North Korean leader Kim Jong Un witnessed his first weapons launch in nearly two years, witnessing what Pyongyang described as the final test of a new hypersonic missile that Pyongyang considers a top priority.
According to a Wednesday state-media report, Mr. Kim was wearing a leather jacket and peering through binoculars as he watched a missile hit a target approximately 620 miles away after performing a “glide jump flight” and a “corkscrew” maneuver. Kim Yo Jong, his younger sister, was also present for the test.
A single ballistic missile launch had been detected by South Korean and Japanese officials the day before. Their preliminary calculations predicted a shorter flight distance. Neither described the weapon as a hypersonic missile, which is a complex technology that combines ultrafast speeds with maneuverability.
North Korea considers its hypersonic missile to be the most strategically important of five urgent tasks outlined in Mr. Kim’s early 2021 arms-development policy. Pyongyang claims to have conducted three hypersonic tests since September, including Tuesday’s launch.
According to state media, the weapon “roared to soar into the sky, brightening the dawning sky and leaving behind it a column of fire, under the supervision of Kim Jong Un.” He lauded military scientists. He posed for photos with high-ranking officials. He also directed the country’s “strategic military muscle, both in quality and quantity,” according to the report.
Mr. Kim, whose presence at major weapons tests has long been expected, has avoided such in-person visits since March 2020. Close Pyongyang observers believe this is partly for domestic optics, to make him appear more attuned to the North’s sputtering economy.
However, the third-generation North Korean dictator has made a habit of only appearing when weapons systems are nearing completion. In recent years, the Kim regime has increasingly shifted its arms advances toward modernizing weapons that could be used closer to home—while deferring tests of nuclear or long-range missiles capable of striking the United States. Those weapons were in the early stages of development.
According to weapons experts, verifying Pyongyang’s claims about its hypersonic technology’s maneuverability is difficult because lateral movement over bodies of water can be difficult to observe with satellite imagery. Hypersonic missiles are capable of traveling at least five times the speed of sound. They fly closer to the Earth than ballistic missiles and do not follow a predictable trajectory, making them more difficult to detect on radar.
The fact that South Korea, Japan, and others are skeptical of North Korea’s claimed hypersonic capabilities could have been another motivator for Mr. Kim’s attendance, given that Pyongyang’s elites would have been aware of the outside assessments, according to Michael Madden, a nonresident fellow at the Stimson Center, a Washington think tank.
Kim Jong Il, the current leader’s father, was present at nearly every weapon launch during his roughly 17-year reign, having staked his legacy on the country’s military advancements. Kim Jong Un sought to balance defense and the economy after assuming power a decade ago. Mr. Kim, however, declared his nuclear program complete ahead of his first meeting with then-President Donald Trump at the 2018 Singapore summit.
He then turned his attention to the well-being of his people. He reduced his visits to military-related sites. Instead, he went to farms and outlying factories.
Mr. Kim’s envisioned economic transformation has stalled, as nuclear talks with the US that could result in sanctions relief remain stalled. Border closures were imposed as a result of the pandemic, cutting off vital trade with neighboring China. Mr. Kim has issued a food scare warning.
This turn of events makes Mr. Kim’s decision to oversee weapons launches even more politically risky, according to Yongho Kim, a professor of North Korean foreign policy at Yonsei University in Seoul.
Since the abrupt breakdown of talks at a 2019 nuclear summit in Vietnam, North Korea has conducted more than two dozen weapons or engine tests. According to weapons experts, Pyongyang’s weapons, which range from missiles fired from a train to submarine-launched technology, have generally demonstrated high precision, introduced new launchers, and used different motor technology that allows for faster deployment.
The Kim regime’s shift to weapons essential to fight or deter a conventional war places the focus on more realistic military needs, as opposed to long-range missiles needed for targets half a world away, said Markus Schiller, a rocket scientist at ST Analytics, a research and consulting firm in Munich.