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North Korea says it tested a new hypersonic missile — its second since September

A view of what North Korea's state news agency Kcna reports is the test-firing of a hypersonic missile at an undisclosed location on Jan. 5. (Kcna/Reuters)
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TOKYO — North Korea said Thursday that it had successfully test-fired a hypersonic missile the previous day, marking the second such launch since September as it seeks to showcase its growing weapons capabilities.

Pyongyang on Wednesday test-fired what its neighbors said appeared to be a ballistic missile, in defiance of several United Nations Security Council resolutions banning such tests.

North Korean state media reported Thursday that the missile was a “hypersonic gliding warhead” and included photos that confirmed it was one of the new models displayed at a defense exhibition in the fall. According to experts, Pyongyang is developing hypersonic weapons to eventually carry nuclear warheads.

Hypersonic weapons fly fast at low altitudes and are much easier to maneuver than traditional ballistic missiles, making them difficult to track and intercept. They are some of the latest warfare technology being developed by major military powers such as China, Russia and the United States.

North Korea first test-fired a hypersonic missile in September after leader Kim Jong Un announced a wish list of advanced weapons earlier in the year.

As nuclear talks with Washington have stalled, Kim has turned his focus to developing tactical nuclear weapons. The aim, experts say, is to be able to respond to attacks closer to home, evade missile defense systems, and reach U.S. forces stationed in South Korea and Japan in case of war.

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“Hypersonic missiles are threatening because their sheer speed makes detection and defense hard,” said Lee Ho-ryung, a researcher at the state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul. She added that North Korea’s hypersonic technology appeared to be in the early stages of development, based on the limited amount of information released about the weapon’s speed.

Pyongyang said that in Wednesday’s test, the glider successfully detached from its rocket booster, maneuvered 120 kilometers (75 miles) and hit a target 700 kilometers (435 miles) away. North Korea also announced that the new weapon can operate in winter weather — apparently a response to previous criticisms of its technological limitations in colder temperatures.

Photos released Thursday showed that the new model looked similar in design to weapons developed by the United States in the 1980s and more recently by South Korea, said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif.

“It is a step forward [in the North’s weapons program]. It’s a step that the United States took in the 1980s and the South Koreans took several years ago,” Lewis said. “So it’s not some wild new science fiction technology, but it does improve their ability to deliver nuclear weapons against targets in South Korea and evade missile defenses.”

Numerous U.N. Security Council resolutions ban North Korea from testing ballistic missiles, though Pyongyang has repeatedly violated them. U.S. officials on Wednesday condemned the launch and said it was a violation of U.N. sanctions and called on Pyongyang to return to denuclearization talks.

South Korea’s presidential National Security Council held an emergency meeting Wednesday and expressed concern about the latest test, and "stressed the need for resumption of talks with North Korea in order to resolve the tension in the inter-Korean stalemate,” according to a statement.

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Meanwhile, outgoing South Korean President Moon Jae-in said he plans to continue pursuing peace talks with the regime in his final months in office. Hours after the missile launch, Moon attended a groundbreaking ceremony for a “peace” railway that he expects will reopen railroad connection to the North.

“If the inter-Korean railroad is reconnected, we will make strides on our path to peace,” Moon said at the Jejin station in the northeast corner of South Korea. He said the train connection will serve as “a basis for economic cooperation between South and North Korea.”

The project to reconnect the inter-Korean rail network was launched as a centerpiece of Moon’s overture toward Kim at their first meeting in 2018. However, the project saw little progress amid stalled nuclear talks and ongoing international sanctions on North Korea.

Kim reported from Seoul.

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