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North Korea says it tested hypersonic missile

South Korean military says missile in early stages of development

North Korea test-fires a hypersonic missile Tuesday. (KCNA-Yonhap)
North Korea test-fires a hypersonic missile Tuesday. (KCNA-Yonhap)
North Korea said Wednesday that their newest weapon tested the previous day was a hypersonic missile, and that the launch matched all technical expectations.

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the weapon seems to be in its early stages of development and far from deployment, adding the missile defense South Korea and the US maintain can take it down.

“Flight maneuverability and stability of the missile, along with the gliding characteristics of the hypersonic warhead, were proven to be working,” the North’s Korean Central News Agency said, referring to the missile as the Hwasong-8.

The KCNA added the regime saw the same results for its new “ampoules” or canisters of liquid fuel for missiles. Using canisters is a faster way to launch missiles than injecting liquid fuel every time.

The latest launch highlights an expanding gap in the missile technology between the two Koreas, as their missile race heats up. Two weeks ago, North Korea tested a long-range cruise and short-range ballistic missiles, while South Korea test-fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile.

Hypersonic missiles are the next generation of arms traveling at Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound. Few countries like the US, Russia and China have developed them.

South Korean and US intelligence believe the speed of the Hwasong-8 was about Mach 3, which is the maximum speed for supersonic missiles.

“North Koreans usually conduct missile tests in stages, meaning they don’t go hard on their first trial run. There’s more to come and numbers would improve, so I’d say this is still a hypersonic missile,” said Shin Jong-woo, a senior analyst at the Korea Defense and Security Forum.

Shin noted the missile launch photos North Korea released confirm his finding, saying a hypersonic warhead atop an intermediate-range ballistic missile means South Korea should start bolstering its reconnaissance capability and building a stronger missile defense.

Hypersonic warheads rise into space and quickly descend into the atmosphere in an unpredictable trajectory as they approach impact. The key to defeating such an attack is to detect the launch as early as possible, according to Shin.

Ryu Seong-yeop, an intelligence analyst at the Korea Research Institute for Military Affairs, said Pyongyang’s liquid fuel canisters are another reason Seoul should mount a better missile defense. Using liquid fuel that way is not new but reduced time to launch missiles still poses a threat, he noted.

“The Korean Peninsula is a relatively small theater where whoever can fire the most and the quickest could get an upper hand at the onset of war,” Ryu said.

The Tuesday test marks the sixth missile launch North Korea conducted this year amid an impasse over nuclear talks, which last took place between Washington and Pyongyang in 2019. The two have yet to reconcile differences over setting terms to ease the North’s sanctions.

North Korea has reiterated that it is open to talks as long as the US and South Korea drop what it calls a “hostile policy” and “double standards,” which involve granting sanctions relief and greenlighting Pyongyang’s missile tests, respectively.

But South Korea is looking to rebuild ties by reopening the inter-Korean hotlines first. The North reached out to reconnect them in July. But in August, it abandoned them accusing the South and US of escalating tension with their annual military drills. Pyongyang has since ignored Seoul’s routine calls.

The South Korean government, which is wary of squandering what it sees as a last-minute opportunity to restart dialogue, has not joined the US and Japan, when they condemned North Korea for violating the UN sanctions that ban its ballistic missile test or development.

“We won’t jump to any conclusions right now. We’re still trying to figure out where North Korea wants to go with this,” Moon’s communications secretary said.

By Choi Si-young (siyoungchoi@heraldcorp.com)
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