SEOUL—North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attended his first weapons launch in nearly two years, observing what Pyongyang described as the final test of a new hypersonic missile that is a top priority.
Sporting a leather jacket and peering through binoculars, Mr. Kim watched a missile hit a target roughly 620 miles away, after making a “glide jump flight” and making a “corkscrew” maneuver, according to a Wednesday state-media report. His younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, was also present for the test.
A day earlier, South Korean and Japanese officials had detected a single ballistic-missile launch. Their initial assessments estimated a shorter flight distance. Neither characterized the weapon as a hypersonic missile—a complex technology that blends ultrafast speeds and maneuverability.
North Korea considers its hypersonic missile to be the most strategically significant of five urgent tasks outlined in an arms-development policy outlined by Mr. Kim in early 2021. Including Tuesday’s launch, Pyongyang says it has conducted three hypersonic tests since September.
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,” according to the state-media report. He praised the military scientists. He posed for photos with top officials. And he gave instruction to bolster the country’s “strategic military muscle both in quality and quantity,” the report read.
Mr. Kim, whose star power at major weapons tests were long customary, has skipped such in-person visits since March 2020. That is partly over domestic optics, to make him appear more attuned to the North’s sputtering economy, close Pyongyang watchers say.
“Where the Supreme Leader shows up really shows where his focus is,” said Ken Gause, a North Korea leadership expert at CNA, a Virginia-based nonprofit think tank.
But the third-generation North Korean dictator has also made a habit of showing up only when weapons systems are near completion. In recent years, the Kim regime has increasingly pivoted its arms advances into modernizing weapons that could be used closer to home—and held off on tests of nuclear or long-range missiles that could strike the U.S. Those weapons have been in earlier stages of development.
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Tuesday’s test, however, was the final technical verification for the country’s hypersonic missile, though there was no mention of deployment, according to the state media report. Weapons experts say North Korea’s hypersonic technology appears to be at an early stage.
“It seems that the North Koreans intend to show some confidence in their missile capabilities,” said Kim Jina, a professor at South Korea’s Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.
Verifying Pyongyang’s maneuverability claims for its hypersonic technology is challenging, since lateral movement over bodies of water can be difficult to observe with satellite imagery, weapons experts say. Hypersonic missiles travel at least five times the speed of sound. They fly closer to the Earth than ballistic missiles and don’t follow a simple trajectory, making them harder to detect on radar.
That South Korea, Japan and others have been skeptical of North Korea’s claimed hypersonic capabilities could have been another motivation for Mr. Kim’s attendance, given that the elites in Pyongyang would have been aware of the outside assessments, said Michael Madden, a nonresident fellow at the Stimson Center, a Washington think tank.
“Kim Jong Un trucked out for the test to provide his support to this weapon program and vest it with his political prestige,” Mr. Madden said.
Kim Jong Il, the current leader’s father, attended virtually every weapons launch during his roughly 17-year reign, having bet his legacy on the country’s military advances. After taking power a decade ago, Kim Jong Un sought to balance both defense and the economy. But ahead of his first meeting with then-President Donald Trump at the 2018 Singapore summit, Mr. Kim declared his nuclear program complete.
He then shifted focus to the livelihood of his people. He stopped visiting so many military-related sites. Instead, he visited farms and remote factories.
Mr. Kim’s envisioned economic transformation has stalled, as nuclear talks that could bring sanctions relief remain stalemated with the U.S. The pandemic triggered border closures, cutting off vital trade with neighboring China. Mr. Kim has warned of food shortages.
This turn of events makes it even politically riskier for Mr. Kim to oversee weapons launches, said Yongho Kim, a professor at Yonsei University in Seoul, who focuses on North Korean foreign policy.
“His presence could have given an impression that Kim Jong Un still sticks to nuclear advances in the midst of economic difficulty,” Prof. Kim said.
North Korea has conducted more than two dozen weapons or engine tests since the abrupt breakdown in talks at a 2019 nuclear summit in Vietnam. The weapons that Pyongyang has showcased—from missiles fired from a train to submarine-launched technology—have generally demonstrated high precision, introduced new launchers and utilized different motor technology that allows for quicker deployment, weapons experts say.
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.
“North Korea is a regional actor, not a global actor,” Mr. Schiller said. “So they need regional weapons.”
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