On January 30, North Korea conducted its seventh missile launch of the year, firing an intermediate range ballistic missile from Jagang Province. The missile flew 800 kilometers and reached a 2,000 km altitude before landing in the sea to the east of North Korea. The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported on January 31 that the missile in question was the Hwasong-12, which was previously successfully tested three times in May to September 2017 and has an estimated range of 4,500 km.
By launching at extreme and abnormal altitudes, as is common for most North Korean strategic missile tests, missiles can be tested and their range demonstrated without them needing to land too far from Korean waters. This compensates for the country’s lack of breadth; missile programs in larger countries such Russia and the United States can fire strategic ballistic missiles on more normal trajectories that travel thousands of kilometers across their territory (such as Russia’s Kura test range, located thousands of kilometers from launch sites).
Regarding the Hwasong-12 test KCNA reported: “The test-fire was aimed to selectively evaluate the missile being produced and deployed and to verify the overall accuracy of the weapon system,” adding that it “confirmed the accuracy, security and effectiveness of the operation of the Hwasong-12-type weapon system under production.”
The Hwasong-12 was one of three high-profile new ballistic missiles first seen in 2017 alongside the intercontinental range Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15, which had estimated ranges of 10,000 km and 13,000 km. It has retained pride of place in North Korea’s military parades since, with several launchers driving through Kim Il Sung Square, indicating the missile remains the Korean People’s Army’s (KPA) prime intermediate range platform. The missile is a successor to the Hwasong-10, better known as the Musudan, which was last tested in 2016 and had an estimated 4,000 km range.
The resumption of Hwasong-12 testing after a five-year pause could be intended for number of purposes. The last five years have almost certainly seen changes made to the missile, as the country’s technologies in the area have demonstrably advanced. The January 30 launch could allow North Korea to test new improvements ranging from guidance systems to fuel composites.
The possible benefits from testing are greater when considering that the first stage of the Hwasong-12 has reportedly been re-used with some modification as the first stage of the new Hwasong-8 missile, which was first tested in September 2021 and carries a hypersonic glide vehicle. When the Hwasong-8 enters service, this is likely to make North Korea only the second country after China to field such vehicles for tactical roles, and the third to field them in any capacity whatsoever, with Russia deploying the Avangard glide vehicle from its intercontinental range strategic missiles. It is possible that improvements to the first stage of the Hwasong-12 could be in testing with the intention of implementing the same changes on the Hwasong-8, or else that Hwasong-8 tests used an improved version of the Hwasong-12’s first stage, which is now being tested on the original missile. Once the Hwasong-8 enters service, however, likely after several more tests this year, the Hwasong-12 may well see production terminated as it is superseded by the new hypersonic platform. This could largely depend on whether the newer missile can fully match the range of its predecessor, which remains uncertain, as well as the discrepancy in cost between the two missiles.
The Hwasong-12 occupies an important role in the KPA’s arsenal, the doctrine and priorities of which continue to be very heavily influenced by the experience and historical memory of the Korean War. In the early 1950s, the United States Air Force launched a firebombing campaign across North Korea from the safety of bases in Japan, which were well beyond the range of any KPA asset to retaliate. That weakness left North Korea effectively helpless in the face of three years of continuous bombardment, with more ordinance dropped on the country by U.S. forces than on the entire Japanese Empire during the Pacific War.
The difference between the global reach of American strikes and the KPA’s negligible ability to counterstrike provided the U.S. with considerable leverage during armistice negotiations and inevitably made a strong impression. The ability to strike back at American assets beyond the Korean Peninsula, and particularly airfields, has thus been highly valued by the KPA and became a central focus of its military modernization efforts. This includes not only targets in Japan but also Guam, which during the Korean War and since has served as a key staging ground for American power projection into East Asia.
North Korean efforts culminated in the entry into service of the Hwasong-7, better known as the Rodong-1, from the mid-late 1990s, which was able to strike targets across Japan. North Korea subsequently expanded its capabilities with the development of the Hwasong-10 and Hwasong-12. The latter in particular has left both Andersen Air Force Base and Guam Naval Base, which are vital to the U.S. military’s ability to stage operations in East Asia, vulnerable to strikes including with nuclear warheads. The Hwasong-8 is set to further increase the vulnerability of these targets by providing a more effective countermeasure against the substantial U.S. air defenses guarding facilities on Guam, with the emergence of a defense system capable of reliably intercepting hypersonic glide vehicles in the foreseeable future remaining unlikely.
Beyond advancing the country’s strike capabilities, testing the Hwasong-12 represents a further escalation by North Korea. Even before the January 30 launch, the intensity of North Korea’s tests in January was unprecedented since 2017. Such tests were previously harshly criticized by Washington and its allies until 2019, when the Trump administration notably relaxed the official position by issuing statements that anything short of an intercontinental-range missile test would not be seen as a significant provocation breaking the post-2017 détente between the two countries. The Biden administration has similarly been relatively moderate in denouncing North Korean missile tests compared to the pre-2019 period, retaliating only with limited and largely symbolic economic sanctions against individuals seen to be aiding the country’s missile program in the second week of January. With the Biden administration bogged down by other foreign policy priorities, from Iran’s nuclear program to significant tensions with Russia over Ukraine, it was a very notable change from 2017 that the response to the Hwasong-12 test was a call for direct talks with Pyongyang, while the U.S. on the same day called for U.N. Security Council action – not against North Korea but rather against Russia.
Pyongyang may well seek to use missile testing not only to advance its capabilities but also to open the way to a deal that could limit its weapons programs in exchange for concessions from Washington. Such an agreement, should it be discussed, is expected to center on economic sanctions resolutions primarily pushed through by the United States at the UNSC in 2016 and 2017, which the Biden administration could potentially offer to relax if placed under pressure and offered concessions by Pyongyang. The Hwasong-12 test could well be a first step toward achieving such an outcome. North Korea may follow up with tests of longer-ranged missiles that could place more pressure on Washington to reach a deal.