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North Korea tests new missile

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea said Wednesday it tested another new hypersonic intermediate-range missile powered with solid propellants as it continues to expand its nuclear and missile program in the face of deepening tensions with neighbours and the United States.

The report by North Korean state media came a day after the South Korean and Japanese militaries detected the North launching the missile from an inland area around its capital toward its eastern sea.

North Korean state media said the test was supervised by authoritarian leader Kim Jong Un, who described the missile – named Hwasong-16B – as a key piece of his nuclear war deterrent he vowed to further build up to counter his “enemies,” a reference to the United States, South Korea and Japan.

Kim claimed that the North has now developed nuclear-capable, solid-fuel systems for “all the tactical, operational and strategic missiles with various ranges,” the Korean Central News Agency said.

In recent years, North Korea has been focusing on developing more weapons with built-in solid propellants. Those weapons are easier to move and hide and can be made to launch quicker than liquid-propellant missiles, which need to be fueled before launch and cannot stay fueled for long periods of time.

FILE – In this photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, supervises artillery firing drills in North Korea Thursday, March 7, 2024. PHOTO: KOREAN CENTRAL NEWS AGENCY/KOREA NEWS SERVICE VIA AP

The North has since 2021 also been testing hypersonic weapons designed to exceed five times the speed of sound. If perfected, such systems could potentially pose a challenge to regional missile defence systems because of their speed and manoeuvrability. However, it’s unclear whether the North’s hypersonic vehicles consistently maintained a desired speed exceeding Mach 5 during tests in 2021 and 2022.

During Tuesday’s test, the missile’s hypersonic glide warhead after being separated from the launch rocket reached a peak altitude of 101 kilometres (62 miles) and flew about 1,000 kilometres (621 miles) while performing various flight manoeuvres before landing in waters between the Korean Peninsula and Japan, the KCNA said.

The South Korean and Japanese militaries had assessed that the missile flew around 600 (372 miles) although Japan’s Defense Ministry announced a similar apogee with the North Korean report.

The North had also tested a purported hypersonic IRBM in January, which came years after its flight-tested liquid-fuel IRBMs. Experts say such weapons, if perfected, are potentially capable of reaching remote US targets in the Pacific, including the military hub of Guam. While North Korea had initially tested its hypersonic warheads with liquid-fuel systems, the ability to load them on solid-fuel rockets would allow for faster launches and operation, said Chang Young-keun, a missile expert at South Korea’s Research Institute for National Strategy.

“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 said. “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 invasion of Ukraine as a distraction to accelerate his testing of missiles and other weapons. The United States and South Korea have responded by expanding their combined training and trilateral drills involving Japan and sharpening their deterrence strategies built around strategic US assets.

While supervising Tuesday’s test, Kim called for his country to further expand its nuclear and missile program to acquire “overwhelming power capable of containing and controlling” his enemies, who have “recently run higher fever in boosting their military alliance and staging all sorts of war drills.”

Hours after the launch, Seoul’s Defense Ministry announced that South Korea, the United States and Japan conducted a combined aerial exercise above waters near Jeju island that involved at least one nuclear-capable US B-52 bomber.

The United States in recent months has been increasing its deployment of strategic assets to the region, also including aircraft carriers and missile-firing submarines, in a show of force against North Korea.