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Seoul — North Korean leader Kim Jong-un called for boosting the country’s strategic military forces as he observed the test of a hypersonic missile, state media said on Wednesday, officially attending a missile launch for the first time in almost two years.
On Tuesday authorities in South Korea and Japan detected the suspected launch, which drew condemnation by authorities around the world and prompted an expression of concern from the UN secretary-general.
The second test of a “hypersonic missile” in less than a week underscored Kim’s New Year’s vow to bolster the military with the latest technology at a time when talks with South Korea and the US have stalled.
After watching 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 modernise the army,” KCNA news agency reported.
It was the first time since March 2020 that Kim had officially attended a missile test.
“His presence would suggest particular attention on this programme,” Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the US-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, posted on Twitter.
Unlike some recent tests, ruling party newspaper Rodong Sinmun published photos of Kim attending the launch on its front page.
“While Kim probably unofficially attended other tests in the interim, this appearance and its front-page feature on Rodong Sinmun is important,” said Chad O’Carroll, CEO of Korea Risk Group. “It means Kim isn’t concerned about being personally associated [with] tests of major new tech, and doesn’t care how the US sees this.”
UN Security Council resolutions ban all North Korean ballistic missile and nuclear tests and have imposed sanctions as a result of the programmes.
Talks aimed at persuading North Korea to surrender or limit its arsenal of nuclear weapons and missiles have stalled. Pyongyang says it’s open to diplomacy but only if the US and its allies stop “hostile policies” such as sanctions or military drills.
Victoria Nuland, the US under-secretary of state for political affairs, said the launches were dangerous and destabilising.
The EU condemned the latest North Korean missile launch as a “threat to international peace and security” and called on Pyongyang to resume diplomacy.
Manoeuvrability not speed
Despite their name, analysts say the main feature of hypersonic weapons is not speed — which can sometimes be matched or exceeded by traditional ballistic missile warheads — but their manoeuvrability, which makes them an acute threat to missile defence systems.
Photos released by state media appeared to show the same type of missile and warhead that was first tested last week, analysts said.
“The test-fire was aimed at the final verification of overall technical specifications of the developed hypersonic weapon system,” KCNA reported.
After its release from the rocket booster, a hypersonic glide vehicle made a 600km “glide jump flight” and then 240km of “corkscrew manoeuvring” before hitting a target in the sea 1,000km away, the report said.
South Korean officials had questioned the capabilities of the missile after the first test last week, saying it did not appear to demonstrate the range and manoeuvrability claimed in a state media report and featured a manoeuvrable warhead rather than an actual glide vehicle.
On Tuesday, however, South Korea said the second test appeared to show improved performance, with the missile reaching top speeds up to 10 times the speed of sound (12,348km/h), though they didn’t comment on its manoeuvrability.
“The superior manoeuvrability of the hypersonic glide vehicle was more strikingly verified through the final test-fire,” KCNA said.
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