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North Korea Launches Another Missile, in Second Test of New Year

A view of what state news agency KCNA reports is the test firing of a hypersonic missile at an undisclosed location in North Korea, Jan. 5, 2022
A view of what state news agency KCNA reports is the test firing of a hypersonic missile at an undisclosed location in North Korea, Jan. 5, 2022

North Korea launched another suspected ballistic missile Tuesday, its second major weapons test this year, according to the South Korean and Japanese governments.

South Korea's military said the North Korean missile appears to have demonstrated improved capabilities compared to the one Pyongyang launched last week.

North Korea last Thursday claimed a successful test of a newly developed “hypersonic missile,” although South Korea’s government had said that claim is exaggerated.

According to South Korea's defense ministry, the latest missile traveled about 700 kilometers at a maximum altitude of 60 kilometers. It said the missile was launched from the same northwest region as last week's test.

The missile landed in the sea outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone, with no damage reported, Japan’s Kyodo news agency reported Tuesday.

US, others condemn

The latest test came just hours after the United Nations Security Council held a closed-door meeting to discuss the North Korean launches.

At the meeting, the United States and five other Security Council members condemned the tests, saying they “pose a significant threat to regional stability.”

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Tuesday called the launches “extremely regrettable.” South Korea’s National Security Council also expressed “strong regret.”

North Korea has not confirmed the latest test. It typically offers details about its launches when state-run newspapers are published the following day.

In an end-of-year speech, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un spoke of the need to improve his country’s defense capabilities “without a moment’s delay.”

Exaggerated claims?

Since it resumed major missile tests in 2019 amid a breakdown in talks with the United States, North Korea has unveiled multiple short-range weapon systems designed to overwhelm or evade the missile defenses of the U.S. and its allies.

Many of the North’s recent tests have focused on developing new mobile platforms from which to launch missiles, such as submarines and trains. In at least two of the tests, including last Wednesday’s launch, North Korea purported to make advances in so-called hypersonic missile technology.

Specifically, North Korea said its test last week involved a hypersonic glide vehicle, or HGV. HGVs sit atop a booster rocket and detach from it before gliding to their target. Since HGVs fly at relatively low altitudes and can be maneuvered in flight, they are, in theory, harder to intercept.

But South Korea insists North Korea is exaggerating the range and maneuverability of the weapon it tested last week. According to Seoul’s defense ministry, the North Korean test involved a similar but less advanced technology, known as a maneuverable reentry vehicle, or MaRV. Many defense analysts agree.

“It could be considered a type of HGV — it’s hypersonic, it can glide, and it’s a vehicle — but it does not represent quite the same category of technology that we normally associate with that label,” said Joshua Pollack, a researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

In a September launch, North Korea appeared to use technology more closely resembling an HGV. Pictures in state media showed a vehicle with a flattened, winglike shape that was attached to a larger rocket. Analysts say that shape helps it glide longer distances.

By contrast, North Korea’s launch last week appeared to involve a cone-shaped weapon typically associated with MaRVs.

“It’s a really tough technology to master, and the North Korean turn to calling a MaRV an HGV might indicate that they feel they overreached with their (missile launched in September), and it’s nowhere near ready for prime time,” Pollack said.

Defense analysts also caution that the phrase “hypersonic” is misleading, since most ballistic missiles already travel at hypersonic speeds (faster than five times the speed of sound). The more relevant question, they say, is the extent to which North Korea has mastered the ability to make such weapons maneuverable and accurate.

It is not clear whether North Korea’s latest test also used “hypersonic” technology.

Regardless of the specific nature of the missiles tested, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby on Monday stressed that the North Korean missile tests violate U.N. Security Council resolutions.

“We’ve called it a ballistic missile, and we’re still assessing the details of it,” Kirby said at a news conference.

North Korea is prohibited from any ballistic missile activity, including launches of any range, by a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions.