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North Korea is test-firing missiles again. Here’s what to make of the launches.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un addresses a meeting of the Central Committee of the ruling Workers' Party in Pyongyang, North Korea, in late December, according to state media. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service/AP)

TOKYO — North Korea has begun the new year a lot like the last: with a series of missile launches that reveal progress in diversifying and expanding its arsenal with missiles that may be harder to detect and defend against.

These tests also underscore how Kim Jong Un’s regime has been retreating inward — making apparent advances in its nuclear capabilities and ballistic weapons — while refusing to engage with U.S. and South Korean negotiators seeking to restart denuclearization talks. Since September, North Korea has conducted a number of tests of ballistic missiles despite the multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions that forbid them.

On Wednesday, the Biden administration announced fresh sanctions on North Korea. In response, Pyongyang accused Washington of “intentionally escalating” tensions and said the move may trigger a “stronger” reaction. On Friday, North Korea conducted its latest missile tests.

More than four years have passed since Pyongyang tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching the U.S. mainland. Since then, Kim’s regime has shifted his focus to building a wide range of short- to intermediate-range missiles that can strike U.S. allies in the region and the U.S. forces stationed there — a strategy that has allowed Kim to advance his ballistic missile program and signal progress without directly threatening the U.S. homeland or engaging in diplomacy.

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“This is a very effective way of saying, ‘We’re still in this game. We’re still advancing our capabilities,’” said S. Paul Choi, principal of Seoul-based consultancy StratWays Group and a former South Korean military officer. “The testing of these hypersonic missiles could be a way to signal, ‘Listen, we haven’t explicitly gone to ICBM, but this is just a reminder that technical expertise continues to exist, and we continue to test it and upgrade it.’”

Here’s what to know about North Korea’s missile tests and military priorities.

New ‘hypersonic’ missiles

On Tuesday, North Korea conducted what it later said was a test of a “hypersonic” missile, a priority of the country’s weapons development and a reference to the latest warfare technology being developed by military powers such as the United States, Russia and China. Hypersonic weapons fly fast at low altitudes and are much easier to maneuver than traditional ballistic missiles, making them difficult to track and intercept. It was the third test since September of what North Korea described as a hypersonic weapon. North Korea launched two more missiles on Friday, the South Korean and Japanese militaries said.

For the first time in nearly two years, Kim appeared in state media supervising Tuesday’s missile test, which may be a signal of how much emphasis he is placing on this technology, experts say. Kim had not been photographed attending any of the recent tests since the fall, and his return may indicate that this particular launch carried greater significance for the regime.

There is some disagreement among weapons experts in South Korea and Japan as to whether North Korea’s latest missile meets the precise technical definitions of a hypersonic weapon. South Korean defense officials say Pyongyang’s new missile is detectable by existing defense systems.

But there is broad consensus that the latest developments highlight Pyongyang’s growing capability to evade existing missile defense systems. And the tests come at a politically sensitive time in South Korea, where campaigning is heating up ahead of a presidential election in early March, and where candidates are debating South Korea’s response to North Korean hypersonic developments.

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“I think Kim Jong Un is very smart to emphasize hypersonics, because it is within the zeitgeist today of what drives concerns about missile capabilities,” Choi said. “It’s the perfect capability right now to inspire debate in South Korea, which we’ve seen it actually do.”

Kim’s missile ambitions

In January 2021, Kim unveiled a five-year plan to expand his nuclear arsenal, including “preemptive” and “retaliatory” strike capabilities to allow North Korean warheads to “accurately hit and extinguish” targets within 15,000 kilometers (9,320 miles), which would include Washington. His must-haves included the development of hypersonics, solid-fuel ICBMs that can be launched from land and sea, spy satellites and reconnaissance drones, as well as more research and development into advanced military equipment.

“We ought to augment our nuclear technology and further develop the nuclear weapons to be lighter and smaller … while [we] continue producing tactical nuclear weapons and super-large nuclear warheads,” Kim said in January 2021.

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Kim appears to be on track. In recent years, there has been a huge growth in the diversity of new missile systems in North Korea. Since the January 2021 announcement, North Korea has introduced seven new missile capabilities in keeping with the plan Kim announced, according to Ankit Panda, a weapons expert and senior fellow at the U.S.-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“I’m expecting that this year will include more missile tests as the North Koreans work to carry out the numerous goals set by Kim Jong Un” in January 2021, Panda said.

Some of the latest missile technology may also be serving a dual purpose of improving North Korea’s ICBMs. The missiles Pyongyang tested this month use the same type of engine that North Korea used for its flight-tested ICBMs in 2017, “so presumably, some of the data they’ve gained over the course of these recent tests will allow them to generally improve the reliability of their ICBMs,” Panda said.

Diplomatic standstill

Since the collapse of the 2019 summit between Kim and then-President Donald Trump, U.S. and South Korean negotiators have urged North Korea to return to negotiations, assuring that they have no preconditions for the North’s return. But the Biden administration has not shown it is willing to grant the sanctions relief that Kim seeks.

The new round of sanctions is likely to fuel North Korea’s complaints that the United States has “hostile policies” toward Pyongyang. Kim claims that his missile tests are solely for defensive purposes — to be able to respond in case of an attack by the United States.

With just a few months left in his term, time is running out for South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a willing mediator between North Korea and the United States, to make meaningful diplomatic progress on North Korea.

Duyeon Kim, adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security’s Indo-Pacific Security Program, said the recent advances by North Korea highlight the lack of diplomatic progress.

“The weapons Pyongyang has tested and paraded during Kim Jong Un’s rule may not be reliable yet,” she said. “But they demonstrate the regime’s goals, which will be achieved in time in the absence of a diplomatic agreement with the United States that can be completely implemented, regardless of changing administrations in Washington.”

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