North Korea successfully test-launched newly developed long-range cruise missiles over the weekend, according to Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the country’s state-controlled media. The test is an indication that last week’s unusual military parade – during which no new weapons were displayed – does not imply any change in Pyongyang’s hardline stance on negotiations with the United States and South Korea.
KCNA said that the missiles flew 1,500 km for 7,580 seconds (roughly 2 hours and 6 minutes) and hit their intended targets. If true, it means that South Korea and Japan can be easily targeted with the new North Korean cruise missiles.
“The development of the long-range cruise missiles, a strategic weapon, which is of great significance in attaining the main goal of the five-year plan for the development of national defense science and weapons system presented at the Eighth Party Congress, has been promoted according to the scientific and reliable weapon system development process over the past two years,” KCNA said.
KCNA also said that the development of the weapon system is of strategic significance as it is another effective deterrent ensuring the security of North Korea and overpowering the anti-North Korea military moves of so-called hostile forces. The eye-catching point of the test is that it was the North’s first test of long-range cruise missiles that could be “nuclear-capable,” according to the KCNA report.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff and the U.S. military confirmed the test but did not mention whether or not they detected it in advance. Considering both countries were accused of failing to detect the cruise missile launch in March, experts say they might have failed to detect the launch again. It is highly unlikely that existing air defense systems would detect cruise missiles, which are self-propelled, allowing them to fly at lower altitudes and along a straighter path than ballistic missiles.
KCNA claimed that the test successfully proved the effectiveness and practicality of the new weapon system, as the test missiles hit the targets. However, the news report did not mention where the missiles were launched nor what the targets were. The detailed specification of the missiles involved have not been confirmed. Regardless of the lack of information on the North’s newly developed cruise missiles, it is the North certainly has the capability to develop such missiles – and a successful test means Pyongyang can evade the U.S. and South Korea’s current air defense systems.
Mason Richey, a professor of International and Area Studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, told The Diplomat that the North’s newly developed cruise missile is likely capable of carrying a nuclear as well as a conventional warhead.
“Cruise missiles like this one fly low to evade detection by radar and other sensors, which thus provides a greater probability of evading missile defense. It would be therefore be another tool in Pyongyang’s toolkit for putting pressure on combined U.S.-ROK deterrence,” Richey said.
The North test-fired cruise missiles on Saturday and Sunday, when Americans were marking the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks – one of the worst tragedies in U.S. history. It’s notable that North Korea didn’t introduce its new weapons in the military parade on Thursday but chose to wait until September 11. Given that timing, this launch was arguably aimed purely at showing North Korea’s intention and motivation toward negotiations with the United States.
“North Korea prefers to enter negotiations from a position of leverage, so having this additional capability in the background of any overture to talks would, in Pyongyang’s likely perception, give it greater strength and allow it to drive a harder bargain,” Richey said.
It is also notable that the North test-launched cruise missiles, which are not covered by U.N. sanctions on the country and thus tend to provoke a less urgent response than ballistic missile tests.
North Korea has made clear that it will never come back to the negotiating table unless the U.S. makes concessions, including removing “unclear” hostile policies. Even though Sung Kim, the U.S. special envoy on North Korea, has consistently mentioned that he will be willing to sit down with his North Korean counterparts anytime, anywhere, with no preconditions, Pyongyang has been adamant in rejecting every message from Washington and Seoul since the failed Hanoi Summit in 2019.
The failed round of summit diplomacy between Washington and Pyongyang stalled inter-Korean dialogues as well, and that changed perceptions among South Koreans over the way to negotiate with North Korea. Unlike President Moon Jae-in’s Korea Peace Initiative, which shuns military coercion, South Korean analysts have started seriously considering the redeployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to Korean soil as an effective bargaining chip for denuclearization.
According to a poll by Asan Institute for Policy Studies, an independent think tank based in South Korea, nearly 70 percent of respondents supported developing an indigenous nuclear capability, while 61 percent supported reintroducing tactical nuclear weapons.
The South Korean government has a long-pending plan to take wartime operational control (currently held by U.S. Forces Korea) and develop more advanced weapons. But a growing number of South Koreans believe national security against the North’s nuclear weapons can only be guaranteed through the reintroduction of tactical nuclear weapons, even though the U.S. has been providing invisible “nuclear umbrella” since withdrawing its nuclear missiles from South Korean in 1991. There is increasing skepticism that economic sanctions alone can be a powerful bargaining chip when the North has nuclear weapons and the South does not.
However, as North Korea has not violated the “red lines” of the United States, there is little likelihood of the U.S. redeploying tactical nuclear weapons to the South’s territory for the time being, even as North Korea continues to develop more advanced missiles.
“The cruise missile launch does not constitute a serious military provocation, which usually indicates ICBM [intercontinental-range ballistic missile] or nuclear tests,” said Kim Young-jun, a professor of Korea National Defense University and a member of the National Security Advisory Board for the Presidential Blue House, in an interview with The Diplomat.
Kim also said that such a missile launch could take place again but predicted that the North would not make significant military provocations between now and early 2022, when China will be looking to host a successful Olympics.
“North Korea is likely expected to accept the prolonged ‘cold peace’ for a while as it is banned from participating in the Beijing Winter Olympics,” Kim said.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is going to visit Seoul on Wednesday and will meet with his South Korean counterpart, Chung Eui-yong. Also, the special envoys of the U.S., South Korea, and Japan on North Korea are going to gather in Tokyo on Tuesday to reaffirm trilateral cooperation on North Korea issues. As bilateral negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang have stalled, it is time for neighboring countries to reactivate multilateral cooperation, including four-party talks or six-party talks, to settle a permanent détente on the Korean Peninsula.