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North Korea: Latest launch was successful 'final' test of hypersonic missile

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North Korea: Latest launch was successful 'final' test of hypersonic missile
This image by the North Korean Official News Service (KCNA) released on January 12, shows the test-fire of a "hypersonic" missile. Photo courtesy of KCNA | License Photo

SEOUL, Jan. 12 (UPI) -- North Korea successfully conducted the "final verification" of its hypersonic missile system, state media reported on Wednesday, as leader Kim Jong Un called for continued strengthening of the secretive state's military capabilities.

The weapons test Tuesday was overseen by Kim, Korean Central News Agency reported, making it the first time he has officially been present at a major missile launch in nearly two years.

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The North Korean leader applauded the country's "great success" in developing the hypersonic missile and stressed "the need to further accelerate the efforts to steadily build up the country's strategic military muscle both in quality and quantity and further modernize the army," KCNA said.

Pyongyang's latest launch was detected by the militaries of South Korea and Japan on Tuesday and marked the second test in less than a week of what the North claims are hypersonic weapons.

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After being released from its rocket booster, the hypersonic glide vehicle demonstrated "glide jump flight" and made a turning maneuver before hitting a target some 620 miles away, according to the KCNA report.

"The superior maneuverability of the hypersonic glide vehicle was more strikingly verified through the final test-fire," the report said.

South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said Tuesday that the North Korean missile reached a speed of Mach 10, or 10 times the speed of sound, and flew more than 435 miles at a maximum altitude of 37 miles.

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The full capabilities of Pyongyang's new weapons system remain unclear. The main difference between traditional ballistic missiles and hypersonic weapons is not speed but the ability of the glide vehicle to maneuver and change course after being released from its rocket booster, according to a U.S. Congressional Research Service report.

The maneuverability and low-altitude flight of hypersonic weapons could present a daunting challenge to existing missile defense systems.

The JCS said that North Korea's launch Tuesday marked an advance over its test the week before, but added that South Korea's military "has the ability to detect and intercept this projectile."

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North Korea set the development of a hypersonic missile as a key defense priority at its Eighth Party Congress last January, and the appearance of Kim at Tuesday's launch seemed to underline the weapon's importance, analysts said.

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"Kim hasn't personally guided any of the missile tests that have taken place since he outlined modernization goals at the Eighth Party Congress," Ankit Panda, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, tweeted. "His presence here would suggest particular attention on this program."

North Korea's recent flurry of missile activity has drawn international concern, with last week's launch prompting a closed-door meeting of the United Nations Security Council on Monday.

The White House condemned the latest missile test on Tuesday. Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the launch posed no immediate threat to the United States or its allies but served to highlight the "destabilizing impact" of North Korea's weapons program.

"The launch is in violation of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions," Psaki said during a press briefing aboard Air Force One en route to Atlanta. "We call on the DPRK to refrain from further provocations and engage in sustained and substantive dialogue."

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea is the official name of North Korea.

Shortly after the launch on Tuesday, flights were halted at some airports on the U.S. West Coast. The Federal Aviation Administration acknowledged in a tweet that it had issued a "ground stop" but did not specify the reason.

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"Full operations resumed in less than 15 minutes," the tweet said. "The FAA regularly takes precautionary measures."

The European Union also spoke out Tuesday against the North's recent launches and called on Pyongyang to return to the negotiating table.

"The DPRK's continued pursuit of illegal weapons systems is a threat to international peace and security and goes against international efforts to resume dialogue and engage in actions to help its people," Nabila Massrali, EU spokeswoman for foreign affairs and security policy, said in a statement.

"The EU urges the DPRK to respond constructively to the readiness for diplomacy expressed by the United States and the Republic of Korea and engage in action toward denuclearization," she said.

Pyongyang continues to show little interest in engaging with Seoul or Washington, however. Nuclear talks with the United States have been at a standstill since a February 2019 summit between Kim and then-U.S. President Donald Trump ended without an agreement.

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