with the results and had sent “warm congratulations” to the national defense scientific research sector.  

What is more, on January 11, Pyongyang again tested a hypersonic missile, launching a projectile from Chagang Province into the East Sea (Sea of Japan). The South Korean Ministry of National Defense said that the missile launched on January 5 had reached a maximum speed of Mach 6, an apogee of under 50 km, and flew for less than 700 km, while the missile launched on January 11 had flown for more than 700 km, had reached an apogee of around 60 km, and flew at a speed of around Mach 10. On January 7, a South Korean defense ministry official characterized the January 5 launch as “just a normal missile that they exaggerated the capabilities of,” this was the missile that Kim had publicly hailed. As if by way of a response, the North then tested another missile with more advanced capabilities.

Kim praised the development of the hypersonic missile on January 11 as “a great breakthrough.” However, there was much skepticism about North Korea’s claims in the South. Professor Chang Yeong-geun of South Korea’s Korea Aerospace University said, “it is doubtful that this missile system will be reliable enough to be battle ready after three test flights.” Wang Ya’nan, editor of the mainland Chinese magazine Aerospace Knowledge told the Chinese government newspaper the Global Times: “the terminal-phase guidance is the most challenging technology to make the weapon useful…It requires a very complex and coordinated work of sensors, hypersonic flight control and probably also data transfer from satellites, drones, and large reconnaissance aircraft to guide the weapon to its target.”

Hypersonic missiles are more difficult to incept than conventional missiles and have been dubbed a “game-changer.” But this is an exaggeration. The United States and South Korea possess the ability to precisely target and hit Kim’s office and his many mansions. Hence, even if the North proves successful in developing a hypersonic missile capability, unless Kim is mad, he will not use it to launch a preemptive strike on the South. Hence, these new missiles will not improve the North’s security vulnerabilities nor weaken South Korea’s security situation in particular. That said, the only countries that currently possess a hypersonic missile capability are the United States, China, and Russia. Hence, if North Korea has actually “succeeded” in these tests, then it will be a source of pride and yet stronger loyalty amongst its people, and further boost Kim’s authority.

This year, North Korea has two important anniversaries on February 16 (Kim Jong-il’s eightieth birthday) and April 15 (Kim Il-sung’s 110th), which the authorities are describing as a “great revolutionary occasion for celebration”. Kim Jong-un’s legitimacy as ruler is rooted in the fact that he is Kim Il-sung’s grandson and Kim Jong-il’s son. Thus, he must mark these two political anniversaries with requisite pomp and circumstance. The claimed “great breakthrough” with hypersonic missile technology is designed to show the country is capable of real successes, at least in the national defense sector. It would appear that the need to create a festive atmosphere in time for the April anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birth is a major motivator.  

U.S. Unilateral Sanctions and North Korean Missile Tests

North Korea’s claims were background to additional, tough unilateral sanctions from the United States. On January 12, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) unveiled sanctions targeting six North Koreans and one Russian national, as well as one Russian organization, which it accused of participating in North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and ballistic missile programs. 

In response, a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesperson statement attacked the United States, saying: “If the United States defiantly adopts such a confrontational stance, the DPRK can’t but show its stronger and clear reaction to it.” The North was saying that even though it had not tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of hitting the U.S. mainland, if the United States insisted upon responding with sanctions, it would follow up with a further show of strength.

On the afternoon of January 14, in the area of Uiju, North Pyongan, the North tested its own version of the Russian Iskander missile (the KN-23) launched from a railway carriage, firing two short-range ballistic missiles into the northeastern part of the East Sea (Sea of Japan). On the morning of January 17, the North tested two KN-24 missiles, dubbed the “North Korean ATACMS [Army Tactical Missile System],” firing them from the Sunan Airport into the northeastern part of the East Sea (Sea of Japan). The Korean Central News Agency (North Korea’s government wire service) reported on January 18 that the previous day’s test had been an “inspection fire test of a tactical guided warhead.” This implies that the KN-24 is in full-scale production and has been deployed.

The missile test on January 17 occurred during South Korean president Moon Jae-in’s visit to Middle Eastern countries that are the major export markets for North Korean weapons and military technology. At the time that the test occurred, Moon was visiting the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where he had signed agreements worth around $3.5 billion to export the South Korean KM-SAM (Cheongung-Ⅱ) weapon system, a surface-to-air ballistic missile interceptor system. The North Koreans were thought to have tested a ballistic missile at this time to show off their “precision, stability, and operational effectiveness” to Middle Eastern countries.

Toward a Hardline in U.S. Relations

On January 19, Kim Jong-un convened the Sixth Politburo session of the Eighth Central Committee (CC) of the Workers’ Party of Korea. The United States was accused of denying North Korea’s rights to “exercise sovereignty,” and the sanctions imposed by the U.S. government on January 12 in the wake of the two “hypersonic missile” tests were strongly condemned. Further, it “gave an instruction to a sector concerned to reconsider on an overall scale the trust-building measures that we took on our own initiative on a preferential ground and to promptly examine the issue of restarting all temporarily-suspended activities.” Thus, the Politburo signaled that it was going to completely reconsider the decisions made at the CC plenary session in June 2018. In April 2018, the third plenary meeting of the Seventh CC announced the suspension of nuclear tests, medium and intercontinental ballistic missile tests, and the closure of the Punggye-ri nuclear test facility. Thus, Kim’s directive at the recent Politburo session can logically be interpreted as an order to reexamine the resumption of nuclear tests, ICBM tests, and even the restoration of the country’s shuttered nuclear testing facilities.

The United States had planned to convene a meeting of the UN Security Council (UNSC) on January 20 to confirm that the tests since last September had violated UNSC resolutions concerning North Korean missile tests, and to pass additional sanctions targeting the North. Thus, Kim convened the Politburo before this planned UNSC session to send the message that if the UNSC passed new sanctions, the North would respond aggressively with nuclear and ICBM tests. However, China and Russia indicated that they wanted to delay U.S. proposals to sanction additional individuals with links to North Korea’s ballistic missiles program. Thus, sanctions were not adopted, and the North no longer had reason to respond aggressively.

In such circumstances, the North had far more to lose than gain by restarting nuclear and ICBM tests, so it seems doubtful they would nonetheless proceed with such a foolish move. Already by 2017, following nuclear and missile tests, the North declared its “nuclear potential complete,” and thus additional tests are unlikely to give it real additional bargaining power in negotiations with the United States.

China is concerned that if the North continues to develop its nuclear capabilities, South Korea, Japan, and even Taiwan may begin developing their own nuclear capabilities, and that the United States will accept such moves in order to contain China. Hence, while China is happy to abide by North Korea’s non-nuclear tests, it is forced to participate in UNSC sanctions that target North Korean nuclear and ICBM tests.  

Prospects for the Peninsula

North Korea again tested long-range cruise missiles twice on the morning of January 25, and on January 27, they tested two tactical guided surface-to-surface warheads in the Hamhung area. Further, on January 30, the North tested the Hwasong-12, a medium-range ballistic missile that is capable of hitting Guam, and hinted that if additional U.S. sanctions are imposed on Pyongyang, it will potentially proceed to test ICBMs.