On Sunday, the South Korean defense ministry confirmed that North Korea had fired five short-range missiles off its eastern coast. While the rogue state is no stranger to missile tests, some analysts are warning that this particular test may signal Pyongyang’s growing capabilities which could prove a threat to Seoul and Washington.
According to a South Korean defense ministry spokesman, the five missiles flew about 125 miles northeast before plunging into the sea. The launch came just a day after North Korea announced its leader Kim Jong-un had witnessed the test firing of a new antiship missile, though the relationship between the two developments is unclear because specifics – like the time and location – were not disclosed as is sometimes the case in the hermit kingdom.
In terms of intentions, the incident itself is very much in line with North Korea’s usual tantrums – even if defense wonks have noted that the pace of the missile testing has been quite high of late. Pyongyang has been known to ratchet up the rhetoric and flex its military might before major bilateral military exercises involving Washington and Seoul, which it regularly condemns as provocations. True to form, it had recently stepped up its own air and naval military drills just as the two allies prepare to hold Key Resolve and Foal Eagle.
North Korea had earlier offered to enter into talks if the allies stopped their exercises, but that suggestion was read as dead on arrival and its usual antics now appear to have resumed. The recent test also dampens hopes of renewed inter-Korean talks which had been initially broached by South Korean president Park Geun-hye. Given the Stalinist dictatorship’s penchant for timing its bluster and brinkmanship, it is also probably no coincidence that the missile launch also occurred so close to the 67th anniversary of the founding of North Korea’s armed forces.
But the more interesting thing about this particular test is what it might tell us about Pyongyang’s capabilities. Experts have noted that the missile looks eerily similar to the KH-35, a Russian anti-ship missile. This would seem to suggest some kind of link between the two countries in this respect, even if it is still not clear how Pyongyang got it or how it was produced. That might raise eyebrows among some, particularly given the recent announcements by top Russian officials about potential military exercises with North Korea and a potential trip by Kim to Moscow – his first official state visit – in May.
The impact of this new anti-ship missile could be significant. Yang Uk, a senior researcher with the Korea Defense and Security Forum, warns that this is another sign that North Korea’s missile ranges are getting longer, and that key allied bases could be increasingly vulnerable as a result. Joseph S. Bermudez, a defense analyst, says it could pose a major threat to South Korean and U.S. navy vessels if it is successfully integrated into North Korea’s navy, and especially if Pyongyang goes on to deploy coastal defense and air-launched versions.
Obviously, these remain big ifs. A missile test alone does not reveal much about how the assets in question will eventually be employed and how effective they might actually be in reality. And as Bermudez is careful to point out, North Korea does not exactly have a stellar history when it comes to the kind of systems integration necessary to fully operationalize the capability. Getting the right sense for where Pyongyang is itself a challenge given that much of its inner workings remain shrouded in secrecy. These uncertainties suggest that while interested parties and observers should remain vigilant about the threat North Korea poses, they should also continue to keep in mind that its actual capabilities may not be as “cutting edge” as its bombastic state media and bold missile tests make them out to be.