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North Korea “successfully tested” new long-range cruise missiles over the weekend, state media reported Monday, its first low-flying missiles capable of hitting targets in Japan.
Pyongyang has tested numerous ballistic missile systems in the past, but the new cruise missiles are much smaller and harder to defend against, analysts told RFA.
“The launched long-range cruise missiles traveled for 7,580 seconds [two hours, six minutes, 20 seconds] along an oval and pattern-8 flight orbits in the air above the territorial land and waters of the DPRK and hit targets 1,500 kilometers [932 miles] away,” the state-run Korea Central News Agency Reported.
“The 1,500-km range means that it can hit the entire Korean Peninsula and even U.S. military bases in Japan,” Jeong Chang-wook, head of the South-Korea based Korea Defense Research Forum, told RFA’s Korean Service Monday.
“If there is a move to reinforce the Korean Peninsula, it can be seen that North Korea can strike U.S. bases in Japan without hesitation,” Jeong said.
But it remains unclear if North Korea is capable of building smaller nuclear warheads that could be mounted on the new missiles.
“That turns on miniaturization and the miniaturization question turns on whether or not North Korea is actually able to create H-bombs, fusion weapons,” Bruce Bennett, a researcher at the California-based RAND Corporation think tank, told RFA’s Korean Service Monday.
“And so, the question is, can they physically create a nuclear weapon that is small enough to go on this weapon, on this cruise missile, both in terms of the size of the nuclear weapon and its weight?” Bennet said.
David Maxwell of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies told RFA that North Korea might lack the technological skill to miniaturize its nuclear payloads, but said the new missiles appeared to be a “capable system.”
“This is a low flying cruise missile perhaps similar to a U.S. tomahawk missile, but I have to wait for the intelligence analysis to be sure,” Maxwell said.
“THAAD and Patriot PAC 3 missiles cannot defend against it since it is very low flying. It can be shot down by aircraft and other short range air defense weapons,” he said.
The news about the tests came a day before the U.S., South Korea, and Japan are scheduled to meet in Tokyo to discuss strategies to overcome stalled denuclearization negotiations with Pyongyang.
The analysts were divided on the effects that the tests might have future negotiations.
“This launch doesn’t help nuclear talks, but the ball is in the U.S. court in how it wants to handle this,” Ken Gause of the Virginia-based CNA thinktank said.
“If it decides to punish North Korea, it will show that the lines set down by the Trump administration have changed and it will set back talks,” he said.
Robert Einhorn, a former U.S. Department of State special advisor for nonproliferation and arms control, told RFA that the test would not derail efforts to bring Pyongyang to the negotiating table.
“The main reason for the test was North Korea’s desire to diversify and expand the nuclear and missile threat it poses to its neighbors. In addition to its ballistic missile capabilities, it now has tested a cruise missile that can reach much of Japan,” Einhorn said.
The RAND Corporation’s Soo Kim told RFA that the tests were a display of new weapons capabilities that would get the attention of the U.S.
“We’re seeing [North Korea’s] “portfolio” becoming fuller and more diverse. It’s unclear whether North Korea had intended for this, but the missile test basically allows North Korea to keep pressing its finger into our sides and reminds us of its growing nuclear and missile threat,” she said.
The tests follow a “well-established pattern where Kim increases the pressure on Biden to engage and accept a limited nuclear deal,” said Anthony Ruggiero, former deputy assistant to the President for National Security Affairs.
“The Biden administration should respond with issuing the first North Korea sanctions of his presidency to address Kim’s continued development of these programs,” he said.
North Korea may strategically engage in provocations following this test, Kim Hyung-wook of the South-Korea-based Korean National Diplomatic Academy told RFA.
“North Korea continues to develop medium-range and long-range strategic weapons. There is also a demand to keep testing,” said Kim Hyung-wook.
“North Korea will try to choose a point in time to align this with its foreign strategy, which must be done at some point in the timetable for weapons development,” he said.
The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command released a statement Monday saying the tests highlighted North Korea’s “continuing focus on developing its military program and the threats that poses to its neighbors and the international community,” and reaffirmed Washington’s defense commitments to Seoul and Tokyo.
A spokesperson for the EU, meanwhile told RFA that the missile launches went against “international efforts and willingness to resume dialogue and engage in actions to help the people of that country.”
“We call on the DPRK to respond constructively to the readiness for diplomacy expressed by the United States and the Republic of Korea and engage in a sustained diplomatic process aimed at building trust,” the spokesperson said.
Maxwell criticized North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for testing missiles while blaming the country’s worsening economic situation and food shortages on external factors like international nuclear sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic.
“It is Kim’s deliberate decision making to prioritize his nuclear and missile programs and military modernization over the welfare of the people… The bottom line is Kim is the biggest cause of his own problem and he is solely responsible for the suffering of the Korean people,” Maxwell said.
North Korea’s cruise missile tests came less than a week after South Korea became the first non-nuclear power to successfully test a submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM).
Korean War hostilities ended in a 1953 armistice agreement, but the two Koreas remain technically at war as no peace treaty has ever been signed.
Reported by Soyoung Kim, Albert Hong, Sangmin Lee, Do Hyung Han and Yong Jae Mok for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun and Jinha Shin. Written in English by Eugene Whong.