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North Korea tests new hypersonic missile, the latest in its war preparations as tensions rise

Tensions are high in the Korean peninsula as North Korea has intensified weapons tests in response to expanded military drills between South Korea and the US. Earlier this year, North Korea launched a solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile for the first time that can target the US mainland.

Aveek Banerjee Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee Pyongyang Published on: April 03, 2024 18:31 IST
North Korea, Kim Jong Un, ballistic missile
Image Source : AP Kim Jong Un claims North Korea can produce solid-fuel, nuclear-capable missiles of all ranges.

Pyongyang: North Korea on Wednesday claimed that it had tested a new hypersonic intermediate-range missile powered with solid propellants, the latest in its series of weapons tests as part of nuclear war preparations against its neighbours and the United States. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said the demonstration was successful and his country had acquired the ability to build solid-fuel, nuclear-capable missiles of all ranges.

However, the South Korean military said that the North is exaggerating the success of the test and its overall missile prowess. The demonstration of the hypersonic missile came a day after the South Korean and Japanese militaries detected a missile launched from near the North’s capital toward its eastern sea. The test was personally supervised by Kim, who described the Hwasong-16B missile as a key piece of his nuclear deterrent he vowed to further build up to counter his “enemies,” according to state-run media.

In recent years, North Korea has been developing more missiles with built-in solid propellants. Such weapons are easier to move and hide and can be launched quicker than liquid-propellant missiles, which need to be fueled before launch and cannot stay fueled for long periods of time. Earlier this year, Pyongyang tested a solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile for the first time, adding to its arsenal of long-range weapons that can possibly target the US mainland.

The country also has an extensive lineup of short-range and mid-range solid-fuel missiles that can be fired from land vehicles, ships and submarines and are potentially capable of hitting targets throughout South Korea and Japan. In recent months, the North demonstrated some of these missiles in drills it described as simulated nuclear strikes.

The nuclear threats posed by North Korea

North Korean official media KCNA claimed that during the Tuesday test, the missile’s hypersonic glide warhead reached a peak altitude of 101 kilometres (62 miles) and flew about 1,000 kilometres (621 miles) after separating from the launch rocket, and performed various manoeuvres before landing in waters between the Korean Peninsula and Japan.

Notably, Pyongyang has been testing hypersonic missiles to fly at the speed of sound since 2021 and these systems can pose a challenge to regional missile defense systems because of their speed and maneuverability if perfected. However, South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff on Wednesday accused North Korea of exaggerating the missile’s flight performance, although acknowledging that the North’s technologies were improving.

“Hypersonic missiles are weapons systems that are still being developed by advanced nations (the United States, China and Russia etc.) and they require highly difficult technologies,” the Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a text message to reporters. “It’s difficult to predict when they will be deployed operationally, but it’s expected to take a considerable amount of time.”

War preparations

Tensions in the region have risen since 2022 as Kim used Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a distraction to accelerate his testing of missiles and other weapons. The United States and South Korea have responded by expanding their combined training and trilateral drills involving Japan and sharpening their deterrence strategies built around strategic US assets.

North Korea in previous tests have unveiled two different types of hypersonic vehicles – a conical one and a wedge-shaped one. State media images show that the January launch involved a conical warhead while the wedge-shaped design was used for Tuesday’s launch.

Last month, North Korea fired multiple short-range ballistic missiles as part of its renewed weapons test, raising tensions after the conclusion of US-South Korean military drills viewed by Pyongyang as an invasion rehearsal. The launches were North Korea's first known missile testing activities in about a month. Experts predicted earlier that North Korea would extend its run of missile tests and intensify its warlike rhetoric ahead of the US presidential election in November to boost its leverage in future diplomacy.

(with inputs from AP)

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