North Korea unveils second hypersonic missile in fiery test

A TV broadcasting file footage of a news report in Seoul on North Korea firing a ballistic missile on Jan 5, 2022.
Reuters

SEOUL - North Korea fired a hypersonic missile this week that successfully hit a target, state news agency KCNA reported on Thursday (Jan 6), its second such test as the country pursues new military capabilities amid stalled denuclearisation talks.  

The launch on Wednesday 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.

Unlike ballistic missiles that fly into outer space before returning on steep trajectories, hypersonic weapons fly towards targets at lower altitudes and can achieve more than five times the speed of sound - or about 6,200kmh.

"The successive successes in the test launches in the hypersonic missile sector have strategic significance in that they hasten a task for modernising the strategic armed force of the state," the KCNA report said.

In Wednesday's test, the "hypersonic gliding warhead" detached from its rocket booster and manoeuvred 120km laterally before it "precisely hit" a target 700km away, KCNA reported.

The test also confirmed components such as flight control and its ability to operate in the winter, KCNA added.

The missile demonstrated its ability to combine "multi-step glide jump flight and strong lateral manoeuvring", KCNA said.

While it has not tested nuclear bombs or long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles since 2017, North Korea has developed and launched in recent years 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 US, analysts have said.

"My impression is that the North Koreans have identified hypersonic gliders as a potentially useful qualitative means to cope with missile defence," said Mr Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the US-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Hypersonic weapons are considered the next generation of arms that aim to rob adversaries of reaction time and traditional defeat mechanisms.  

Photos of the missile used in Wednesday's test show a liquid-fuelled ballistic missile with a conical-shaped manoeuvrable re-entry vehicle, analysts said.  

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It is a different version than the weapon tested last year, and was first unveiled at a defence exhibition in Pyongyang in October, Mr Panda said.

"They likely set up at least two separate development programmes," Mr Panda said. "One of these was the Hwasong-8, which was tested in September. This missile, which shares a few features in common with the Hwasong-8, is another."

The US State Department said this week the test violated multiple United Nations Security Council Resolutions and poses a threat to North Korea's neighbours and the international community.

The department did not immediately respond to requests for comment on North Korea's report it had tested a hypersonic weapon.

North Korea's last missile launch was in October, when it says it fired a new short-range missile from a submarine.

That ballistic missile submarine has returned to the secure boat basin at the Sinpho South Shipyard, following a brief period of hull maintenance after that test, 38 North, a Washington-based programme that monitors North Korea, reported on Thursday.

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 ground-breaking ceremony for a rail line he hopes will eventually connect the divided Korean peninsula, casting doubts over his hopes for an eleventh-hour diplomatic breakthrough with the North before his five-year term ends in May.