The weapon North Korea fired off its east coast on Tuesday morning was a newly-developed hypersonic missile, state media said, in the latest advance in weaponry for the nuclear-armed nation.
The development of the weapon system increases North Korea’s defence capabilities, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said on Wednesday, describing the missile as a “strategic weapon”.
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The official Rodong Sinmun newspaper carried a picture of the weapon – with a set of guidance fins at the base of its nose cone – ascending into the morning sky.
North Korea has been steadily developing its military arsenal amid an impasse over talks aimed at dismantling its nuclear and ballistic missile arsenals in return for relief on sanctions that have crippled its economy.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un did not attend the launch, which was watched by top official Pak Jong Chon, KCNA said.
“In the first test-launch, national defence scientists confirmed the navigational control and stability of the missile,” it said.
It said the missile, called Hwasong-8, performed to its technical targets “including the guiding manoeuvrability and the gliding flight characteristics of the detached hypersonic gliding warhead”.
The Hwasong series missiles use liquid propellant engines, according to Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the US-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“This is the first test of a liquid propellant missile in North Korea since November 2017,” he said in a post on Twitter.
Leonid Petrov, an expert on North Korea and senior lecturer at the International College of Management Sydney, told Al Jazeera that the technology was “cutting edge” and such a weapon could travel five to seven times faster than the speed of sound.
“Certainly it’s a very powerful weapon and North Koreans are very proud to have delivered their first successful test,” he said.
Kim signalled Pyongyang’s intention to upgrade its military capabilities during a party congress in January, when he included a hypersonic missile system on a wishlist of five weapons systems.
The test was the third by North Korea this month, with South Korea also developing increasingly sophisticated weaponry. On September 15, both countries tested ballistic missiles only hours apart. On Tuesday, Seoul held a ceremony to launch its third submarine capable of carrying submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
“Because of their speed and varied trajectories, hypersonic missiles are hard to detect, track and defend against,” Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, said in an email.
“Advancements in fueling are intended to allow Pyongyang to fire the missiles quickly, making them more difficult for other countries to preemptively target and destroy before launch. It is unlikely that North Korea has reliably developed all the technologies its propaganda claims. However, if Pyongyang manages to fit a nuclear warhead on even a rudimentary hypersonic, it would be a dangerous weapon because it wouldn’t have to be extremely accurate to threaten the nearby metropolis of Seoul.”
South Korea has been trying to entice the North back to engagement; however, talks on denuclearisation have stalled since 2019 after the collapse of a summit between Kim and former US President Donald Trump.
North Korea said last week it was willing to consider another summit with South Korea if mutual respect between the neighbours could be assured, following South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s call for a declaration to formally end the 1950-1953 Korean War.
South Korea’s military announced the launch shortly after it happened on Tuesday but did not reveal the missile’s maximum altitude and flight distance, information that it usually makes available within about an hour.
South Korean media reports cited unidentified sources as saying the projectile had “different flight features” from previous launches and President Moon Jae-in called for “comprehensive analysis” of the launch. Japan said it was a ballistic missile.
North Korea, which invaded South Korea in 1950, is under multiple sets of international sanctions over its banned nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programmes. It has already tested a long-range cruise missile and a train-launched ballistic missile this month.
The United States has repeatedly said it is willing to meet North Korean officials anywhere, at any time, without preconditions, in its efforts to resume negotiations on denuclearisation. It condemned Tuesday’s launch as a sanctions violation and a threat to the international community.
Lim Eul-chul, a professor at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University, said that North Korea was looking to use its weapons development “as a means to make room for diplomatic manoeuvering as well as enhancing military posture”.
Lim said he expected more launches in the future.
“In a way, the North’s recent behaviour is very predictable,” he told the AFP news agency.
“They had signalled military actions and are now executing them step by step.”