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 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.
Abrams write that 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 aeroballistic 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.
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 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 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.
Beyond advancing the country’s strike capabilities, testing the Hwasong-12 represents a further escalation in the region. 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.
Finally, Pyongyang may well seek to use missile testing not only to advance its military 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 current administration could potentially offer to relax if placed under pressure and offered concessions by Pyongyang.