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North Korea Says It Has Launched Hypersonic Missile


Pedestrians walk past a screen displaying a map after North Korea fired a missile into the sea off its east coast according to South Korea and Japan, during a news broadcast at Akihabara district in Tokyo, Jan. 5, 2022.
Pedestrians walk past a screen displaying a map after North Korea fired a missile into the sea off its east coast according to South Korea and Japan, during a news broadcast at Akihabara district in Tokyo, Jan. 5, 2022.

North Korea’s latest launch involved a hypersonic missile, state media said Thursday, its latest experiment with a high-tech weapon meant to evade the missile defenses of the United States and its allies.

The official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) posted a single picture of the missile emerging from a mobile launcher, surrounded by fiery exhaust flames, in a snow-covered mountainous area.

The report said the missile featured a detachable hypersonic glide vehicle. The so-called HGV sits atop the booster rocket and detaches from it before gliding to its target, making it harder to intercept.

"Having been detached after its launch, the missile made a 120 km lateral movement in the flight distance of the hypersonic gliding warhead from the initial launch azimuth to the target azimuth and precisely hit a set target 700 km away," KCNA said.

South Korea and Japan reported Wednesday that North Korea had conducted a ballistic missile test. Japanese officials estimated the missile flew for about 500 kilometers. Analysts said the discrepancy might be due to the missile’s complicated “pullup” maneuver in flight.

Pyongyang's objectives

Defense experts said North Korea's development of an HGV was the latest evidence it seeks the ability to penetrate U.S. missile defenses, both in Northeast Asia and the U.S. mainland.

Like most ballistic missiles, HGVs fly at hypersonic speeds, or faster than five times the speed of sound. But HGVs are in theory more difficult to detect and intercept, since they can fly at relatively low altitudes and be maneuvered in flight.

North Korea first claimed to have tested a hypersonic weapon in September.

It is difficult to assess any progress North Korea may have made with its latest launch, especially for analysts who rely on open-source information, such as commercial satellite photos or North Korean state media reports, said Melissa Hanham, an affiliate at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.

"We can compare the data they announced in the previous test, but we can't outright authenticate their claims without classified, space-based technology," she told VOA.

In a statement to VOA’s Korean Service, the U.S. State Department condemned the launch by North Korea, whose official name is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“The U.S. condemns the DPRK's ballistic missile launch. 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,” the State Department email said. “We remain committed to a diplomatic approach to the DPRK and call on them to engage in dialogue. Our commitment to the defense of the Republic of Korea and Japan remains ironclad.”

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters Wednesday that the launches were “very regrettable.” South Korea’s National Security Council, which held an emergency meeting, also expressed its concern and emphasized the need to quickly resume talks with North Korea.

Multiple weapon introductions

Since it resumed major missile tests in 2019 amid a breakdown in talks with the U.S., North Korea has unveiled multiple weapon systems designed to overwhelm or evade U.S. missile defenses.

Most of the tests have involved short-range weapons. North Korea has not conducted an intercontinental ballistic missile or nuclear test since 2017.

North Korea is prohibited from any ballistic missile activity, including launches of any range, by a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions. But since 2019, the U.S. has downplayed the North’s short-range launches, presumably to preserve the possibility for future talks.

North Korea has ignored repeated offers by the U.S. to restart negotiations, saying Washington must first drop its “hostile policy.”

At various points, North Korea has demanded the U.S. end joint military exercises with its ally, South Korea. It has also called for the U.S. to withdraw troops from the Korean Peninsula. The U.S. has approximately 28,000 troops in South Korea — a remnant of the 1950s Korean War, which ended in a truce rather than a peace treaty.