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North Korea says latest launch was ‘hypersonic’ missile

North Korea claimed Thursday that it successfully tested a new “hypersonic missile” a day earlier, giving the nuclear-armed country another weapon potentially capable of evading missile defenses.

The test — the second of a hypersonic weapon in just over three months — was expected to give more ammunition to those in Japan pushing for the country to acquire the capability to strike enemy bases.

In Wednesday’s test, the new “hypersonic gliding warhead” detached from its rocket booster and maneuvered 120 kilometers (75 miles) laterally before it “precisely hit a set target” 700 km (430 miles) away, the state-run Korean Central News Agency reported.

The test-firing “clearly demonstrated the control and stability of the hypersonic gliding warhead,” KCNA said.

The Japanese Defense Ministry on Wednesday said the missile had traveled about 500 km, splashing down in the Sea of Japan. Analysts said the discrepancy in ranges could be due to a later pull-up maneuver by the missile that was missed.

Hypersonic missiles are more maneuverable and fly toward targets at lower altitudes than ballistic ones, making them potentially difficult targets for missile defenses. The North has in recent years developed a spate of missiles better equipped at evading enemies’ defenses.

A hypersonic glide vehicle is launched aboard a missile before it separates and approaches a target. HGVs can change trajectory during flight, making it difficult to intercept.

Pedestrians walk past a screen displaying a map after North Korea fired a “hypersonic missile” into the sea off its east coast, during a news broadcast in Tokyo’s Akihabara district on Wednesday. | AFP-JIJI

A photo of the weapon tested Wednesday showed a liquid-fueled ballistic missile with a conical-shaped maneuverable re-entry vehicle similar to one unveiled at a defense exhibition in Pyongyang last October, said Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank.

The North’s announcement of the test also hinted that the weapon could be nuclear-tipped.

“The successive successes in the test launches in the hypersonic missile sector have strategic significance,” KCNA said.

This echoed the September launch of another hypersonic weapon, the Hwasong-8, in referring to its “strategic” value. Pyongyang often uses the term to indicate that a weapon is intended to be armed with a nuclear warhead.

The North also said the test had confirmed the reliability of its “fuel ampoule system” in wintery conditions, suggesting the weapons could be fueled in factories and the ampoules sent to units. Doing so would allow a higher-degree of stealth for the weapons in the event of a conflict, eliminating the time-consuming need to fuel missiles at launch sites and potentially preventing the weapons from being spotted and targeted by spy satellites.

“It looks like the North Koreans identified hypersonic gliders as a military requirement (probably because they perceive this to be effective at dealing with BMD),” Pandit wrote on Twitter, referring to ballistic missile defense. “After that, they likely authorized at least two separate development programs (Hwasong-8, this one).”

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida slammed the North’s repeated missile tests, calling the succession of launches “truly regrettable.”

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — who marked a decade in power in December and did not attend Wednesday’s test — vowed at a key party meeting last week to continue building up his country’s military capabilities.

In recent months, North Korea has tested a range of increasingly powerful new weapons systems in addition to its latest SLBM. These have included a long-range cruise missile believed to be capable of delivering a nuclear bomb to Japan, as well as a train-launched weapon and what the North said was a hypersonic gliding vehicle. All are believed to represent progress in Pyongyang’s quest to defeat missile defenses.

The pace of North Korean weapons testing has triggered concern in Tokyo, with top officials — including Kishida and Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi — openly suggesting Japan acquiring a strike capability.

“Given these situations, we will consider all options, including the possession of so-called enemy base strike capabilities, and will continue to work to drastically strengthen our defense ability,” Kishi said Wednesday.

Although Kishida has said he is open to an “unconditional” meeting with Kim, denuclearization talks between North Korea and the United States have been stalled since 2019 after former U.S. President Donald Trump held three meetings with Kim.

Following the conclusion of a lengthy review of the United States’ North Korea policy earlier this year, Trump’s successor, President Joe Biden, has repeatedly said that his administration harbors no hostile intent toward Pyongyang and is prepared to meet unconditionally, with a goal of “the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

Kim, however, has condemned the U.S. offer of dialogue as a “petty trick.”

The U.S. on Thursday lambasted the latest launch.

“The United States condemns the DPRK’s ballistic missile launch,” a State Department spokesperson said, using the acronym for the North’s formal name. “This launch is in violation of multiple U.N. Security Council Resolutions and poses a threat to the DPRK’s neighbors and the international community.”

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