North Korean cruise missile

PYONGYANG – North Korea carried out a successful test of a new long-range cruise missile over the weekend, North Korean state media reported on Monday, seen by many analysts as possibly the country’s first such weapon with a nuclear capability, Reuters reported.

“The missiles are a strategic weapon of great significance and flew 1,500 km (930 miles) before hitting their targets and falling into the country’s territorial waters during the tests on Saturday and Sunday”, KCNA stated.

The latest test highlighted steady progress in Pyongyang’s weapons program amid gridlock over talks aimed at dismantling the North’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs in return for U.S. sanctions relief. The talks have stalled since 2019.

North Korea’s cruise missiles usually generate less interest than ballistic missiles because they are not explicitly banned under U.N. Nations Security Council Resolutions.

“This would be the first cruise missile in North Korea to be explicitly designated a ‘strategic’ role,” said Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the U.S.-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “This is a common euphemism for nuclear-capable systems.”

It is unclear whether North Korea has mastered the technology needed to build warheads small enough to be carried on a cruise missile, but the country’s leader Kim Jong Un said earlier this year that developing smaller bombs is a top goal.

The two Koreas have been locked in an accelerating arms race that analysts believe will leave the region littered with powerful new missiles. South Korea’s military did not disclose whether it had detected the North’s latest tests, but said on Monday it was conducting a detailed analysis in cooperation with the United States.

The U.S. military’s Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) said it was aware of the reports and was “coordinating” with its regional satellite states.

“This activity highlights (North Korea’s) continuing focus on developing its military program and the threats that poses to its neighbors and the international community,” INDOPACOM said in a statement.

Rodong Sinmun, the ruling Workers’ Party’s official newspaper, ran photos of the new cruise missile flying and being fired from a transporter-erector-launcher.

“The test provides strategic significance of possessing another effective deterrence means for more reliably guaranteeing the security of our state and strongly containing the military maneuvers of the hostile forces,” KCNA said.

It was seen as the North’s first missile launch after it tested a new tactical short-range ballistic missile in March. North Korea also conducted a cruise missile test just hours after U.S. President Joe Biden took office in late January.

Serious Capability

Jeffrey Lewis, a missile researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said intermediate-range land-attack cruise missiles were no less a threat than ballistic missiles and were a pretty serious capability for North Korea.

“This is another system that is designed to fly under missile defense radars or around them,” Lewis said on Twitter.

Cruise missiles and short-range ballistic missiles that can be armed with either conventional or nuclear bombs are particularly destabilizing in the event of conflict as it can be unclear which kind of warhead they are carrying, analysts said.

Biden’s administration has said it is “open to diplomacy to achieve North Korea’s denuclearisation”, but has shown no willingness to ease sanctions. Sung Kim, the U.S. envoy for North Korea, said in August in Seoul that he was “ready to meet with North Korean officials anywhere, at any time.”

A reactivation of inter-Korean hotlines in July raised hopes for a restart of the negotiations, but the North stopped answering calls in response to South Korea-U.S. military exercises that began last month, which Pyongyang had warned could trigger a security crisis.

In addition, in recent weeks, South Korea became the first non-nuclear state to develop and test a submarine-launched ballistic missile. Some geopolitical analysts believe that the North Korean test comes as a response to these developments.

Up until recently, North Korea had certain difficulties with making nuclear warheads small enough to fit into smaller missiles. By conducting the long-range cruise missile test, the country has proven that it has now most likely acquired that capability.

Few countries possess the technology to make cruise missiles. Some U.S. analysts speculate that North Korea secretly cooperated with foreign countries (Iran, Russia, Pakistan, China, etc). There is speculation that Pakistan might’ve shared its experience working on its medium-range turbojet-powered subsonic “Babur” cruise missile.

However, such claims have so far been unsubstantiated, since “Babur” itself is limited to ranges of 450-750 km (280-470 miles), which is less than North Korean missile’s 1,500 km range. As for “Babur” itself, analysts claim it is either a copy of the American “Tomahawk” or the Chinese DH-10/CJ-10. The latter is also a Chinese copy of the older Russian Kh-55.