MELBOURNE, Australia — North Korea has conducted its first missile test of the new year, firing what it calls a hypersonic weapon into waters east of the Korean Peninsula on Jan. 5.
Wednesday’s launch, the North’s first known weapons test in about two months, indicates that the country will press ahead with plans to build powerful, sophisticated missiles rather than returning to disarmament talks anytime soon.
The missile test was picked up by South Korea, Japan and U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. The Japanese Defense Ministry’s initial assessment suggested the missile flew about 500 kilometers (310 miles) into the Sea of Japan, which is known to both Koreas as the East Sea.
Photos of the missile launch confirmed North Korea fired a conical-shaped maneuvering reentry vehicle propelled by a liquid-fuel booster. The missile was mounted and fired from a wheeled launcher modified from a Russian MAZ-543 truck.
The booster section appears to be similar to that shown by North Korea at last October’s arms expo that was attended by its supreme leader, Kim Jong Un.
This appears to be a shortened version of the booster for the Hwasong-12 ballistic missile, with North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency reporting that the weapon flew 700 kilometers after performing evasive maneuvers.
This would likely account for the discrepancy in assessed range if the hypersonic glider’s separation happened at low altitude and was not picked up by Japanese sensors.
North Korea’s National Defense Science Academy also released a statement on the missile test, saying the hypersonic glide vehicle performed lateral maneuvers over 120 kilometers.
It also said the test verifies the performance of the engine ampulization under wintery conditions, continuing a previous test of rocket engine ampulization carried out by North Korea in September 2021. (It wasn’t immediately known if the weapon tested in September was the exact same type of hypersonic missile tested this month.)
“The successive successes in the test launches in the hypersonic missile sector have strategic significance in that they hasten a task for modernizing strategic armed force of the state,” a KCNA dispatch said. The word “strategic” implies the missile is being developed to deliver nuclear weapons.
If successful, it would mean North Korea is able to fuel the missiles in a factory, seal them hermetically in canisters, and store them so that they can be quickly moved and launched, negating the need to fuel missiles in the open, which would leave them vulnerable to detection and attack.
Hypersonic weapons, which fly at speeds in excess of Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound, could pose crucial challenges to missile defense systems because of their speed and maneuverability. It’s unclear whether and how soon North Korea could manufacture such a high-tech missile, but it was among a wish list of sophisticated military assets that Kim disclosed early last year, along with a multi-warhead missiles, spy satellites, solid-fueled long-range missiles and underwater-launched nuclear missiles.
U.S.-led diplomacy on North Korea’s nuclear program remains stalled since 2019 due to disputes over international sanctions on the North. The Biden administration has repeatedly called for resuming the nuclear diplomacy “anywhere and at any time” without preconditions, but North Korea has argued the U.S. must first withdraw its hostility against it before any talks can restart.
During last week’s plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the ruling Workers’ Party, Kim repeated his vow to expand his country’s military capabilities without publicly presenting any new positions on Washington and Seoul.
Hyung-Jin Kim with The Associated Press contributed to this report from Seoul, South Korea.
Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News. He wrote his first defense-related magazine article in 1998 before pursuing an aerospace engineering degree at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia. Following a stint in engineering, he became a freelance defense reporter in 2013 and has written for several media outlets.