As North Korea pushed Washington and Seoul to resume talks over nuclear weapons, it announced on September 29 that a new hypersonic missile had successfully been tested. State media released a photo of a missile mounted with a cone-shaped payload sailing into the air while leaving behind bright orange flames. The missile successfully passed technical requirements set by defense scientists, including launch stability and the maneuverability of the hypersonic warhead.
Earlier this month, North Korea conducted two missile tests. The latest launch came shortly before the UN envoy for North Korea accused the United States of aggression and demanded that the Biden administration permanently end joint military exercises with rival South Korea. North Korea has also offered to improve relations with the South if certain conditions are met, returning to the pattern of mixing weapon demonstrations with peace overtures to win concessions from outside. South Korea and Japan confirmed they had detected the launch of a missile from North Korea into the sea a day earlier. In a statement, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said the launch did not immediately pose a threat, but it did showcase North Korea’s destabilizing practices.
In February 2019, negotiations stalled after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and former US President Donald Trump failed to come to a deal over the easing of U.S.-led sanctions over its nuclear weapons program in exchange for the dismantlement of a facility. Only a limited surrender of nuclear capability would have been involved. Faced with U.S. pressure, Kim Jong Un has vowed to bolster his nuclear deterrent. North Korea has so far rejected the Biden administration’s offer to resume talks without preconditions, saying Washington should drop it’s ‘hostile policy’ first. North Korea mainly uses the term to refer to its nuclear weapons program and U.S.-South Korea military drills.
Kim Jong Un’s wish-list of sophisticated military assets, including hydrodynamic glide vehicles that are launched from rockets before gliding into targets, was published during a ruling party meeting in January. He has also advocated for more long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear-powered submarines, and tactical nuclear weapons. According to KCNA, the missile will serve as an important part of the country’s ‘strategic’ arsenal, suggesting that the system will deliver nuclear weapons. In addition, the government said the test confirmed the stability of the liquid propellant missile’s ‘fuel ampoule,’ which indicates a technology to pre-fuel the liquid propellant missile and seal it in a canister so it could remain launch-ready for years.
Observing the test, senior official Pak Jong Chon said the North planned to extend the ampoule system to all of its liquid-fuel missiles. North Korea is trying to improve the mobility of its liquid-fuel missiles, according to Kim Dong-yub, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. They have been viewed as more vulnerable than solid-fuel missiles since they need to be fuelled separately and transported to launch sites by trucks that can be seen by enemy satellites or other military assets. Kim Yo Jong, the influential sister of Kim Jong Un, reached out to Seoul twice on Friday and Saturday, saying that her country is open to resuming negotiations and reconciliatory measures if conditions are met. In her remarks, she criticized Seoul for calling Pyongyang’s previous missile tests provocation and demanded it abandon ‘unfair double-dealing standards’ and ‘hostile policies’.
The overture came after the North tested a new cruise missile with nuclear warheads and fired ballistic missiles from a train, experimenting with a new launch platform. In addition to those launches, North Korea has fired missiles into Japan and South Korea, both close allies of the United States that host 40,000 American troops. In an effort to gain economic benefits, North Korea has renewed it’s efforts to leverage its nuclear weapons for badly needed benefits, as analysts say it’s using the South’s desire for inter-Korean engagement to pressure Seoul.
Kim Jong Un faces his toughest moment as his rule approaches a decade with economic shocks unleashed by pandemic border closures and decades of poor management hitting the North Korean economy even further. North Korea might also be displaying weapons to showcase national unity. According to experts, the North will likely continue testing in the coming months as it steps up its pressure campaign, at least until China begins campaigning for calm ahead of the Beijing Winter Olympics early next year.