North Korea conducted a weapons test early Sunday, claiming it successfully launched a newly developed solid-fuel intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) equipped with a hypersonic glide vehicle warhead. The launch marks North Korea’s first known weapons test of 2024 and introduces worrying advancements to its growing nuclear arsenal.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff detected the IRBM launch from the Sunan area in Pyongyang around 7:22 a.m. local time on Sunday. The missile flew about 500 miles across North Korea before splashing down in waters between the Korean Peninsula and Japan . Japan also reported detecting the suspected IRBM, warning citizens in northern regions to take shelter .
In a state media report later on Sunday, North Korea hailed the test as an “important success” in its plan to bolster national defense capabilities, confirming the missile’s solid-fuel engine and the “hypersonic gliding warhead” it carried .
Solid-Fuel Engine Poses New Threats
Most of North Korea’s existing ballistic missiles use liquid propellants, which require time-consuming preparations for fueling before launch. Transitioning more of its arsenal to solid fuel would enable much more rapid deployment – shortening launch preparation to minutes rather than hours.
Solid-fuel missiles can also stay fueled and ready for years inside storage and launch tubes, while liquid-fueled rockets have a much shorter shelf life before needing refueling . This allows solid-fuel missiles to be hidden and launched with little warning.
“North Korea wants to deploy solid-propellant ICBMs by 2025. This test could be part of that plan,” said Lee Choon-geun, an honorary research fellow at South Korea’s Science and Technology Policy Institute .
Hypersonic Warhead Adds Evasive Maneuverability
In recent years, North Korea has joined Russia and China in developing hypersonic glide vehicles designed to deliver nuclear warheads while eluding missile defenses. Mounted atop ballistic missiles, these unpowered gliders are released high in space on a flattened trajectory that can reach over five times the speed of sound as they descend towards targets.
By adding the ability to maneuver unpredictably during atmospheric reentry, hypersonic weapons aim to outmaneuver interception. They shorten reaction times and reduce predictability compared to conventional ballistic missile warheads that travel on a simple arched trajectory .
“Solid propellant and maneuvering warheads all serve the purpose of complicating any effort by the United States and allies to intercept an incoming North Korean missile,” said Melissa Hanham, an affiliate at the Stanford Center for International Security and Cooperation .
Provocation Follows Pattern of Gradually Advancing Program
The test matches North Korea’s established pattern of gradually improving its weapons capabilities while using provocations to extract concessions in future negotiations. The isolated regime is still subject to biting international sanctions over its nuclear program and ballistic missile development.
After a record year of missile tests in 2022, North Korea entered this year by touting plans to mass produce tactical nuclear weapons and more powerful ICBMs. The renewed testing and bold proclamations likely aim to pressure the U.S. and allies like South Korea as Kim Jong Un seeks sanctions relief .
Sunday’s launch broke a two-month lull in testing after an unprecedented rate of tests in 2022 – firing over 70 ballistic missiles . That barrage included ICBMs designed to strike the U.S. mainland and the first test of a weapon that traveled full ICBM range since 2017.
International Condemnation and Calls for Dialogue
The latest launch prompted swift condemnation from global leaders – with the White House lambasting it as a “flagrant violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions” .
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol called the North’s intensifying weapons program “reckless” and vowed to strengthen his country’s defense posture .
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said North Korea’s actions are “problematic and unacceptable,” pledging close cooperation with allies .
At the same time, officials called for Pyongyang to return to talks. China’s Foreign Ministry urged “all parties to… jointly promote the political settlement of the Peninsula issue” .
Similarly, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said the U.S. would “continue to pursue practical and serious diplomacy” with North Korea, while warning of unspecified “additional costs and consequences” if Pyongyang continues destabilizing tests .
Timeline of Recent North Korean Missile Advancements
North Korea’s missile program has made rapid gains under Kim Jong Un, allowing the isolated nation to threaten targets worldwide.
|First ICBM test showed continent-spanning reach, prompting new UN sanctions
|Early short-range solid-fuel missile tested
|Largest Nuclear Warhead
|New ICBM paraded could potentially deliver multiple warhead payload
|Submarine-launched ballistic missile demonstrated at sea
|ICBM at Full Range
|Test showed existing Hwasong-15 ICBM could likely strike entirety of U.S. mainland
|Kim Jong Un orders tactical nuclear weapon mass production
|Claimed successful test of solid-fuel IRBM with hypersonic warhead
Sources: [15, 16]
Analysis: Goals Remain Sanctions Relief and Being Accepted as Nuclear Power
Analysts emphasize that North Korea’s pattern of graduated provocations has clear underlying motivations – survival of Kim Jong Un’s regime and Release from sanctions.
“North Korea will continue to improve its arsenal in stages toward three goals – evading missile defenses, miniaturizing nuclear warheads to mount on missiles, and hitting targets anywhere quickly,” said Shin Beom-chul, director of the Center for Security and Unification at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy.
Ultimately, Kim likely hopes advancing frightening new capabilities will pressure the U.S. and South Korea into accepting North Korea as a nuclear power and negotiating sanctions relief .
“Pyongyang is trying to normalize itself internationally as a nuclear weapons state while securing economic benefits in exchange for nuclear concessions,” said Park Won-gon, professor of North Korean Studies at Ewha Womans University .
So while the new missile introduces worrying innovations, it fits Pyongyang’s established strategy. North Korea seems unlikely to outright start or provoke an armed conflict that risks devastation for Kim’s regime. Yet with improving capabilities and vague red lines, risks of miscalculation remain – keeping Northeast Asia on uneasy footing .
“The reality is North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs remain shrouded in secrecy,” said Duyeon Kim, a senior analyst at the Center for a New American Security. “We don’t know where their real red lines are because they haven’t told us” .
Outlook: Mounting Pressure But Uncertain Responses
North Korea’s advancing nuclear force poses a worsening threat to global security – yet solutions remain elusive. The U.S. and allies seem set to react with familiar condemnations, calls for dialogue, and military drills. But new options may be needed to curb North Korea’s growing capabilities before they irreversibly upend stability in Asia and beyond.
“There are no good solutions, only least-bad ones,” said Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. “But we cannot sit still” .
With Kim Jong Un intent on cementing North Korea’s nuclear power status, neighboring countries increasingly feel compelled to amass their own sophisticated defenses. Beyond sparking renewed arms races, North Korea’s actions risk further undermining global norms against nuclear proliferation .
So while direct military intervention remains unlikely, pressure for more assertive responses to North Korean aggression may gradually rise – even as the window for diplomatically rolling back its nuclear program continues to shrink.
“The North’s action highlights the need for South Korea, the U.S. and Japan to build capabilities to neutralize missile threats,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University . “At the same time… allies should offer Pyongyang flexible diplomacy” before achievements like miniaturized nuclear warheads become irreversible.”
With risks intensifying amid gridlocked policy debates, the next steps remain worryingly unclear as North Korea continues advancing its frightening nuclear arsenal.
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