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DPRK aims for its missiles to penetrate Japan-U.S.-ROK defense network

  • September 30, 2021
  • , Asahi , p. 11
  • JMH Translation

By Makino Yoshihiro, Matsuyama Naoki, and Suzuki Takuya in Seoul


North Korea announced that it test-launched a Hwasong-8, a newly developed hypersonic missile. The missile is difficult to intercept with the existing defense posture, and their actual deployment by the North could undermine Japan’s security. However, some experts cast doubts about the current level of North Korean technology [to achieve hypersonic missile capability].


According to the Ministry of Defense (MOD) and other sources, hypersonic missiles travel at a speed between mach 5 and mach 20. They are capable of shifting trajectories amid low-altitude flight. In 2019, Russia deployed Avangard missiles, which it claimed to be untouchable by contemporary missile defense. Also in 2019, China revealed the DF-17 (Dong Feng-17) missile system at a military parade. A former senior official at the Air Self-Defense Force points out that the Hwansong-8 is similar to that of the DF-17 in external features.


At present, Japan’s missile defense consists of two phases: SM-3 missile interceptors launched from an Aegis ship will intercept incoming missiles at a high altitude, and PAC-3 surface-to-air guided missile will shoot down missiles at a low altitude close to the ground. While the defensive missiles must be launched continually, “hypersonic missiles approaching at a low altitude would be hard to track with radars, even if U.S. early-warning satellite detected the launch,” says the same former ASDF senior official.


The MOD included in the FY 2021 budget funds for conducting research on a small satellite constellation that detects and traces hypersonic missiles. However, the initiative is only just starting.


A former senior official at the Ground Self-Defense Force says that “something like a railgun (currently being studied at the SDF) would be required to shoot down” a hypersonic missile.


Meanwhile, some sources claim that the missile launched by the North on Sept. 28 only travelled about 200 kilometers. Some South Korean defense sources speculate that the launch was a failure. A senior MOD official also opines: “A more detailed analysis is needed to determine whether the launch was in fact a success.”


Reportedly, the U.S. has successfully test launched a hypersonic missile. Former senior SDF officials and others familiar with the matter all believe that “North Korea cannot develop hypersonic missiles without technological help from China or Russia.” One of the former officials said: “North Korea’s aim may be to convince Japan, the U.S., and South Korea that it might have developed hypersonic missiles, thereby forcing these countries to spend unnecessary amounts of money on defense strategy.” He further analyzed: “The North must be hoping to create a schism between the U.S., which regards their hypersonic missiles as not much of a threat because of their short reach, and Japan and South Korea [which think otherwise].”


North Korea’s conventional weapons are becoming obsolete. Hopping to deter others by nuclear missiles, the country is accelerating development of a range of missiles that could penetrate the missile defense network deployed by Japan, the U.S., and South Korea. North Korea launched new long-range cruise missiles on Sept. 11 and 12. It launched short-range ballistic missiles with an irregular trajectory, which evades tracking and interception, on Sept. 15.


“Considering that the SDF has limited capability to intercept these missiles, it may be necessary to acquire the capability to strike back to boost our deterrence against North Korea,” says the former senior ASDF official.


The United States is currently formulating a new defense strategy and conducting a global posture review (GPR) and nuclear posture review (NPR). Although China is at the center of the Indo-Pacific strategy, an increase in the nuclear threat from North Korea could impact the U.S. strategies.


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