Kim Jong Un made a dramatic return to the headlines Wednesday, with state-run media reporting that the North Korean leader personally oversaw the successful test of a powerful “hypersonic weapon system” that could provide ammunition to proponents of the need for major shift in Japan’s defense-only security posture.

In a signal of the weapon’s importance, it was believed to be the first time since March 2020 that Kim had officially watched over a missile launch, analysts said.

The official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said the “hypersonic glide vehicle” tested a day earlier had made a 240-kilometer (150-mile) “corkscrew” maneuver during its flight, slamming into a target in waters 1,000 km away. Photos accompanying the report appeared to show the missile as having been launched from the country’s border with China, over the Sea of Japan and making a left turn after re-entering the atmosphere over waters separating North Korea and Russia from northern Japan.

The report called the launch “a great success” in the field of developing hypersonic weapons, which it said is “of the most important strategic significance.”

This echoed language used to describe a similar launch last week. Pyongyang often uses the term “strategic” to indicate that a weapon is intended to be armed with a nuclear warhead.

“The superior maneuverability of the hypersonic glide vehicle was more strikingly verified through the final test-fire,” the report added.

In Tokyo, Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi said that Japan had analyzed the missile as having flown at a maximum speed of Mach 10, or 10 times the speed of sound, for potentially more than 700 km. He added that its trajectory was possibly irregular, as it was believed to have flown “horizontally northward.” Kishi also said the weapon had hit a maximum altitude of 50 km, lower than that of a conventional ballistic missile.

The Japanese government had initially said Tuesday that the weapon was likely to have traveled less than 700 km, assuming it flew on a traditional ballistic missile trajectory. The discrepancy between the initial analysis and Wednesday’s suggested that Japan may have had trouble tracking the missile as it approached its target. Jeffrey Lewis, a weapons expert and professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, said on his Arms Control Wonk podcast that this was likely the case in last week’s launch as well.

“The reality is, is that (Japan and South Korea) couldn’t see the whole trajectory … and it just adds a level of ambiguity and confusion that, generally speaking, is detrimental to stability,” Lewis said.

Photos of Tuesday’s test showed Kim, wearing his trademark long black leather coat, watching as a “weapon representing the power of the DPRK roared to soar into sky, brightening the dawning sky and leaving behind it a column of fire” from a mobile viewing platform, KCNA said.

After observing the test, Kim urged military scientists to “further accelerate the efforts to steadily build up the country’s strategic military muscle both in quality and quantity and further modernize the army,” KCNA reported.

Tuesday’s launch — the North typically reveals details the following day — was the third reported test of what it says is hypersonic gliding technology, after one in September and another last week as Kim seeks to add to his already fearsome arsenal.

But analysts said that more worrying than the speed of the missile — which experts say is roughly the same as any other ballistic missile of the same range — was its maneuverability, a capability that could give the isolated country another weapon adept at evading defenses.

“This is a ballistic missile with a maneuvering re-entry vehicle,” said Joshua Pollack, an expert on North Korea’s nuclear program and a researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. “It’s a technology developed in the early 1980s in the U.S. It doesn’t go any faster than any other ballistic missile of the same range.”

Instead of a focus on speed, Pollack said, the test was “definitely about maneuvering.”

“That means both enhanced accuracy … and enhanced evasiveness,” he said.

Japan currently operates a two-tiered missile defense that employs the ship-based Aegis combat system for missiles outside the atmosphere and the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 for missiles as they re-enter.

But because the defense is designed to target missiles traveling along a simple parabolic path, trajectory-shifting missiles like Tuesday’s make intercepting them far more of a challenge. The North’s recent tests at low altitudes can also hamper targeting efforts, since the Aegis system is meant to shoot down missiles at higher altitudes once they leave the atmosphere and the PAC-3 is believed to be designed to intercept incoming short- and medium-range missiles at altitudes up to 30 km.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks with officials during the launch observation on Tuesday. | KCNA / VIA REUTERS
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks with officials during the launch observation on Tuesday. | KCNA / VIA REUTERS

North Korean ballistic missile and nuclear tests are banned under U.N. Security Council resolutions, though Pyongyang has steadfastly flouted these along with tough sanctions slapped on the country for its behavior.

