SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea said Friday it has flight-tested a solid-fueled ICBM for the first time, a possible breakthrough in its efforts to acquire a more powerful and harder-to-detect weapon that target the continental United States.

North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency issued the report a day after the country’s neighbors detected a long-range missile launch from near Pyongyang, sparking a series of weapons displays with more than 100 missiles fired into the sea since the beginning of 2022. .

Thursday’s test did not appear to demonstrate the weapon’s full capability, and it is unclear how far North Korea has gone in mastering technologies to ensure the warhead will withstand re-entry into the atmosphere and hit targets accurately. Still, analysts said the test was likely a significant advance in North Korea’s goal of building a nuclear arsenal that could directly threaten the United States.

KCNA said the launch was supervised at the site by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who described the missile, named Hwasong-18, as the most powerful weapon of his nuclear forces that would enhance counter-strike abilities against external threats created by the military. activities of the United States and its regional allies.

Kim vowed to further expand his nuclear arsenal to «constantly provoke extreme unrest and horror» in his rivals and make them regret their wrong choices.

North Korea has justified its weapons demonstrations as a response to sprawling US-South Korean military exercises, which the North condemns as invasion drills and uses as a pretext to push its own weapons development.

Kim added that the Hwasong-18 would quickly advance North Korea’s nuclear response posture and further support an aggressive military strategy that promises to maintain a «frontal confrontation» against its rivals.

North Korea has tested several ICBMs since 2017 that demonstrated the potential range to reach the continental United States, but the others use liquid fuel that must be added relatively close to launch and cannot remain powered for long periods.

An ICBM with built-in solid propellants would be easier to move and conceal and fire rapidly, reducing opportunities for opponents to detect and counter the launch. It is not immediately clear how close the North is to having a functional solid-fueled ICBM capable of striking the continental United States.

Image: NKOREA-POLITICS-DEFENSE
Kim described the missile, called the Hwasong-18, as the most powerful weapon of his nuclear forces.STR/AFP-Getty Images

South Korea’s Defense Ministry in a statement described the Hwasong-18 flight as an «intermediate phase test» and said North Korea would need more time and effort to complete the system. It maintains that North Korea’s technologies have not reached the point where they can protect its ICBM warheads from the harsh conditions of atmospheric re-entry.

Last month, South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-Sup also told lawmakers that North Korea has most likely not yet acquired the technology to attach nuclear warheads to its newest short-range missiles. targeting South Korea, though he acknowledged that the country was making considerable progress. in that.

Still, Thursday’s test marked a «significant advance for the North Koreans, but not an unexpected one,» said Ankit Panda, an expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

«The primary importance of solid-fueled ICBMs is in terms of what they will do to the survivability of North Korea’s total ICBM force,» he said.

“Because these missiles are powered at the time of manufacture and are therefore ready to use as needed, they will be able to be used much more quickly in a crisis or conflict, depriving South Korea and the United States of valuable time that could be useful for hunting preemptively. and destroy such missiles.”

North Korean state media published photos of the missile taking off from a launch vehicle at a test site inside a forest as Kim watched from an observation post along with military officials and his daughter.