Second test of advanced weaponry underlines Pyongyang’s commitment to modernising its military despite UN ban.
North Korea has said that Wednesday’s missile test was a hypersonic weapon and that it successfully hit its target.
The launch, detected by Japan and South Korea, was the first since October and the second of a hypersonic missile, despite a United Nations ban on such activity.
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 6,200 kilometres per hour (3,850 miles per hour).
“The successive successes in the test launches in the hypersonic missile sector have strategic significance in that they hasten a task for modernizing [the] strategic armed force of the state,” state news agency KCNA said.
In Wednesday’s test, the “hypersonic gliding warhead” detached from its rocket booster and manoeuvred 120km (75 miles) laterally before it “precisely hit” a target 700km (435 miles) away, KCNA reported.
The test also confirmed components such as flight control and its ability to operate in the winter, it 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 (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, analysts have said.
The country first tested a hypersonic missile, the Hwasong-8, in September.
“My impression is that the North Koreans have identified hypersonic gliders as a potentially useful qualitative means to cope with missile defence,” Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in the US, told the Reuters news agency.
Hypersonic weapons are considered the next generation of arms that aim to rob adversaries of reaction time and traditional defeat mechanisms.
Photos of Wednesday’s test showed what analysts said was a liquid-fuelled ballistic missile with a conical-shaped Manoeuvrable Reentry Vehicle (MaRV) blasting off from a wheeled launch vehicle in a cloud of flame and smoke.
It is a different version to the weapon tested last year, and was first unveiled at a defence exhibition in Pyongyang in October, Panda said.
“They likely set up at least two separate development programmes,” he added. “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’s test was in breach of multiple UN Security Council Resolutions and poses a threat to North Korea’s neighbours and the international community.
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 collapsed in 2019.
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 has cast doubt over South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s hopes for an eleventh-hour diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea before his five-year term ends in May.