Pyongyang tests first possibly nuclear-capable cruise missile

Test shows N. Korea's progress in weapons programme amid stalled denuclearisation talks

PYONGYANG • North Korea carried out successful tests of a new long-range cruise missile over the weekend, state media said, with analysts seeing this as possibly the country's first such weapon with a nuclear capability.

The missile is "a strategic weapon of great significance" and flew 1,500km before hitting its targets and falling into the country's territorial waters during tests on Saturday and Sunday, the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said yesterday.

The latest test highlighted steady progress in Pyongyang's weapons programme amid gridlock over talks aimed at dismantling its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes in return for United States sanctions relief. The talks have stalled since 2019.

North Korea's cruise missiles usually generate less interest than ballistic missiles because they are not explicitly banned under United Nations Security Council resolutions.

"This would be the first cruise missile in North Korea to be explicitly designated a 'strategic' role," said Mr 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.

The two Koreas have been locked in an accelerating weapons race that analysts fear will leave the region littered with powerful missiles.

South Korea's military did not disclose whether it had detected the North's latest tests, but said yesterday that it was conducting a detailed analysis in cooperation with the US. The US military's Indo-Pacific Command (Indopacom) said it was aware of the reports and was coordinating with its allies.

"This activity highlights (North Korea's) continuing focus on developing its military programme and the threats that poses to its neighbours and the international community," Indopacom said.

Rodong Sinmun, the ruling Workers' Party's official newspaper, ran photos of the new 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.

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.

Dr Jeffrey Lewis, a missile researcher at the James Martin Centre for Nonproliferation Studies, said intermediate-range land-attack cruise missiles were no less a threat than ballistic missiles and were a pretty serious capability.

"This is another system designed to fly under missile defence radars or around them," he tweeted.

Cruise missiles and short-range ballistic missiles that can be armed with either conventional or nuclear bombs are particularly destabilising during conflicts as it can be unclear which kind of warhead they are carrying, analysts said.

Japan is "concerned" over reports of missile testing, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said yesterday. He added that the Japanese government will continue to work closely with the US and South Korea to monitor the situation.

Mr Kim did not appear to have attended the test, with KCNA saying Mr 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 US and South Korea of "hostile policy" towards it.

In recent weeks, South Korea became the first non-nuclear state to develop and test a submarine-launched ballistic missile.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 14, 2021, with the headline 'Pyongyang tests first possibly nuclear-capable cruise missile'. Subscribe