South Korea seeks hypersonic technology to deter nuclear neighbors

South Korea seeks hypersonic technology to deter nuclear neighbors

Felix Kim

South Korea’s decision to add hypersonic cruise missiles to its defense arsenal will enable it to better deter and defend against threats posed by its nuclear-armed neighbors North Korea and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), analysts say. Dubbed “Hycore” by its developers, the missile will be able to reach Pyongyang in less than two minutes.

Hycore is depicted as a “scramjet,” which is similar in appearance to Boeing’s X-51, according to a video released in December 2021 by the South Korea’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA).

DAPA is developing the missile with Hanwha Defense, a leading South Korean defense manufacturer. In the video, Hycore is launched by a two-stage rocket before traveling at hypersonic speed toward a target using scramjet propulsion. (Pictured: An artist’s rendition depicts the proposed Hycore hypersonic cruise missile.)

A scramjet is a supersonic “ramjet,” which is a jet engine that uses the rapid air intake caused by its forward motion to aid fuel combustion, thereby accelerating the speed of the craft or projectile, according to NASA.

“Deployment of Hycore would very likely enhance Seoul’s existing conventional deterrence and missile capabilities to counter Pyongyang,” Katie Yoon, a Stanford University technology scholar and author of the February 2021 essay “The Implications of Hypersonic Weapons on the Korean Peninsula,” told FORUM.

“The ability to fly at extremely high speeds and move without a predetermined flight path distinguishes hypersonic missiles from ordinary ballistic and cruise missiles,” she said. “Hypersonic weapons are practically undetectable by existing surveillance systems, owing to their high velocity, vast mobility, and wide altitude range, thus posing a challenge to even the most powerful missile defenses.”

Scheduled for test launches in 2022, Hycore could be deployed from various platforms, such as land-based launchers, warships, submarines and aircraft, Dr. Kim Jae Yeop, senior researcher at Sungkyun Institute for Global Strategy at Sungkyunkwan University, told FORUM. Traveling at five times the speed of sound, it could hit any target on Earth within two hours and any target in North Korea within two minutes.

Combined with South Korea’s advancing surveillance capabilities, “hypersonic weapons will present the ROK [Republic of Korea] military a more capable means to counter time-sensitive targets deployed by North Korea, such as land-based mobile ballistic missile launchers,” Kim said.

Seoul intends to invest U.S. $1.37 billion by 2030 to develop surveillance satellite and rocket technologies, according to Yonhap, South Korea’s government-affiliated news agency. These efforts to deter missile threats could also strengthen South Korea’s defense alliance with the United States, Kim said.

“The Indo-Pacific region is among the most contested geopolitical arenas for U.S. national security, coupled with Pyongyang’s growing weapons of mass destruction arsenal and intensifying strategic rivalry with China,” he said. “This leads Washington to promote its allies and partners in the region to bolster their own defense capabilities for countering military threats from Beijing together. As an extension, Seoul’s own development of hypersonic weapons will boost the combined efforts of both ROK and the U.S.”

Felix Kim is a FORUM contributor reporting from Seoul, South Korea.