North Korea test-fires long-range cruise missile amid stalled talks with US

A North Korean flag flies on a mast at the Permanent Mission of North Korea in Geneva, on Oct 2, 2014.
PHOTO: Reuters

SEOUL - North Korea carried out successful tests of a new long-range cruise missile over the weekend, state media said on Monday (Sept 13), seen by analysts as possibly the country’s first such weapon with a nuclear capability.

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 held on Saturday and Sunday, KCNA said.

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

“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 US-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “This is a common euphemism for nuclear-capable system.”

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

South Korea’s military did not disclose whether it had detected the tests, but said on Monday it was conducting a detailed analysis in cooperation with the United States.

Rodong Sinmun, the ruling Workers’ Party’s official newspaper, ran photos of the new long-range 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 manoeuvres of the hostile forces,” KCNA said.

“In this course, detailed tests of missile parts, scores of engine ground thrust tests, various flight tests, control and guidance tests, warhead power tests etc. were conducted with success.”

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 US President Joe Biden took office in late January.

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

“That’s not because ballistic missiles are somehow more threatening than cruise missiles,” Jeffrey Lewis, a missile researcher at the James Martin Centre for Nonproliferation Studies, said on Twitter. “It’s because the architects of the resolutions lacked the imagination of Kim Jong-un and his Academy of Defense Sciences.”

Serious capability

An intermediate-range land-attack cruise missile is a pretty serious capability for North Korea, Lewis said. “This is another system that is designed to fly under missile defense radars or around them.”

Kim Jong-un did not appear to have attended the test, with KCNA saying Pak Jong-chon, a member of the Workers’ Party’s powerful politburo and a secretary of its central committee, oversaw it.

The reclusive North has long accused the United States and South Korea of “hostile policy” toward Pyongyang.

The unveiling of the test came just a day before chief nuclear negotiators from the United States, South Korea and Japan meet in Tokyo to explore ways to break the standoff with North Korea.

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China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, is also scheduled to visit Seoul on Tuesday for talks with his counterpart, Chung Eui-yong.

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 US 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 as annual South Korea-US military exercises began last month, which Pyongyang had warned could trigger a security crisis.