North Korea's hypersonic weapons program appears to be ramping up.
The rogue nation claims that it conducted a successful test of a new hypersonic vehicle on Wednesday (Jan. 5), its second such trial in just over three months.
The vehicle aced a 75-mile (120 kilometers) lateral maneuver and "precisely hit" a target 435 miles (700 km) from the launch site, according to a statement released by the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
"The test launch clearly demonstrated the control and stability of the hypersonic gliding warhead, which combined the multi-stage gliding jump flight and the strong lateral movement," the KCNA statement reads (opens in new tab).
North Korea performed its first-ever hypersonic test launch on Sept. 28. That trial involved a missile called the Hwasong 8, which apparently carried a different type of hypersonic vehicle than the one that flew on Wednesday.
"It looks like the North Koreans identified hypersonic gliders as a military requirement (probably because they perceive this to be effective at dealing with BMD [ballistic missile defense]). After that, they likely authorized at least two separate development programs (Hwasong 8, this one)," Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Nuclear Policy Program, said via Twitter on Wednesday (opens in new tab).
Hypersonic vehicles by definition travel at least five times faster than the speed of sound, or Mach 5. But speed isn't their main selling point; maneuverability is. Because they're so nimble, hypersonics are tougher to track and knock out than intercontinental ballistic missiles, which follow predictable trajectories.
The United States, Russia and China have prioritized the development of hypersonic weapons in recent years, viewing them as potential game-changers in conflicts to come. North Korea has apparently made the same calculation.
North Korea is far from a great power, but the rest of the world tracks its missile and weapons programs closely because it possesses nuclear weapons and is run by a dictator, Kim Jong Un, who is prone to making florid threats against the United States, Japan, South Korea and other perceived enemies.
The United Nations Security Council has sought to defang North Korea, imposing numerous weapons-related sanctions (opens in new tab) over the past decade and a half. But North Korea continues to flout such measures. For example, the nation conducted four test launches last fall, including the Hwasong 8 liftoff and an October trial involving a submarine-launched ballistic missile.
"It's truly regrettable that North Korea has repeatedly launched missiles since last year," Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan said on Wednesday, according to The New York Times (opens in new tab). "The Japanese government will strengthen warning and surveillance more than ever."
Mike Wall is the author of "Out There (opens in new tab)" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or on Facebook (opens in new tab).