North Korea says leader Kim Jong Un attended 'successful' hypersonic missile test

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un observing what state media said was a hypersonic missile launch, on Jan 11, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (REUTERS) – 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 (Jan 12), officially attending a missile launch for the first time in nearly two years.

On Tuesday, the authorities in South Korea and Japan detected the suspected launch, which drew condemnation by the authorities in Washington and Tokyo and prompted an expression of concern from the United Nations secretary-general.

The second test in less than a week underscored Mr Kim’s New Year vow to bolster the military with cutting-edge technology at a time when talks with South Korea and the United States have stalled.

After watching the test, Mr 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", state news agency KCNA reported.

It was the first time since March 2020 that Mr Kim had officially attended a missile test.

“His presence here would suggest particular attention on this programme,” Mr Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the US-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, posted on Twitter.

Unlike some other recent tests, ruling party newspaper Rodong Sinmun published photos of Mr Kim attending the launch on its front page.

“While Kim probably unofficially attended other tests in the interim, this appearance and its Page One feature on Rodong Sinmun is important,” said Mr Chad O’Carroll, chief executive of Korea Risk Group, which monitors North Korea.

“It means Kim is not concerned about being personally associated (with) tests of major new tech. And doesn’t care how the US sees this.”

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UN Security Council resolutions ban all North Korean ballistic missile and nuclear tests and have imposed sanctions over the programmes.

Talks aimed at persuading North Korea to surrender or limit its arsenal of nuclear weapons and missiles have been stalled, with Pyongyang saying it is open to diplomacy but only if the US and its allies stop “hostile policies” such as sanctions or military drills.

US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland called the launches dangerous and destabilising.

“It obviously takes us in the wrong direction,” she said at a regular briefing in Washington on Tuesday. “As you know, the United States has been saying since this administration came in that we are open to dialogue with North Korea, that we are open to talking about Covid-19 and humanitarian support, and instead they’re firing off missiles.”

The European Union on Tuesday condemned the latest North Korean missile launch as a “threat to international peace and security” and called on Pyongyang to resume diplomacy.

“The DPRK’s continued pursuit of illegal weapons systems is a threat to international peace and security and goes against international efforts to resume dialogue and engage in actions to help its people,” the statement from the EU foreign policy spokesman Nabila Massrali said, using North Korea's official name of Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

“The EU urges the DPRK to respond constructively to the readiness for diplomacy expressed by the United States and the Republic of Korea and engage in actions towards denuclearisation,” the EU statement said.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaking with officials during the observation of what state media said is a hypersonic missile launch, on Jan 11, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

The 27-nation EU wants North Korea to completely abandon its nuclear and ballistic missiles programmes and said that until the country complied with its obligations under UN Security Council Resolutions, the EU would continue to implement sanctions against it and encourage others to do the same.

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,” state news agency KCNA reported.

After its release from the rocket booster, a hypersonic glide vehicle made a 600km “glide jump flight” and then a 240km "sea in waters” 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 (12,348kmh), though they did not 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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