North Korea appeared to test-fire a ballistic missile on Tuesday that may be more advanced than a “hypersonic” one it launched less than a week ago, South Korea’s military said, as Pyongyang pursues increasingly powerful weapons.
Tuesday’s launch, condemned by authorities in Washington and Tokyo, underscored leader Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s vow to bolster the military with cutting-edge technology at a time when talks with South Korea and the United States have stalled.
Initial estimates found the missile travelled more than 700 km (435 miles) to a maximum altitude of 60 km at up to 10 times the speed of sound (12,348 kmh/), South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said in a statement.
“We assess that this is more advanced than the missile North Korea fired on Jan. 5, though South Korean and U.S. intelligence authorities are conducting detailed analysis,” the JCS said.
The launch was detected around 7:27 a.m. (2227 GMT Monday) from North Korea’s Jagang Province toward the ocean off its east coast, the same location as last week’s test.
North Korea has joined a global race in developing hypersonic missiles, usually defined as reaching at least five times the speed of sound – or about 6,200 kms per hour (3,850 mph) – and can manoeuvre at relatively low trajectories, making them much harder to detect and intercept.
Last week, South Korean military officials cast doubts on the capabilities of the hypersonic missile North Korea claimed to have test-fired on Wednesday, saying it appeared to represent limited progress over Pyongyang’s existing ballistic missiles.
“Today’s test might be intended to send a message to the South after authorities here said the earlier test was a failure and did not involve a hypersonic missile,” Kim Dong-yup, a former South Korea Navy officer who now teaches at Seoul’s Kyungnam University.
South Korea’s National Security Council held an emergency meeting and President Moon Jae-in later expressed concerns over the series of launches coming ahead of the March 9 presidential election in South Korea, his office said.
The nuclear envoys of South Korea and the United States held a phone call to share their assessment on the missile test and coordinate responses, and agreed to continue efforts restart the peace process with the North, South Korea’s foreign ministry said in a statement.
“The United States condemns the DPRK’s ballistic missile launch,” a State Department spokesperson said early Tuesday.
The U.S. military’s Indopacific Command said while it had assessed that launch did not pose an immediate threat to the United States or its allies, it “highlights the destabilising impact of North Korea’s illicit weapons program.”
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida noted the United Nations had just finished holding discussions on how to respond to last week’s launch.
“That North Korea continues to launch missiles is extremely regrettable,” he told reporters.
U.N. Security Council resolutions ban all ballistic missile and nuclear tests by North Korea, and have imposed sanctions over the programmes.
Tuesday’s apparent launch came a day after the United States mission to the United Nations, joined by France, Ireland, Japan, the United Kingdom and Albania, condemned last week’s test as posing “a significant threat to regional stability.”
However, China and Russia are pushing the U.N. Security Council to ease sanctions on North Korea by removing a ban on Pyongyang’s exports of statues, seafood and textiles, and lifting a refined petroleum imports cap.
North Korea has said it is open to talks, but only if the United States and others drop “hostile policies” such as sanctions and military drills.
Few observers expect Kim to ever fully surrender his nuclear arsenal and North Korea argues its missile tests and other military activities are similar to measures taken by other countries.