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New Cruise Missile Gives North Korea Lethal Capability

The long-range weapon could strike South Korea, Japan, and U.S. bases in the region.

North Korean missile launch
People watch a South Korean television program showing a North Korean missile launch at the Seoul Railway Station on Sept. 15. Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

When North Korea fired two ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan on Wednesday, it wasn’t just a violation of multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions. The launches also come on the heels of reports this past weekend that the Kim Jong Un regime conducted successful tests of a new long-range cruise missile. While North Korean ballistic missiles are nothing new, last weekend’s news appears to demonstrate that Pyongyang now possesses a cruise missile capability that it could use to conduct long-range and difficult-to-detect conventional or potentially nuclear strikes against South Korea, Japan, or U.S. military bases in the region.

The development of the cruise missile system by North Korea’s U.S.-sanctioned Academy of National Defense Science is just the latest concerning example of the proliferation of cruise missile capabilities around the world. This trend underscores the need to enforce and strengthen sanctions against North Korea and to accelerate delivery of improved cruise missile defenses to U.S. and allied forces.

North Korea’s new system appears to be a land-attack cruise missile, meaning it is intended to strike ground rather than maritime targets. Based on pictures from the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), North Korea’s state media service, the cruise missile was launched from a mobile container and may have employed a solid-fuel booster, which is not uncommon. The projectile’s shape, with its rounded nosecone, swept wings, engine inlet, three tail fins, and narrowed aft section, bears a close resemblance to other countries’ land-attack cruise missiles. According to KCNA, the missile uses a “newly-developed turbofan engine,” which likely implies that it travels at subsonic speeds. While North Korean state media also touted the missile’s accuracy and guidance capabilities, it is still unknown what specific capabilities the missile might employ to reach its target, such as radar homing or electro-optical navigation.

When North Korea fired two ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan on Wednesday, it wasn’t just a violation of multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions. The launches also come on the heels of reports this past weekend that the Kim Jong Un regime conducted successful tests of a new long-range cruise missile. While North Korean ballistic missiles are nothing new, last weekend’s news appears to demonstrate that Pyongyang now possesses a cruise missile capability that it could use to conduct long-range and difficult-to-detect conventional or potentially nuclear strikes against South Korea, Japan, or U.S. military bases in the region.

The development of the cruise missile system by North Korea’s U.S.-sanctioned Academy of National Defense Science is just the latest concerning example of the proliferation of cruise missile capabilities around the world. This trend underscores the need to enforce and strengthen sanctions against North Korea and to accelerate delivery of improved cruise missile defenses to U.S. and allied forces.

North Korea’s new system appears to be a land-attack cruise missile, meaning it is intended to strike ground rather than maritime targets. Based on pictures from the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), North Korea’s state media service, the cruise missile was launched from a mobile container and may have employed a solid-fuel booster, which is not uncommon. The projectile’s shape, with its rounded nosecone, swept wings, engine inlet, three tail fins, and narrowed aft section, bears a close resemblance to other countries’ land-attack cruise missiles. According to KCNA, the missile uses a “newly-developed turbofan engine,” which likely implies that it travels at subsonic speeds. While North Korean state media also touted the missile’s accuracy and guidance capabilities, it is still unknown what specific capabilities the missile might employ to reach its target, such as radar homing or electro-optical navigation.

The new missile apparently flew a distance of 930 miles in 126 minutes. That range would enable Pyongyang to potentially target every U.S. base in South Korea and Japan. It would also mean the missile is the longest-range cruise missile in North Korea’s arsenal.

Kim is also employing an old script in periodically conducting provocative missile launches in an effort to grab international attention.

“This activity highlights [North Korea’s] continuing focus on developing its military program and the threats that poses to its neighbors and the international community,” U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said in a response to the cruise missile test. The U.S. commitment to defending South Korea and Japan, the statement said, “remains ironclad.”

