SEOUL (REUTERS) - North Korea appeared to test fire a ballistic missile on Tuesday (Jan 11) that may be more capable than the "hypersonic missile" it launched less than a week earlier, South Korea’s military said, as Pyongyang pursues increasingly advanced weapons.
The launches underscored leader Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s vow to bolster the military with cutting-edge technology at a time when talks with South Korea and the United States have stalled.
The US on Tuesday condemned North Korea’s latest missile launch as a threat to the international community, and reaffirmed its commitment to defend both South Korea and Japan.
The State Department said point-blank that this second test in less than a week was of a ballistic missile, not a suspected one as South Korea described it.
“This launch is in violation of multiple UN Security Council Resolutions and poses a threat to the DPRK’s neighbours and the international community,” the department said, using the country's formal name, the Democratic Republic of Korea.
Initial estimates found Tuesday’s missile travelled more than 700km to a maximum altitude of 60km at a top speed up to 10 times the speed of sound (12,348kmh), South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said in a statement.
"We assess that this is more advanced than the missile North Korea fired on Jan 5, though South Korean and US intelligence authorities are conducting detailed analysis," the JCS said.
The missile launch was detected around 7.27am (6.27am Singapore time) from North Korea’s Jagang Province toward the ocean off its east coast, the same location as last week’s test.
North Korea has joined a global race in developing hypersonic missiles, which are usually defined as weapons that reach speeds of at least five times the speed of sound – or about 6,200kmg – and can manoeuvre at relatively low trajectories, making them much harder to detect and intercept.
Last week, South Korean military officials cast doubts on the capabilities of the hypersonic missile North Korea claimed to have test fired on Wednesday, saying it appeared to represent limited progress over Pyongyang’s existing ballistic missiles.
"Today’s test might be intended to send a message to the South after authorities here said the earlier test was a failure and did not involve a hypersonic missile," said Mr Kim Dong-yup, a former South Korea Navy officer who now teaches at Seoul’s Kyungnam University.
South Korea’s National Security Council held an emergency meeting and expressed "strong regret" that the missile test came at a time when regional stability is extremely important and urged North Korea to resume dialogue and cooperation, the presidential Blue House said in a statement.
The US military’s Indopacific Command (INDOPACOM) said while it had assessed that launch did not pose an immediate threat to the United States or its allies, it "highlights the destabilising impact of North Korea’s illicit weapons programme."
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida noted the United Nations had just finished holding discussions on how to respond to last week’s launch.
"That North Korea continues to launch missiles is extremely regrettable," he told reporters.
Tuesday’s apparent launch came a day after the US mission to the UN, joined by France, Ireland, Japan, the United Kingdom, and Albania, issued a joint statement condemning last week’s test.
"These actions increase the risk of miscalculation and escalation and pose a significant threat to regional stability," US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said in the statement on Monday.
Such tests not only improve the North’s capabilities, but expands what it can offer illicit arms clients and dealers around the world, she added.
UN Security Council resolutions ban all ballistic missile and nuclear tests by North Korea, and have imposed sanctions over the programmes.
However, China and Russia are pushing the UN Security Council to ease sanctions on North Korea by removing a ban on Pyongyang’s exports of statues, seafood and textiles, and lifting a refined petroleum imports cap.
Ms Thomas-Greenfield reiterated calls for countries around the world to enforce sanctions, and for North Korea to return to talks and abandon its missiles and nuclear weapons.
North Korea has said it is open to talk, but only if the United States and others drop "hostile policies" such as sanctions and military drills.
Few observers expect Mr Kim to ever fully surrender his nuclear arsenal and North Korea argues its missile tests and other military activities are for self-defence.
Dr Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Seoul’s Ewha University said North Korea is attempting to use repeated tests to normalise its missile capabilities, portraying it as engaged in incremental improvements for self-defence like many other countries.
"At the same time, Pyongyang is challenging international sanctions, testing what it can get away with while the United Nations Security Council remains divided," he said.