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US Assessing Claims of North Korean Hypersonic Missile Launch

hypersonic missile Hwasong-8
hypersonic missile Hwasong-8

The United States is taking another look at North Korea’s latest missile launch following claims by Pyongyang that the test involved a high-tech hypersonic missile.

The U.S., along with South Korea and Japan, initially assessed the launch involved a ballistic missile, with Japanese officials estimating it flew for about 500 kilometers.

But U.S. defense officials Thursday indicated they are reexamining the launch in view of Pyongyang’s assertions.

“We are aware of these reports, and we are assessing the specific nature of the recent launch event,” Pentagon spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Martin Meiners told VOA.

“We are consulting closely with our allies as we assess the recent event and as we determine next steps, Meiners added. “We take any new capability seriously.”

North Korean state media first issued the claim of a hypersonic missile launch early Thursday.

The official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) posted a single picture of the missile emerging from a mobile launcher, surrounded by fiery exhaust flames, in a snow-covered mountainous area.

The report said the missile featured a detachable hypersonic glide vehicle. The so-called HGV sits atop the booster rocket and detaches from it before gliding to its target, making it harder to intercept.

"Having been detached after its launch, the missile made a 120 km lateral movement in the flight distance of the hypersonic gliding warhead from the initial launch azimuth to the target azimuth and precisely hit a set target 700 km away," KCNA said.

On Wednesday, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters that defense officials “have every reason to believe it was a ballistic missile launch.”

U.S. Indo-Pacific Command also issued a statement describing Wednesday’s test as a "ballistic missile launch," while adding, "This event does not pose an immediate threat to U.S. personnel or territory, or to our allies.”

North Korea first claimed to have tested a hypersonic weapon in September and defense experts say North Korea's development of an HGV is the latest evidence that it seeks the ability to penetrate U.S. missile defenses, both in northeast Asia and the U.S. mainland.

Like most ballistic missiles, HGVs fly at hypersonic speeds, or faster than five times the speed of sound. But HGVs are in theory more difficult to detect and intercept, since they can fly at relatively low altitudes and be maneuvered in flight.

It is difficult to assess any progress North Korea may have made with its latest launch, especially for analysts who rely on open-source information, such as commercial satellite photos or North Korean state media reports, said Melissa Hanham, an affiliate at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.

"We can compare the data they announced in the previous test, but we can't outright authenticate their claims without classified, space-based technology," she told VOA.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters Wednesday the launches are “very regrettable.” South Korea’s National Security Council, which held an emergency meeting, also expressed its concern and emphasized the need to quickly resume talks with North Korea.

Since it resumed major missile tests in 2019 amid a breakdown in talks with the U.S., North Korea has unveiled multiple weapon systems designed to overwhelm or evade U.S. missile defenses.

Most of the weapons’ tests have involved short-range weapons. North Korea has not conducted an intercontinental ballistic missile or nuclear test since 2017.

North Korea is prohibited from any ballistic missile activity, including launches of any range, by a series of United Nations Security Council resolutions. But since 2019, the U.S. has downplayed the North’s short-range launches, presumably to preserve the possibility for future talks.

North Korea has ignored repeated offers by the U.S. to restart negotiations, saying Washington must first drop its “hostile policy.”

At various points, North Korea has demanded the U.S. end joint military exercises with its ally, South Korea. It has also called for the U.S. to withdraw troops from the Korean Peninsula. The U.S. has approximately 28,000 troops in South Korea — a remnant of the 1950s Korean War, which ended in a truce rather than a peace treaty.