Suspected North Korean hypersonic missile exploded, South Korea says

The Joint Chiefs of Staff suspected the weapon is a solid-fueled hypersonic missile.
Contrails believed to be created by a North Korean missile are observed over seas off Yeonpyeong Island, South Korea, Wednesday, June 26, 2024.
Contrails believed to be created by a North Korean missile are observed over seas off Yeonpyeong Island, South Korea, Wednesday, June 26, 2024.Photo | AP

SEOUL: A suspected hypersonic missile launched by North Korea exploded in flight on Wednesday, South Korea's military said, a development that comes as North Korea is protesting the regional deployment of a U.S. aircraft carrier for a trilateral military drill with South Korea and Japan.

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement that North Korea launched a ballistic missile from its capital region around 5:30 a.m. on Wednesday. It said the missile was fired toward the North’s eastern waters, but the launch ended in failure.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff later told South Korean journalists that the missile blew up as it flew over the waters of the North's eastern coastal Wonsan city. It said the fragments of the missile were scattered in the waters, up to 250 kilometers (155 miles) away from the launch site. No damages were immediately reported.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff suspected the weapon is a solid-fueled hypersonic missile. It said Wednesday's launch spewed larger amounts of smoke than normal launches because of a possible engine fault. It said the test was probably aimed to improve the capacity of a hypersonic weapons system.

The contents of the background briefing was shared with foreign media.

In a three-way phone call, senior diplomats from South Korea, the U.S. and Japan condemned the missile launch as a violation of U.N. resolutions and agreed to maintain close coordination in response to North Korean threats, according to South Korea’s Foreign Ministry.

The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said it condemns the North's launch though it didn't pose an immediate threat to the U.S. territory or its allies. It said the U.S. commitments to the defense of South Korea and Japan “remain ironclad.” Japan’s Defense Ministry said earlier Wednesday that it also detected a suspected ballistic missile launch by North Korea.

Since 2021, North Korea has performed a series of hypersonic missile tests in an apparent bid to penetrate its rivals' missile defense shields. But foreign experts question if North Korean hypersonic vehicles have proved their desired speed and maneuverability during test-flights. In recent years, North Korea has also been pushing to develop more weapons with solid propellants, Such propellants make launches harder to detect than liquid-propellant missiles, which must be fueled before liftoff.

The North’s reported launch also came as the rival Koreas are engaged in Cold War-style, psychological campaigns such as balloon flying and loudspeaker broadcasts in past weeks.

South Korea said Tuesday night that North Korea floated huge balloons carrying trash across the border for a second consecutive day. South Korean media reported Wednesday that about 100 North Korean balloons with bags of waste papers eventually fell on South Korean territory.

Contrails believed to be created by a North Korean missile are observed over seas off Yeonpyeong Island, South Korea, Wednesday, June 26, 2024.
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North Korea has conducted a series of trash-carrying balloon launches toward South Korea since late May in what it calls a tit-for-tat response to South Korean activists flying political leaflets via their own balloons. On June 9, South Korea briefly restarted propaganda broadcasts from its border loudspeakers for the first time in years in response. South Korea's military said Monday said it was ready to turn on its loudspeakers again.

The USS Theodore Roosevelt arrived in South Korea on Saturday and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol boarded the carrier on Tuesday — the first sitting South Korean president to board a U.S. aircraft carrier since 1994.

Yoon told American and South Korean troops on the carrier that their countries’ alliance is the world’s greatest and can defeat any enemy. He said the U.S. carrier is to leave Wednesday for the South Korea-U.S.-Japan drill, dubbed “Freedom Edge.” The training is aimed at sharpening the countries’ combined response in various areas of operation, including air, sea and cyberspace.

North Korea’s vice defense minister, Kim Kang Il, on Monday called the U.S. aircraft carrier’s deployment “reckless” and “dangerous.” North Korea has previously called major U.S.-South Korean drills invasion rehearsals and reacted with missile tests.

Seoul officials said the upcoming South Korea-U.S.-Japan training is meant to strengthen the three countries' response capabilities against North Korea's evolving nuclear threats at a time when the North is advancing its military partnerships with Russia.

During a summit in Pyongyang last week, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a deal requiring each country to provide aid if attacked and vowed to boost other cooperation. Observers say the accord represents the strongest connection between the two countries since the end of the Cold War.

The United States and its partners believe North Korea has been providing Russia with much-needed conventional arms for its war in Ukraine in return for military and economic assistance.

North Korea’s reported missile launch is its first weapons demonstrations since Kim Jong Un on May 30 supervised the firing of nuclear-capable multiple rocket launchers to simulate a preemptive attack on South Korea. The drill came days after North Korea’s attempt to put its second spy satellite into orbit ended in failure, with its rocket carrying that satellite exploding in mid-air soon after liftoff.

Since 2022, North Korea has sharply increased the pace of weapons tests to increase its nuclear attack capabilities to cope with what it calls an deepening U.S. military threat. Foreign experts say North Korea eventually aims to use its larger nuclear arsenal to wrest greater concessions from the U.S. when diplomacy resumes.

Contrails believed to be created by a North Korean missile are observed over seas off Yeonpyeong Island, South Korea, Wednesday, June 26, 2024.
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