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North Korean HGVs pose a threat to the West

Watch out. Credit: Getty

April 8, 2024 - 7:00am

Last week, pictures and videos emerged of a missile being tested in North Korea which appeared to be equipped with a “hypersonic glide vehicle” (HGV). In the past decade or so, North Korean missile tests have become so frequent that they have come to be regarded as a sort of background noise in global affairs. But the fact that the country now appears to possess HGVs should raise alarm bells in the West.

The first thing to note about North Korea’s HGV is that it is unlikely to have been developed there. The technology is simply too advanced to have been produced by the hermit kingdom, and it seems more probable that either Russia or China handed it to Pyongyang. The second thing to note is that the United States and its allies do not currently possess this technology, meaning that North Korea has an advantage over the West in this sphere. This detail shouldn’t be skirted over.

North Korea has had access to missiles which can reach the US mainland for around a decade. Yet until now it was assumed that, in a worst-case scenario, American air defence might be able to shoot down any intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) launched by the North Koreans. Now, with HGVs in reserve, previous bets are off.

HGVs operate by being launched into orbit on the back of a conventional ballistic missile, but then break away from their launch vehicles and re-enter the earth’s atmosphere. At this point, they reach hypersonic speeds — anything higher than five times the speed of sound, though some HGVs are apparently capable of achieving 27 times the speed of sound.

What’s more, HGVs do not follow a standard parabolic trajectory. Rather, as they re-enter earth’s atmosphere they zig-zag chaotically toward their target. With HGVs travelling at such extremely high speeds and following an unpredictable trajectory, they become harder to shoot down.

This changes the geostrategic picture in the Asia-Pacific theatre. If tensions ever escalated between North Korea and the US, the latter would have to consider that the former could, in theory at least, threaten the American mainland. This will also come as a severe concern to the South Koreans, who are well aware that the North would still like to conquer the country and integrate it into the communist state.

This development raises questions about a potential showdown between China and America in the region. We have seen in the Middle East how Iran can deploy proxy armies such as the Houthis in Yemen to attack Western ships while maintaining plausible deniability that they are behind the attack. What if the Chinese or the Russians encouraged North Korea to fire anti-shipping missiles at American naval vessels in the region? If the Americans tried to counterattack on the North Korean mainland, they would risk Pyongyang firing a nuclear-tipped HGV at the US mainland.

When the Chinese tested a HGV a few years ago the reaction was one of shock, with some Western analysts calling it a “Sputnik moment” for the country. In the wake of the North Korean test last week, it feels that many are having a hard time processing it. A common reaction was to simply deny that the HGV was real and actually flew — but US Navy reports from a couple of days later appear to confirm that the test was indeed real.

The world order is changing rapidly. As they find themselves focused on the crisis in the Middle East and the potential collapse of the front line in Ukraine, suddenly Pyongyang comes out of nowhere and tests an extremely advanced and threatening weapons system. What is needed today is a complete rethink of Western foreign policy to deal with the new world that is now emerging. Business as usual is looking increasingly untenable.


Philip Pilkington is a macroeconomist and investment professional, and the author of The Reformation in Economics

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E Wyatt
E Wyatt
1 month ago

Can’t say I know what HGV stands for, other than heavy goods vehicle. The article doesn’t enlighten me, nor does a quick scan of google.

Martin M
Martin M
1 month ago
Reply to  E Wyatt

The article does say “hypersonic glide vehicle”, although after my initial glance at the article, I did have some concern about North Korean trucks with square wheels on our roads.

E Wyatt
E Wyatt
1 month ago
Reply to  Martin M

OK, thanks. My comprehension skills must be failing me in my old age, as I didn’t spot it. Not that I’m much the wiser, to be honest!

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 month ago
Reply to  Martin M

The state of Britains roads I’m not sure square wheels would make them any worse

Tom Lewis
Tom Lewis
1 month ago
Reply to  E Wyatt

I believe it stands for ‘Hypersonic glide vehicle’ (faster than the speed of sound, about 660mph I believe).
I thought it was quite clear, personally.

Rob N
Rob N
1 month ago
Reply to  Tom Lewis

Hypersonic is more than 5x speed of sound (c760mph). German V2s were almost hypersonic apparently.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
1 month ago

A lot of western media commentary depicts China as being a restraining influence on North Korea. That seems to be fantasy. In fact China under Xi has become more like North Korea. And there is a surprising level of sympathy for the North amongst South Koreans, even if they don’t actually want to live there,

PV Creations
PV Creations
1 day ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh
Last edited 1 day ago by PV Creations
William Brand
William Brand
1 month ago

N Korea can absorb S Korea whenever it wishes. The only reason not to is that it does not wish to digest a bunch of free people.

Martin M
Martin M
1 month ago
Reply to  William Brand

I suspect that South Korea would be similarly concerned if the regime in the North fell, and they were suddenly responsible for a large number of malnourished North Koreans with no skills which are useful in the 21st century world.

Matt M
Matt M
1 month ago
Reply to  William Brand

If they wait 50 years the S Korean population is forecast to fall from 51M to 36M with half of those being over 65 years of age. If the Kims just manage to keep the N Korean birth-rate at 2 per woman, they will eventually be able to walk into Seoul unopposed.

Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
1 month ago

The Russians have Kinzhal hypersonic missiles. A lot of them were fired into Ukraine. Some of them crashed. Many have been shot down by patriot missiles supplied by the Americans. Hard to see the North Koreans improving on the build quality of the Russians. A North Korean Heavy Goods Vehicle (HGV) might be more reliable.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
1 month ago

What is behind this sudden orgy of war-mongering in the media?

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 month ago

There was me hoping for an interesting discussion on North Korean lorries and logistics, then I saw it was Pilkington and knew it would be another article about how the west was doomed

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Indeed ! Here he is signing off:
“What is needed today is a complete rethink of Western foreign policy to deal with the new world that is now emerging. Business as usual is looking increasingly untenable.”
And then the line goes mysteriously dead !
I’m remembering a former boss who always told us to never talk about problems with customers unless you also had solutions … . But we were also dealing with real problems.

B Emery
B Emery
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

I thought it was a good conclusion.
How is this not a real problem.
How are we going to fight russia, china, Iran and north Korea with our military as it is. Especially since they are now outstripping us in some areas of weapon tech.
Why do we not have these kinds of weapons. That a country like north Korea now has hypersonic weapons we haven’t developed yet should be a very serious cause for concern.

j watson
j watson
1 month ago

As regards North Korea – having a HGV and being able to arm it with a nuclear warhead are two different things. The technology and ability to do the second is not straightforward. Again CCP and Russia could help, but would they want to risk a conflagration. There may be limits even for them.
With regard to US we don’t know if they have equivalent HGV – not all weapons development in the public domain as the Congressional hearings on UFOs has highlighted. That said deterrence depends on awareness of what capability one has. What we also don’t know is what ‘jamming’ capability the US might have too. If the guidance system can be jammed it won’t hit the intended target.
Nonetheless a concern all the same, but Kim Wrong-Un also knows any use would result in the complete eradication of his state and him/his family too.

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago
Reply to  j watson

Quite. I very much doubt that Mr. Pilkington has the inside track on exactly what technology and capabilities the US military really has. Or what actually works in practice and what does not.