Picture: REUTERS/STEVE NESIUS
Picture: REUTERS/STEVE NESIUS

North Korea said its latest rocket launch was a successful test of a “hypersonic missile”, suggesting the regime had come closer to putting nuclear warheads in high-speed gliders that can evade US missile defences. 

The new missile launched by North Korea added a weapon of “great strategic significance” to the country’s arsenal, the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said on Wednesday regarding the test a day earlier. State media also released a photo of a rocket that weapons experts said appeared to be a modified version of an intercontinental ballistic missile first launched in 2017, with what looked to be a winged glider perched on top. 

The ballistic missile flew a relatively short distance of 200km on  Tuesday morning, according to the South Korean military, making it difficult for weapons experts to verify the hypersonic claims. References by Pyongyang to a weapon’s “strategic” value usually indicate it’s intended to be armed with a nuclear warhead. 

While ballistic missiles are typically “hypersonic” — travelling at more than five times the speed of sound — North Korea is referring to the use of high-speed gliders to carry warheads past missile defences. Leader Kim Jong Un earlier this year cited such technology as a goal while outlining a broad expansion of nuclear forces that could threaten the US mainland and American allies Japan and South Korea. 

South Korea’s military said it believed the hypersonic weapon was still in an “early stage” of development and would take a considerable amount of time before any practical deployment. “South Korea and US assets are capable of detecting and intercepting the missile,” the country’s Joint Chiefs of Staff added in a statement.  

The latest missile was fired on Tuesday from the northern province of Jagang  on Tuesday and landed in waters to the east, South Korea’s military said. The missile’s trajectory — rising about 30km into the atmosphere — took it on a different flight course than missiles North Korea has tested over the past two years.

“National defence scientists confirmed the navigational control and stability of the missile in the active section and also its technical specifications including the guiding manoeuvrability and the gliding flight characteristics of the detached hypersonic gliding warhead,” KCNA said on Wednesday. The test was observed by Pak Jong Chon, a Politburo member of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea. 

The test came days after Kim Yo Jong, the North Korean leader’s sister, reached out to South Korea for the second time in as many days. She said that Pyongyang would consider taking part in another summit and declaring an end to the 1950-53 Korean War — if Seoul adopted a less hostile policy. 

On Tuesday, the US said it reached out to North Korea and is ready to talk about any concerns they have, Yonhap News Agency reported, citing Kin Moy, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. 

Bloomberg News. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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