North Korea Announce Successful Hypersonic Missile Engine Test

Test Launch

On March 19th, North Korean news outlet, the Korean Central News Agency, announced that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un supervised an alleged test of a multi-stage, solid-state fuel engine for a new “medium-to-long-range [intermediate] hypersonic missile.” The ground jet test, conducted by North Korea’s Missile General Directorate and Engine Research Institute, occurred at the Sohae Satellite Launching Site, located along the western coast of North Korea.

Intermediate range hypersonic engine firing during ground jet test at Sohae Satellite Launching Site (Photo: Korean Central News Agency)

Senior North Korean military officers as well as “leading executives from the missile development sector” accompanied Kim and observed the test with him. Regarding the engine test, Kim said that “the military-strategic value of this weapon system, starting from the security environment of our country and the operational requirements of the People’s Army, is evaluated as equally important as the intercontinental ballistic missile, and that the enemies know better about it.”

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and senior North Korean military officers observing ground jet test of engine for intermediate range hypersonic missile (Photo: Korean Central News Agency)

Furthermore, Kim also “expressed great satisfaction with the successful completion of the strategic weapons development tasks for the five-year plan period presented by the 8th Congress of our Party [the Korean Worker’s Party (KWP)].” The statement said that the successful test of the engine means that the development and completion of the new intermediate range hypersonic missile have “been confirmed.”

Connection to Strategic Military Goals

The engine test is part of the military goals that Kim outlined under a five-year plan to increase North Korea’s military capabilities during the 8th KWP Congress in January 2021. Among the nine goals Kim outlined in the plan were developing an operational hypersonic missile and gliding flight warheads.

The country conducted its first alleged test launch of a hypersonic missile with a gliding flight warhead in September 2021 off the eastern coast of North Korea. While KNCA called the missile a strategic weapon in a news article about the launch, South Korea said that the missile was in its early stages of development due to the detected velocity and other data points. North Korea conducted two tests of hypersonic missiles in early January 2022.

However, data collected from the test flights indicated that the second missile was likely of a more advanced design than the first missile. For example, the second missile traveled more than 435 miles (700 km) at a maximum altitude of about 37 miles (60 km) at approximately 10 times the speed of sound (7,673 mph), according to a statement by the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff. North Korea conducted an alleged test launch of an Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM) armed with a hypersonic glide warhead that used a solid-fuel state engine in January 2024.

Analysis

The engine test may indicate that North Korea is attempting to improve various aspects of the capabilities of the missile that was tested in January 2024. The most likely parameters that North Korea would be most keen on improving on are the IRBM’s propulsion system and its range. The reason why North Korea would focus on these two parameters first is to extend the missile’s range to threaten any U.S. military bases or sites located in the western Pacific region. The potential for North Korea to target and destroy military bases in Japan, Guam, or Hawaii would complicate U.S. military planning.

Furthermore, the United States would also have to devote resources to locating and destroying the hypersonic missile launchers to lessen the possibility that they could be against U.S. forces. For example, hunting for the launchers would mean the U.S. military would have to devote various intelligence gathering assets to locate the launchers or potential sites. The military would also be forced to allocate Special Operations Forces, infantry, and aircraft to conduct missions to destroy the launchers, further straining the manpower and equipment resources that could be used elsewhere.

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Joaquin Camarena
Joaquin Camarena
Joaquin the panda began Sino Talk in 2022 primarily to give an objective, unbiased view on China related topics as well as other issues related to the Indo-Pacific region. He spent several years studying and traveling throughout China and many countries in the Indo-Pacific region. In another life, the panda was also a U.S. Marine intelligence analyst who enjoyed bamboo MREs and drinking bourbon and soju. Indo-Pacific Division Desk Chief for Atlas News.
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