North Korea Test Fires New Long Range Cruise Missile With Possible Nuclear Capability

In its first major missile test in several months, North Korea successfully demonstrated the capabilities of a new long range cruise missile in the early hours of September 13th. 

The Pyongyang-based Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) state media outlet stated regarding the test that the missile was "a strategic weapon of great significance" which flew flew 1,500 km before hitting its target and falling into the country's territorial waters.  

Western analysts have since widely speculated that the new missiles could be intended as a delivery vehicle for nuclear warheads, which would complicate missile defence plans for the U.S. and its regional partners that are currently based around countering ballistic missile attacks. North Korea previously demonstrated major progress in cruse missile development in 2017 with the last tests of the Kumsong-3 system before it entered service. 

The Kumsong-3 was a smaller anti-ship missile which deployed conventional warheads, and proved capable of performing complex waypoint manoeuvres and striking with a high degree of precision. 

North Korea has reduced missile testing since 2017, with the new cruise missile being only the second test of a strategic weapon since then the first being the test of the Pukkuksong-3 submarine launched ballistic missile in early October 2019. Pyongyang notably hinted at tests to modernise its nuclear arsenal shortly after the new year in January.

North Korea’s newly tested weapon represents its first cruise missile designated a strategic role, and could serve to heavily compensate for a modern air force with precision strike capabilities as a more survivable and cost effective alternative to purchasing strike fighters from abroad. Although conventional weapons can at times be considered strategic in their impact, the term is more often used to refer to nuclear weapons which has been interpreted as an indication than the new cruise missile has been designed for nuclear delivery. 

As cruise missiles tend to carry smaller warheads than ballistic missiles, this could indicate significant progress by North Korea’s defence sector in nuclear warhead miniaturisation. The U.S. Military's Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) strong criticised the new weapons test, stating: "This activity highlights (North Korea's) continuing focus on developing its military program and the threats that poses to its neighbours and the international community.” North Korea and the United States have been technically at war for over 70 years, and the U.S. has consistently strongly opposed any steps by Pyongyang to modernise its military capabilities.

The new cruise missile test was reported by KCNA to have been carried out by the Academy of National Defense Science. The test had “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 elaborated, with pictures of the new missile and its launcher released. 

The launch vehicle appears to be derived from that used for new rocket artillery systems, which were first unveiled in 2019. The possibility of advanced cruise missiles being deployed from submarines or even from aircraft remains considerable in future. Jeffrey Lewis, a missile researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, stated regarding the weapons test: "This is another system that is designed to fly under missile defence radars or around them.” The test closely follows celebrations of National Day in the East Asian state on September 9th, and could potentially be followed by further weapons tests in the coming months including strategic ballistic missiles - an kind of asset which has not been tested since November 2017.

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