North Korea has conducted a series of cruise missile tests over the past week, sparking renewed concerns over the country’s advancing weapons capabilities and further escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula.
Recent Cruise Missile Launches
According to South Korean military officials, North Korea test-fired multiple cruise missiles off its east coast on February 2nd. This marks the third round of cruise missile launches by the North in just over a week, after similar tests on January 25th and 29th .
The latest missiles were fired from the area of Kim Chaek city towards the Sea of Japan and traveled approximately 150 kilometers (93 miles), suggesting they are likely short-range weapons . However, North Korea said it had tested “long-range” cruise missiles in its January 31st launch to improve its “war counterattack capability” .
While cruise missiles are not banned under United Nations Security Council resolutions, the recent tests are concerning because they indicate North Korea is continuing to expand and improve its arsenal of delivery systems capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
|North Korea fires 2 cruise missiles into the sea off its east coast
|North Korea says it test-fired cruise missiles from a submarine
|North Korea claims successful test of “long-range” cruise missiles
|North Korea launches multiple cruise missiles off its east coast
Kim Jong Un Oversaw Launches
North Korean state media announced that the country’s leader Kim Jong Un directly oversaw the January 29th submarine-launched cruise missile tests. Photos released by the Korean Central News Agency showed Kim on board a military vessel observing the launches .
This suggests the recent missile activity is likely part of a coordinated plan ordered by Kim to demonstrate and improve North Korea’s military capabilities. Kim also recently called for enhanced war preparedness by the country’s armed forces as he enters his second decade of rule.
Reactions from US and Allies
The United States military condemned North Korea’s “destabilizing” missile tests and called for an immediate halt to such provocations . However, the tests don’t violate UN resolutions and the US has limited options to curb Pyongyang’s weapons development.
South Korea also detected and monitored the recent cruise missile launches, saying it is strengthening its military readiness and coordination with the US to respond to North Korean threats. Japan expressed “grave concerns” over the tests fueling regional tensions.
China, North Korea’s main ally, has not directly commented on the recent missile activity. Some analysts say Beijing’s support emboldens Kim Jong Un to undertake provocative weapons tests to gain leverage in negotiations and extract concessions.
Background and Analysis
After a period of diplomatic engagement with the US and South Korea in 2018-2019, talks between North Korea and the international community have stalled since early 2020. Frustrated over sanctions relief and making little progress on denuclearization, Kim Jong Un is refocusing efforts on boosting North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
The recent cruise missile tests indicate Pyongyang is diversifying its arsenal with smaller, more maneuverable delivery systems that can fly at low altitudes and avoid radar detection. Cruise missiles provide North Korea with an added layer of standoff attack capability that complements its existing ballistic missiles.
North Korea is still working to develop solid-fuel ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), which would enhance surprise attack options against South Korea, Japan, and even US bases in Guam. But the cruise missile tests allow Kim to signal resolve and project an image of strength at home, pressuring the US to ease sanctions while avoiding actions that would trigger major backlash.
Some analysts say the cruise missile launches may presage a resumption of nuclear weapons or long-range ballistic missile testing this year, which North Korea has refrained from since 2017:
“North Korea’s expanded cruise missiles and shorter-range ballistic missiles provide Pyongyang with flexible options to pressure South Korea, Japan and the US…We expect Kim will order nuclear tactical exercises again involving ballistic missiles over Japan and resumption of long-range ballistic missile testing” said Kim Dong-yub, a professor at Kyungnam University’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies in Seoul .
Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said: “The Kim regime’s first military and diplomatic priority is to foil sanctions enforcement by any means necessary. But by ostentatiously highlighting improvements to its missile arsenal, Pyongyang is signaling that it wants to negotiate from a position of strength” .
However other experts think North Korea will avoid an overt nuclear or ICBM test for now:
Ankit Panda, a senior fellow with the US-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said North Korea is unlikely to carry out an unambiguous long-range ballistic missile test or nuclear test for the foreseeable future since that would “elicit a strong response from the Biden admin.” .
Yoji Koda, a former commander in chief of Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force, said the recent cruise missile launches may be North Korea’s way of probing the Biden administration’s policies and posture on Pyongyang’s military activities .
In any case, the cruise missile tests reflect Kim Jong Un’s intent to continue advancing North Korea’s missile technology and pressure the international community. As North Korea’s weapons improve, risks of miscalculation on all sides continue to grow. Unless serious diplomacy resumes soon, Northeast Asia may be headed towards a new cycle of provocation and confrontation.
In the near term, North Korea will likely continue testing new missiles to improve their accuracy, reach and maneuverability – allowing Kim to sharpen his deterrence posture without necessarily triggering major backlash.
However, if the Biden administration does not relax sanctions or reengage diplomatically in coming months, North Korea may take more serious escalatory steps like testing a nuclear device or long-range ballistic missile to force a change in US policy.
Ultimately, lasting security will remain elusive on the Korean peninsula until the core issues driving the North Korean nuclear crisis are resolved through principled negotiations and confidence-building measures between Pyongyang and Washington, supported by North Korea’s neighbors.
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