North Korea said it test-fired a “hypersonic” missile on Wednesday for the second time in about four months, as it continues to develop nuclear-capable weapons designed to evade interception by the U.S. and its allies.
According to the account provided by North Korea’s official media, the latest test showed marked improvements from its last attempt to fire a hypersonic missile in September, which resulted in a short flight and questions about deployment of the glider. The Korean Central News Agency said Thursday the latest missile “precisely hit” a target 700 kilometers (435 miles) away and “clearly demonstrated the control and stability of the hypersonic gliding warhead.”
“The successive successes in the test launches in the hypersonic missile sector have strategic significance,” KCNA added. North Korea splashed photos of the launch in its biggest newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, hailing the new weapon as a national achievement. The “hypersonic gliding warhead” detached from the missile carrying it and made lateral movements as it flew 120 kms to hit the target that was 700 kms from the launch site, KCNA said.
North Korea appears to have mounted the glide vehicles on long-range, liquid-fueled missile and fired them from a mobile launcher. While ballistic missiles are typically “hypersonic” — traveling in excess of five times the speed of sound — North Korea is referring to the use of maneuverable high-speed gliders to carry warheads past missile defenses.
The missile test comes after leader Kim Jong Un indicated at a high-level meeting in the final days of the year that he was more interested in bolstering his arsenal than returning to stalled nuclear talks with the Biden administration. The hypersonic weapon was on a list of new technologies Kim said about a year ago were top priorities as he looks to develop credible, quick-strike capabilities to deliver nuclear weapons by land, sea and air.
“My suspicion is that North Korea’s interest in hypersonic gliders is due to their perceived efficacy in defeating missile defense systems,” said Ankit Panda, a senior fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“Kim Jong Un has emphasized national defense science through his leadership tenure,” Panda added. “Hypersonic missiles are seen as technologically advanced, and North Korea may wish to join the small but growing club of countries that are developing these weapons.”
In September, North Korea hailed a successful test of a hypersonic missile that it called a weapon of “great strategic significance” to the country’s arsenal. References by Pyongyang to a weapon’s “strategic” value usually indicate it’s intended to be armed with a nuclear warhead.
That missile flew for about 200 kms, according to South Korea’s military, which said it believed the hypersonic weapon was still in an “early stage” of development and would take a considerable amount of time before any practical deployment.
In recent months, Kim’s regime has tested new weapons including long-range cruise missiles that could hit all of South Korea and most of Japan, a system to launch ballistic missiles from train carriages and a new submarine-launched ballistic missile. It has also resumed plutonium-producing operations at its main Yongbyon nuclear site, while satellite imagery shows it expanding a plant that enriches uranium for weapons.
The latest test-firing provided a reminder to President Joe Biden that Kim’s nuclear arsenal remains among the U.S.’s biggest foreign policy challenges. Pyongyang has given the cold shoulder to Washington’s invitation to return to nuclear discussions that broke down under former President Donald Trump, and last year accused the Biden administration of being “engrossed in confrontation despite its lip-service to dialogue.”
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida called this week’s launch “extremely regrettable” and said his government would step up surveillance. North Korea’s most powerful ally, China, called on all parties to “act prudently” and stay in the right direction of talks and consultations, Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said at a regular press briefing in Beijing.
The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said it was consulting closely with allies. “The ballistic missile launch highlights the destabilizing impact of the DPRK’s illicit weapons program,” it said in a statement, referring to North Korea by its formal name. – Bloomberg