Underscoring this threat to the United States and its allies, North Korean media called the cruise missile “a strategic weapon”—wording that implies it could be used to deliver a nuclear warhead. That is no idle claim given the fact that the U.S. intelligence community assesses that North Korea possesses dozens of nuclear warheads.

Unlike the ballistic missiles that were reportedly launched from a train on Wednesday, cruise missiles fly low and hug the terrain they traverse, making them more difficult than other missiles for radar to detect. While North Korea’s cruise missiles fly at slower speeds than ballistic missiles, land-attack cruise missiles can fly on an unpredictable flight path, exacerbating detection efforts. Indeed, the North Korean cruise missile reportedly flew in a figure-eight pattern.

Moreover, land-attack missiles need less ground support to launch and can hit their targets from any direction. That creates headaches for some existing missile defense radar systems that do not provide 360-degree radar coverage.

The new land-attack cruise missiles, therefore, provide Pyongyang with a valuable and lethal new capability, diversifying its arsenal of multiple short-range, medium-range, intermediate-range, and even intercontinental ballistic missiles. All these can be used by the Kim regime to threaten and coerce its adversaries.

Existing Security Council resolutions focus on ballistic missiles as the delivery vehicle for a North Korean nuclear weapon. As early as 2006, the Security Council decided that Pyongyang “shall suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile programme” and should “abandon all other existing weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programme in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner.” Not only has that not happened, but North Korea is also now exploiting the lack of an explicit reference to cruise missiles in these resolutions to increase its long-range strike capabilities.

Kim is also employing an old script in periodically conducting provocative missile launches in an effort to grab international attention, extort sanctions relief, and gain economic concessions in return for no genuine progress toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. The United States, as well as its allies and partners, should not fall prey to Kim’s latest gambit.

Conjecture regarding Kim’s motives, however, should not obscure the fact this cruise missile capability significantly increases the threat to U.S. and allied interests in the region.

Accordingly, the Biden administration should adopt new sanctions focused on North Korea’s cruise missiles, while leading a multilateral effort for the Security Council to do the same. Although that step likely won’t deter Pyongyang’s continued development of cruise missiles, it will at least raise the costs for Kim.

More importantly, Pyongyang’s apparent progress in fielding a long-range nuclear-capable cruise missile should serve as another wake-up call for the U.S. Defense Department. Forward-positioned U.S. bases, including those in the Indo-Pacific and Middle East, remain unacceptably vulnerable to cruise missile threats.

A 2020 report by the U.S. National Air and Space Intelligence Center assessed that “[t]he cruise missile threat to US forces is increasing in terms of the number of countries possessing LACMs [land-attack cruise missiles], the total number of LACMs, and the number of LACMs possessing advanced capabilities.”

North Korea’s burgeoning interest in cruise missiles is consistent with efforts by its partner Iran to field increasingly capable cruise missiles. In fact, when Iran struck Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais, it did so with land-attack cruise missiles and drones. A 2019 U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency report on Iran’s military capabilities noted that cruise missiles “present a unique threat profile” compared to ballistic missiles.

The Pentagon should not be surprised if great-power adversaries or rogue states employ cruise missiles against forward-deployed U.S. forces in the future. That’s why the Defense Department must expedite and prioritize efforts to field a next-generation indirect fires protection capability. The new air and missile defense system the U.S. Army is developing with industry will fill a dangerous gap in U.S. capabilities, focusing at least initially on countering unmanned aircraft and cruise missiles.

In the meantime, the U.S. Army can and should deploy, as soon as possible, both of the interim Iron Dome batteries it acquired from Israel to begin to better address cruise missile threats to U.S. forces.

These and other steps can help persuade North Korea and other adversaries that they cannot successfully accomplish their political objectives through military force against the Unites States and its allies.

Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Bradley Bowman is the senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former advisor to members of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees. Twitter: @Brad_L_Bowman

David Maxwell is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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