The latest launch came as six countries, including the United States and Japan, urged North Korea to cease “destabilizing actions” in a joint statement at the United Nations.

This week’s test has given momentum to those in Japan advocating for the country to acquire the capability to strike enemy bases — a move that would represent a major shift for the country’s defense posture.

In recent months, North Korea has tested a range of increasingly powerful new weapons systems. 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 a new submarine-launched ballistic missile. All are believed to represent progress in Pyongyang’s quest to defeat missile defenses.

The pace of the country’s weapons testing has triggered concern in Tokyo, with top officials — including Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Kishi — openly suggesting Japan acquire a strike capability.

On Wednesday, Kishi and Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno reiterated the government’s stance that Japan is continuing to work to bolster its defenses in response to North Korea’s ever-improving nuclear and missile programs, and that a number of options are on the table — including acquiring a strike capability as a deterrent to attacks by Pyongyang.

“We will consider all options, including possessing the so-called capability to attack enemy bases, while working to drastically strengthen our defense capabilities,” Matsuo told a news conference.

Japan is due to complete a review of the country’s long-term diplomacy and defense strategy within the year, including an update of the country’s National Security Strategy for the first time ever and a revision to its National Defense Program Guidelines, which detail key defense policy challenges and how they will be tackled during a 10-year period. The North’s nuclear and missile developments are sure to be a focus of the documents.

“The (latest missile) development is unwelcome of course for Japan, which is hurriedly in the midst of even more changes to its national security plans later this year – in the form of a new NSS and new NDPG,” said Jonathan Berkshire Miller, an expert of international security and a senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs.

“This, along with China’s developments in hypersonics, will definitely inform Japan’s next National Security Strategy and bolster the case for strike capabilities within the (Liberal Democratic Party),” he added.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un observes what state media said was a hypersonic missile test at an undisclosed location in the country on Tuesday. | KCNA / VIA REUTERS
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un observes what state media said was a hypersonic missile test at an undisclosed location in the country on Tuesday. | KCNA / VIA REUTERS

Some, however, remain skeptical that such a capability would be effective in deterring the North.

“In South Korea and Japan alike, leaders may feel some pressure to be seen as ‘doing something,’” said Pollack. “But there is really very little to be done. Acquiring new missiles won’t help. North Korea uses mobile missiles. You can only destroy what you can find. It’s an intelligence problem. Not a weapons problem.”

Although Kishida has said he is open to an “unconditional” meeting with Kim, denuclearization talks between the North and the United States have been at a standstill 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. offers of dialogue as a “petty trick.”

Asked if the U.S. should be taking another tack to try to get through to the North Koreans, State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters after the launch that Washington believes it is “incumbent on the DPRK to cease these provocations, to demonstrate that they too are interested in and hopefully serious about this dialogue.”

“And if they are, they will find a willing counterpart in the United States and our allies as well to engage in this dialogue,” he said.

Kim is thought to be seeking relief from crushing U.N. and U.S. sanctions and, effectively, recognition as a nuclear state in exchange for limited concessions. Relinquishing his nukes, however, is likely to remain a bridge too far for the North Korean leader, who views the arsenal as indispensable for maintaining his grip on power.

Observers say the situation has left the U.S. and its allies groping for palatable solutions.

“North Korea is once again demonstrating that it will continue to refine its capabilities — both in quantitative and qualitative terms — while the U.S. and its allies remain stuck in their entrenched positions,” said Miller. “There is no status quo or intractability – at least in terms of their program’s trajectory. The tool kit for stopping, or slowing down this behavior, however, remains a poker hand with no good options.”

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