North Korea confirms missile test from train amid fresh sanctions

North Korea confirmed on Saturday that it test-launched ballistic missiles from a train in what was seen as an apparent retaliation against fresh sanctions imposed by the United States.

North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said the drill was aimed at “checking and judging the proficiency in the action procedures” of the missile, adding that the two guided missiles hit a set target in the East Sea.

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency quoted its military as saying that the latest projectiles flew around 430km (267 miles) at an altitude of 36km (22 miles) and a top speed of Mach 6 (7,350 kilometres per hour), six times the speed of sound.

The report by the North Korean state media came a day after South Korea’s military said on Friday that it detected the firing of two missiles into the sea by its neighbour country in what has become the third weapons launch this month.

The launch came hours after Pyongyang’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement berating the US for imposing new sanctions over the North’s previous tests and warned of stronger and more explicit action if Washington maintains its “confrontational stance”.

North Korea, in recent months, has been ramping up tests of new missiles designed to overwhelm missile defences in the region amid pandemic-related border closures and a freeze in nuclear diplomacy with the US.

Some experts say North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is going back to a tried-and-true technique of pressuring neighbouring countries and the US with missile launches and outrageous threats before offering negotiations meant to extract concessions.

KCNA said Friday’s exercise was aimed at checking the alert posture of its army’s rail-borne missile regiment.

The troops swiftly moved to the launch site after receiving the missile-test order on short notice and fired two “tactical guided” missiles that accurately struck a sea target, the report said.

North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper published photos of what appeared to be two different missiles soaring above from rail cars engulfed in smoke.

Cheong Seong-chang, an analyst at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea, said North Korea likely staged a launch that hadn’t been previously planned to demonstrate its opposition to US sanctions.

Solid-fuel short-range weapon

The missiles fired from rail cars appeared to be a solid-fuel short-range weapon North Korea has apparently modelled after Russia’s Iskander mobile ballistic system.

First tested in 2019, the missile is designed to be manoeuvrable and fly at low altitudes, potentially improving its chances of evading and defeating missile systems.

North Korea first launched these missiles from a train in September last year as part of its efforts to diversify its launch options, which now includes various vehicles and may eventually include submarines, depending on the country’s progress in its pursuit of such capabilities.

Firing a missile from a train could add mobility, but some experts say North Korea’s simple rail networks running through its relatively small territory would be quickly destroyed by enemies during a crisis.

The Biden administration on Wednesday imposed sanctions on five North Koreans over their roles in obtaining equipment and technology for their country’s missile programs – a response to North Korea’s previous tests this month.

The announcement by the Treasury Department came just hours after North Korea said Kim oversaw a successful test of a hypersonic missile on Tuesday that he claimed would greatly increase the country’s nuclear “war deterrent”. Tuesday’s test was North Korea’s second demonstration of its purported hypersonic missile in a week.

Hours before Friday’s launch, the KCNA carried a statement attributed to an unidentified spokesperson of North Korea’s Foreign Ministry, who insisted that the new sanctions underscore hostile US intent aimed at “isolating and stifling” the country.

Hypersonic weapons, which fly at speeds in excess of Mach 5 (6,125 km/h), or five times the speed of sound, could pose a crucial challenge to missile defences because of their speed and manoeuvrability.

Such weapons were on a wish list of sophisticated military assets Kim unveiled early last year along with multi-warhead missiles, spy satellites, solid-fuel long-range missiles and submarine-launched nuclear missiles.

Still, experts say North Korea would need years along with more successful and longer-range tests before acquiring a credible hypersonic system.

A US-led diplomatic push aimed at convincing North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons programme collapsed in 2019 after the Trump administration rejected Pyongyang’s demands for major sanctions relief in exchange for a partial surrender of its nuclear capabilities.

Kim has since pledged to further expand a nuclear arsenal he clearly sees as his strongest guarantee of survival, despite the country’s economy suffering significant setbacks amid pandemic-related border closures and persistent US-led sanctions.

His government has so far rejected the Biden administration’s call to resume dialogue without preconditions, saying that the US must first abandon its “hostile policy,” a term Pyongyang mainly uses to describe sanctions and combined US-South Korea military exercises.