SEOUL: North Korea fired a “hypersonic missile” this week that successfully hit a target, its second such test as the country pursues new military capabilities amid stalled denuclearisation talks.
The launch was the first by North Korea since October and was detected by several militaries in the region, drawing criticism from governments in the United States, South Korea, and Japan.
North Korea first tested a hypersonic missile in September, joining a race headed by major military powers to deploy the advanced weapons system. Hypersonic weapons usually fly towards targets at lower altitudes than ballistic missiles and can achieve more than five times the speed of sound – or about 6,200 km per hour (3,850 mph).
Despite their name, analysts say the main feature of hypersonic weapons is not speed – which can sometimes be matched or exceeded by traditional ballistic missile warheads – but their manoeuvrability.
In Wednesday’s test, the “hypersonic gliding warhead” detached from its rocket booster and manoeuvred 120 km (75 miles) laterally before it “precisely hit” a target 700 km (430 miles) away, state media reported.
The missile demonstrated its ability to combine “multi-step glide jump flight and strong lateral manoeuvring,” it said. The test also confirmed components such as flight control and its ability to operate in the winter, KCNA added.
“The successive successes in the test launches in the hypersonic missile sector have strategic significance in that they hasten a task for modernizing strategic armed force of the state,” the KCNA report said.
While it has not tested nuclear bombs or long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) since 2017, in recent years North Korea has developed and launched a range of more manoeuvrable missiles and warheads likely aimed at being able to overcome missile defences like those wielded by South Korea and the United States.
Last month the United States completed construction of a massive, $1.5 billion long-range radar for a homeland missile defence system in Alaska that it says can track ballistic missiles as well as hypersonic weapons from countries such as North Korea.
Photos of the missile used in Wednesday’s test show what analysts said is a liquid-fueled ballistic missile with a conical-shaped Manoeuvrable Reentry Vehicle (MaRV) blasting off from a wheeled launch vehicle in a cloud of flame and smoke.
In a call with Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi on Thursday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned the North Korea missile launch and discussed cooperation to achieve complete denuclearization and lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula, the US State Department said in a statement.
Talks aimed at persuading North Korea to surrender its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile arsenal have been stalled since a series of summits between leader Kim Jong Un and then-US President Donald Trump broke down with no agreement.
US President Joe Biden’s administration has said it is open to talking to North Korea, but Pyongyang has said American overtures are empty rhetoric without more substantive changes to “hostile policies” such as military drills and sanctions.
The latest test came just hours before South Korean President Moon Jae-in attended a groundbreaking ceremony for a rail line he hopes will eventually connect the divided Korean peninsula, casting doubts for a diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea before his five-year term ends in May.