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North Korea’s “hypersonic missile” tests raise military stakes in Asia

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SEOUL – Even as debates swirl over their capability, a series of nuclear-weaponized North Korea’s recently tested ‘hypersonic missiles’ have suddenly spurred preemptive strikes and arms races amid concerns aroused by the vulnerability of US troops and their allies in Asia.

North Korea kicked off the new year with three missile tests in the space of two weeks, triggering reactions from Washington unprecedented since Pyongyang stopped testing its longer-range missiles, which can strike the United States. , in 2017.

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At least two of the latest tests were for what North Korea called “hypersonic missiles,” while details of the third, launched on Friday, were not immediately available.

These hypersonic missiles, which are only regional in scope, pose no threat to the continental United States. But the weapons – which can fly under defenses and change course at high speed – represent a major potential improvement in North Korea’s strike power against nearby opponents, and experts say it’s unclear. how the United States and its Asian allies could counter this.

“These kinds of offensive-defensive races have been going on in the world for many decades now, and what we constantly see is that the offense has the edge,” said Cameron Tracy, Center for Security researcher. and international cooperation at Stanford University (CISAC) in California. “North Korea will continue to deploy more missiles and develop faster, more maneuverable systems that will keep South Korea vulnerable to attack.”

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In recent years, the United States and South Korea – in hopes of resuming stalled talks with Pyongyang – have downplayed North Korea’s increasingly successful short-range missiles as a concern and a violation of US law. United Nations Security Council resolutions, but not as a major threat.

This week, however, the Biden administration decided to impose its first sanctions on the North’s missile program, and South Korea’s top presidential candidates question whether a preemptive strike was the only way to stop the news. weapons.

Although, like most ballistic missiles, they travel at hypersonic speeds – more than five times the speed of sound – their main characteristic is the ability to maneuver and fly on lower trajectories than traditional ballistic missiles, this which makes them harder to follow and take down.

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“In the worst case scenario, North Korea could launch the missile in a ballistic curve that makes it appear like a test at sea, but then maneuver it under or around radar systems and even turn a wedge to hit a target in. South Korea or Japan with a nuclear weapon, ”said Melissa Hanham, also a CISAC researcher.

‘BAD NEWS’

Analysts warn that it is far from clear to what extent North Korea’s new systems are capable or when they will be deployed. The South Korean military said the missile tested this year appears to have a maneuverable conical re-entry vehicle (MaRV) for its warhead, rather than the more high-tech “glider” style seen on some missiles developed by China and China. ‘other countries.

Many ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems are intended to shoot down missiles after the high, arched flight of traditional ballistic projectiles, many of which hit the edge of space before plunging back to earth.

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“If deployed, they will pose a greater challenge to BMD systems designed to handle medium-range missiles, like THAAD and Aegis, which are currently designed to prevent weapons from approaching their targets over or over a line. less straight, ”said Joshua Pollack. , editor of the Nonproliferation Review, spoke about North Korea’s MaRV missiles.

Additionally, South Korea and the approximately 28,500 U.S. troops based there are so close that incoming missiles could fly on even lower trajectories, with much shorter flight time, making defense more difficult, a said David Wright, nuclear security researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Wright’s research shows that flying on such a “depressed trajectory” could also allow North Korea’s last missiles to escape defenses in more distant places like Japan, home to tens of thousands of US troops.

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Many South Koreans have grown used to living under the threat of North Korean weapons, but the governments of the United States and Japan cannot ignore North Korea’s advanced programs, said Chun In-bum, a general. retired South Korean.

“North Korea’s hypersonic weapons system will undoubtedly improve,” he said. “This is bad news for everyone.”

PREEMPTIVE STRIKES

South Korea’s Defense Ministry insisted on Thursday that it could not only detect the new missiles, but also intercept them.

Some South Korean presidential candidates don’t seem so sure.

“Missiles that travel at speeds above Mach 5, if loaded with nuclear warheads, will reach the Seoul metropolitan area in less than a minute,” the main conservative presidential candidate told reporters on Tuesday. Yoon Suk-yeol. “Interception is virtually impossible.”

Yoon said diplomacy is necessary to ensure that a war never happens. But if diplomacy fails, Yoon added, preemptive strikes would be needed to stop an impending launch.

North Korea is hiding its missiles, so there is no evidence that a preemptive strike would eliminate the threat, Wright said.

“If this vulnerability is a concern, which it should be, the only realistic answer is to negotiate with North Korea to reduce the risk of such attacks,” he said. (Reporting by Josh Smith. Editing by Gerry Doyle)

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