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North Korea claimed Thursday that it successfully tested a new “hypersonic missile” a day earlier, which would give the nuclear-armed country another weapon that has the potential to evade missile defenses.

The test — the second apparent launch of a hypersonic weapon in just over three months — was expected to give more ammunition to those in Japan pushing for the country to acquire the capability to strike enemy bases.

In Wednesday’s test, the new “hypersonic gliding warhead” detached from its rocket booster and maneuvered 120 kilometers laterally before it “precisely hit a set target” 700 km away, the state-run Korean Central News Agency reported.

The test-firing “clearly demonstrated the control and stability of the hypersonic gliding warhead,” KCNA said.

Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi said Thursday that the weapon was a “new type” of ballistic missile and appeared to have hit a “lower-than-usual” peak altitude of around 50 km.

Kishi said that Japan was continuing to analyze the North Korean report and that Tokyo viewed the missile tested in the latest launch as different from the Hwasong-8 missile that was fired in late September, which Pyongyang also claimed was hypersonic.

The Defense Ministry on Wednesday said the latest missile had traveled about 500 km, splashing down in the Sea of Japan. Analysts said the discrepancy in ranges could be due to a later pull-up maneuver by the missile that was missed.

Hypersonic missiles are more maneuverable and fly toward targets at lower altitudes than ballistic ones, making them potentially difficult targets for missile defenses. North Korea has in recent years developed a spate of missiles better equipped at evading enemies’ defenses.

A hypersonic glide vehicle is launched aboard a missile before it separates and approaches a target. HGVs can change trajectory during flight, making them difficult to intercept.

A photo of the weapon tested Wednesday showed a liquid-fueled ballistic missile with a conical-shaped maneuverable re-entry vehicle similar to one unveiled at a defense exhibition in Pyongyang last October, said Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank.

Pyongyang’s announcement of the test also hinted that the weapon could be nuclear-tipped.

“The successive successes in the test launches in the hypersonic missile sector have strategic significance,” KCNA said.

This echoed the September launch, which referenced that weapon’s “strategic” value. Pyongyang often uses the term to indicate that a weapon is intended to be armed with a nuclear warhead.

North Korea also said the test had confirmed the reliability of its “fuel ampoule system” in wintry conditions. Analysts believe the system would allow a higher-degree of stealth for the weapons in the event of a conflict by eliminating the time-consuming need to fuel missiles at launch sites and potentially preventing the weapons from being spotted and targeted by spy satellites.

Pedestrians walk past a screen displaying a map after North Korea fired a
Pedestrians walk past a screen displaying a map after North Korea fired a “hypersonic missile” into the Sea of Japan, during a news broadcast in Tokyo’s Akihabara district on Wednesday. | AFP-JIJI

“It looks like the North Koreans identified hypersonic gliders as a military requirement (probably because they perceive this to be effective at dealing with BMD),” Pandit wrote on Twitter, referring to ballistic missile defense. “After that, they likely authorized at least two separate development programs (Hwasong-8, this one).”

Under Kim Jong Un, North Korea has pursued several seemingly redundant missile systems concurrently, said Bruce Klingner, a retired CIA North Korea analyst now at the Heritage Foundation think tank.

“Pyongyang may pursue competing designs for various missile categories and choose not to deploy all of them,” he said. “Not all of the missiles that the regime paraded or tested are believed to have been deployed.”

On Thursday, the top U.S. and Japanese diplomats condemned the latest launch in telephone talks, with Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi calling the North’s nuclear weapons program a “threat to the peace and stability of Japan, the region and the international community.”

The latest launch is also expected to be a topic of discussion during Japan-U.S. “two-plus-two” talks between the allies’ top diplomats and defense chiefs scheduled for Friday.

A day earlier, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida slammed the North’s repeated missile tests, calling the succession of launches “truly regrettable.”

Kim — who marked a decade in power in December and did not attend Wednesday’s launch — vowed at a key party meeting last week to continue building up his country’s military capabilities.

In recent months, North Korea has tested a range of increasingly powerful new weapons systems in addition to its latest submarine-launched ballistic missile. These have included a long-range cruise missile believed to be capable of delivering a nuclear bomb to Japan, as well as a train-launched weapon and what the North said was a hypersonic gliding vehicle. All are believed to represent progress in Pyongyang’s quest to defeat missile defenses.

The pace of North Korean weapons testing has triggered concern in Tokyo, with top officials — including Kishida and Kishi — openly suggesting Japan acquire a strike capability.

“Given the situation, we will consider all options, including the possession of so-called enemy base strike capabilities, and will continue to work to drastically strengthen our defense ability,” Kishi said Wednesday.

Although Kishida has said he is open to an “unconditional” meeting with Kim, denuclearization talks between North Korea and the United States have been stalled since 2019 after then-U.S. President Donald Trump held three meetings with Kim.

Following the conclusion of a lengthy review of the United States’ North Korea policy earlier this year, Trump’s successor, President Joe Biden, has repeatedly said that his administration harbors no hostile intent toward Pyongyang and is prepared to meet unconditionally, with a goal of “the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

Kim, however, has condemned the U.S. offer of dialogue as a “petty trick.”

Analysts say the goals of the latest launch are likely two-pronged: in part to mark 10 years of Kim’s reign, but also to send a message to the Biden administration, reminding them that North Korean missile capabilities continue to evolve and become more sophisticated.

“These tests I think serve two purposes – firstly to allow North Korean nuclear and conventional delivery systems to develop, thus enhancing the North’s ability to strike at South Korea and Japan, and also to continue to pressure Biden to enter into some sort of dialogue that would involve significant U.S. concessions for very little in return from North Korea,” said Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

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