(ATTN: RECASTS paras 2, 4, 16)
By Song Sang-ho
SEOUL, Jan. 6 (Yonhap) -- North Korea's latest launch of what it claims to be a hypersonic missile underscores its tenacious efforts to dodge the evolving South Korea-U.S. missile defense shield and bolster its military presence while upping the ante for future nuclear negotiations, analysts said Thursday.
The North successfully test-fired the missile Wednesday, its official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported, in its first show of force this year, apparently signaling an advance in the development of what could be a game changer in regional security. The North announced its first known test of a hypersonic missile in September last year.
Its push for the new missile was foreordained, given that at the eighth congress of the ruling Workers' Party a year ago, the North unveiled its ambitious scheme to "develop and introduce the hypersonic gliding flight warhead in a short period" along with other formidable weapons.
Experts here presume it will take more time for the North to master the hypersonic missile technologies, including airborne control and heat resistance. Still, the new missile sparked concerns over whether South Korea and the U.S. are ready to counter the evolving threat.
"Technology-wise, caution needs to be taken when assessing whether the North really succeeded in developing a hypersonic missile, given that even the United States has yet to fully deploy such a missile," Park Won-gon, a professor of North Korea studies at Ewha Womans University, said.
"But the problem here is that the hypersonic missile flies so fast it can hardly be blocked by the current-time missile defense system," he added.
The KCNA said the missile made a "120 km lateral movement" and "precisely hit a set target 700 km away" while touting the "control and stability" of the warhead. It did not mention how fast the missile traveled, but South Korean military sources estimated its speed at over Mach 5.
The KCNA report raised speculation about the possibility of steady progress in the North's bid to possess the high-tech missile, as the self-styled hypersonic Hwasong-8 missile fired last year was believed to have traveled some 200 km at a speed of Mach 3.
Some experts pointed to differences between the warhead shapes of the two missiles, spawning a view that the one tested earlier this week could be either a brand-new type or an upgraded version of the Hwasong-8.
The warhead of the previous one appeared leaner and more pointed, while that of the latest one looked more like a circular cone.
The latest missile's "lateral movement" capability was also noteworthy, analysts said, as it could indicate possible improvement in the missile's maneuverability that would make interception even more difficult.
Apparently seeking to allay growing public concerns, South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff spokesperson Col. Kim Jun-rak stressed the South and the U.S. are "capable of detecting and responding" to the missile with their combined assets.
The North's boast of its missile prowess came as Seoul and Washington have been striving to reinforce their combined multi-layered missile defense capabilities through the installation of various assets, including a THAAD battery in the southeastern county of Seongju.
"The nuclear force is the sole military area where the North could highlight its relative primacy at this point," Nam Chang-hee, professor of international politics at Inha University, said.
"While the South and the U.S. are seeking to build capabilities, including missile defense and preemptive strike assets, the North might be prioritizing at least disrupting or evading them," the professor added.
The KCNA report on the latest missile's range of 700 km suggested it could have security implications well beyond the Korean Peninsula.
"Rather than the latest missile targeting the South, its usage appears to stretch to U.S. military installations on Okinawa, Japan, and the U.S. territory of Guam," a security expert told Yonhap News Agency, requesting anonymity.
Pyongyang's latest saber-rattling dealt a dispiriting setback to South Korean President Moon Jae-in's steadfast pursuit of denuclearization and lasting peace on the divided peninsula, which has made no significant headway over the past few years. A silver lining is that the North has maintained its moratorium on nuclear or long-range missile tests.
The North's latest ballistic missile test came hours before Moon celebrated the groundbreaking ceremony for a railway project at the inter-Korean border town of Goseong. Reconnecting cross-border roads and railways was a key agreement struck during a 2018 summit between him and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
"To fundamentally overcome the root cause of this situation, we should not let go of our efforts for dialogue," Moon said at the ceremony.
The North's undeterred drive for new weapons systems could be part of its efforts to pressure the U.S. to show more flexibility to move forward the nuclear negotiations that have remained stalled since the Hanoi summit in early 2019 between the two countries.
Pyongyang has been seeking to develop various other formidable arms, such as a submarine-launched ballistic missile and tactical nuclear weapons as well as various missile launch platforms, including those using railways.
"The North's message may be this: If you let this be, we will continue to advance and diversify our nuclear force. So take steps to persuade us and engage in arms control negotiations," Park of Ewha Womans University said.
Speculation has persisted the North might want arms control negotiations to concurrently reduce its nuclear and conventional arsenal with the U.S. rather than denuclearization talks.
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