North Korea recently displayed a dangerous new anti-ship missile, prompting the obvious question of which country sold it to Pyongyang.
According to the Chosun Ilbo, a conservative South Korean news outlet, a recent propaganda video shown on North Korea’s state television displayed a new anti-ship missile for the first time. An unnamed South Korean military official told the newspaper that the missile is “probably either the Russian-developed Kh-35 Uran or a copy.”
The Kh-35 is an anti-ship cruise missile that the Soviet Union first conceived of in the 1970s, and ordered the production of the following decade. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the missile entered into service in what by then was the Russian Federation military.
The Kh-35 is often compared to Boeing’s Harpoon. Different variants can be launched from a variety of platforms, including surface vessels, coastal systems, naval helicopters and aircraft. In the propaganda film, the missile is displayed on a North Korean surface ship.
The missile has a range of about 130 kilometers when carrying a warhead of approximately 150 kilograms. It travels at a speed of roughly 300 m/s. Most notably, particularly from South Korea’s perspective, because of “its high-precision radio-altimeter,” the missile can fly at a low altitude of 10-15 meters while en route, and as low as 3-5 meters in the terminal stage.
This poses significant issues for the increasingly sophisticated South Korean Navy. Although South Korea’s more advanced warships, such as its Aegis and other destroyers, are well equipped to defend against the missile, its aging Pohang-class corvettes and patrol boats are not, according to the Chosun Ilbo.
This is problematic because these are the main vessels South Korea uses for coastal defense along the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the de facto maritime border between the two Koreas. Moreover, North Korea has a history of sinking South Korean corvettes. In 2010, for example, it used a torpedo to sink the ROKS Cheonan, a Pohang-class corvette, while the ship was patrolling near the NLL.
North Korea’s new Kh-35 missile represents a significant improvement over North Korea’s previous SSN-2-C (Styx) short-range anti-ship missiles, an older also Soviet-made missile. With a limited range of around 85 km, the ground-to-ship variant of the Styx missile didn’t pose a significant threat to South Korean vessels. In 2011, however, North Korea test fired a modified Styx missile from an IL-28 bomber in the Yellow Sea. If aircraft carrying the anti-ship missile flew across the NLL and into South Korean airspace, the Styx anti-ship missile could threaten ROK vessels. However, the aircraft themselves would be in grave danger given South Korea’s ground and ship-based air defense systems.
Thus, the new Kh-35s are a significant upgrade to North Korea’s anti-ship capabilities. It’s notable that Pyongyang displayed them at a time when the two Koreas’ navies and coast guards have been exchanging fire across the NLL on a fairly frequent basis. This suggests that North Korea has probably had the Kh-35 missiles for some time, and has decided to display them now to send a warning to Seoul.
Regardless of the exact timing of North Korea’s procurement of the missiles, the obvious question is which country sold them to North Korea? One possibility, of course, is that Russia sold the Kh-35 directly to Pyongyang. Indeed, Russia has exported the Kh-35 to a number of different countries, including India, Algeria, and Vietnam.
However the fact that Russia has exported the Kh-35 missiles to numerous countries makes it harder to pinpoint North Korea’s supplier. North Korea’s most likely source is Myanmar. As The Diplomat has previously reported, Myanmar’s Aung Zeya class frigate are equipped with Kh-35 anti-ship missiles. Myanmar’s air force is also believed to have an air-launched version of the Kh-35 missiles. Although Russia doesn’t appear to have acknowledged theses sales, Myanmar’s Kh-35s almost certainly came from Moscow. It’s possible but less likely that Myanmar procured them from another countries that imported them from Russia, such as India or Vietnam.
Myanmar and North Korea have a long history of military cooperation, which includes both countries selling the other side defense technology and weaponry. By contrast, while the Soviet Union certainly provided weapons to North Korea during the Cold War, there’s less evidence that it continues to do so today in any significant manner.
Given that the Kh-35 missiles weren’t completed until after the Soviet Union’s collapse, this leaves Myanmar as the most likely source for North Korea’s new anti-ship missiles. If so, the exact timing of the exchange becomes important because — although Myanmar has long sold North Korea weapons — it has assured the U.S. in recent years that it has severed all military ties to North Korea and is abiding by the UN Security Council resolutions against North Korea. There has been considerable evidence to suggest that this is not entirely truthful. Still, selling North Korea the Kh-35s after those assurances have been given would be a particularly egregious provocation.