North Korea said on Wednesday its latest launch involved another “hypersonic missile,” saying leader Kim Jong Un witnessed what he described as a successful test.
State media images show Kim wearing a leather jacket and looking through binoculars inside what appears to be an observation booth allowing her to observe Tuesday’s launch.
The missile demonstrated “excellent maneuverability” and accurately hit a target about 1,000 kilometers away, according to the Korean Central News Agency report.
That’s longer than the range estimated by the South Korean military on Tuesday, which closely follows such launches. The Seoul Defense Ministry said the missile had traveled only about 700 kilometers, but had demonstrated enhanced capabilities.
North Korea’s latest missile flew at a maximum speed of Mach 10, or 10 times the speed of sound, compared to Mach 6 for the missile launched last week, according to South Korean news agency Yonhap citing officials from Seoul.
This is North Korea’s second test this year of what it calls a hypersonic missile. After its launch last week, South Korea claimed North Korea was exaggerating its capabilities.
Judging by photos in North Korean state media, the missile launched on Tuesday appeared to feature the same conical shape as the weapon tested last week.
After the launch last week, many defense experts noted that North Korea did not test a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) as it claimed, but instead used similar but less advanced technology known to exist. under the name of maneuverable re-entry vehicle (MaRV).
“It could be considered a type of heavy truck – it’s hypersonic, it can hover and it’s a vehicle – but it doesn’t quite represent the same class of technology that we normally associate with this label,” said Joshua Pollack, researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.
During a September launch, North Korea appeared to use technology more like a heavy truck. Images in state media showed a vehicle with a flattened wing-like shape that was attached to a larger rocket. Analysts say the form helps it glide longer distances.
Heavyweights sit on top of a booster rocket and detach from it before hovering towards their target. Since heavy goods vehicles fly at relatively low altitudes and can be maneuvered in flight, they are, in theory, more difficult to intercept.
“This is a very difficult technology to master, and the fact that North Korea calls a MaRV a heavyweight could indicate that it feels like it has exceeded the limits of its (missile launched in September) and that ‘She’s far from ready for prime time,’ Pollack said.
Defense analysts also caution that the term “hypersonic” is misleading, as most ballistic missiles already travel at hypersonic speeds (faster than five times the speed of sound). The most relevant question, they say, is to what extent North Korea has mastered the ability to make such weapons maneuverable and precise.
Unlike last week’s test, North Korean state media reported that Kim attended the launch on Tuesday. This is the first test he has personally observed since early 2020, according to official media.
By attending the test, Kim could signal that hypersonic missile development is a priority, analysts said.
“After a long absence to attend missile tests, Kim overseeing a launch is raising its political importance,” said Leif-Eric Easley, professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
“North Korea appeared to exaggerate its hypersonic technology for political reasons, including national pride and indicating its determination to defeat the missile defense systems of other countries,” he added.
Regardless of the exact nature of the technology, U.S. officials have condemned the launches.
“Obviously (this) is taking us in the wrong direction,” said Victoria Nuland, Under Secretary for Political Affairs at the State Department. “As you know, the United States has been saying since this administration took over that we are open to dialogue with North Korea, that we are open to talking about COVID and humanitarian support. And instead, they fire missiles. ”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki also condemned the launch as a violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions. She also called on North Korea to resume nuclear talks that the North abandoned in 2019.
North Korea has said it will not join the talks unless the United States abandons what it calls “hostile politics.” At various times, North Korea has called on the United States to end or reduce its alliance with South Korea.
About 28,000 US troops are in South Korea, a holdover from the 1950s Korean War, which ended in a truce instead of a peace treaty.