April 18, 2024

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State media said the the missile – named Hwasong-16B – was a key piece of the country’s nuclear war deterrent.

North Korea has said it tested a new solid-fuelled hypersonic intermediate-range missile (IRBM) as it continues to expand its weapons programme.

Wednesday’s report in the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) came a day after South Korea and Japan detected the launch of a missile from North Korea towards the east.

KCNA shared photos of leader Kim Jong Un on site near the weapon, the Hwasong-16B, as well as with his military commanders, less than two weeks after he supervised a solid-fuel engine test for an IRBM.

Kim lauded the weapon as a demonstration of the “absolute superiority” of North Korea’s defence technology. Pyongyang had developed nuclear-capable, solid-fuel systems for “all the tactical, operational and strategic missiles with various ranges”, he added, according to KCNA.

The Hwasong-16B taking off. There is smoke and flame.
The Hwasong-16B is solid-fuelled, which means it can be deployed more quickly than a liquid-fuelled weapon [KCNA via Reuters]

The North Korean leader promised to further develop the country’s arsenal to counter his “enemies”, a reference to Japan, South Korea and the United States.

KCNA said the Hwasong-16B flew for about 1,000km (621 miles), reaching a peak altitude of 101km (62 miles). Seoul’s military said it was airborne for about 600km (370 miles) before splashing down in the sea between South Korea and Japan.

North Korea has focused on developing more sophisticated solid-fuel weapons because they are easier to conceal and move, and can be launched more quickly. Liquid-propelled weapons need to be fuelled before launch and cannot stay fuelled for long periods of time.

Hypersonic weapons, meanwhile, are designed to exceed five times the speed of sound and can also be maneouvred in flight.

North Korea previously said it tested a hypersonic IRBM in January.

The Tuesday launch “appears to be part of Pyongyang’s missile development blueprint, including hypersonic weapons”, said Han Kwon-hee of the Korea Association of Defence Industry Studies.

Kim Jong Un with military commanders. They are wearing uniform. He is dressed in black, and wearing a leather bomber jacket
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said the weapon showed the ‘absolute superiority’ of North Korean military technology [KCNA via Reuters]

Analysts say such weapons, if perfected, would be potentially capable of reaching remote US targets in the Pacific, including the island of Guam.

“North Korea, in declaring that it has fully accomplished the nuclear weaponisation of its missiles, also emphasised its commitment to arm its hypersonic missiles with nuclear weapons,” Chang Young-keun, a missile expert at South Korea’s Research Institute for National Strategy, told the Associated Press news agency.

“North Korea’s development of hypersonic IRBMs targets Guam, which hosts US military bases, and even Alaska.”

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

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