SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA – North Korea has conducted its first missile test in about six months. The long-range cruise missile being tested could give Pyongyang another way to evade its neighbors’ missile defenses, say analysts.
The “newly-developed long-range cruise missiles” flew 1,500 kilometers over North Korean territory before successfully hitting their targets, North Korean state media reported Monday.
The reports did not say how many missiles were tested, but said the tests occurred Saturday and Sunday.
Pictures posted in North Korean state media showed one of the cruise missiles being fired from a five-canister, road-mobile launcher that appeared to be parked on a highway.
Several analysts said the missile appeared visually similar to the U.S. Tomahawk, a nuclear-capable cruise missile with a range of about 1,600 kilometers.
The cruise missile test appears to be less provocative than a long-range or intercontinental ballistic missile launch, which would involve technology that could target the mainland United States.
But the launch will still serve as a test for U.S. President Joe Biden, who has said he is open to both diplomacy and additional economic pressure on North Korea.
Designed to evade
U.S. and South Korean officials, who usually detect and report North Korean missile tests shortly after they occur, did not publish statements until after the North Korean state media announcement.
In a statement, the U.S. military said it was aware of the reported launches and is monitoring and consulting closely with its allies and partners.
“This activity highlights DPRK’s continuing focus on developing its military program and the threats that poses to its neighbors and the international community,” the statement read.
In a statement to VOA, South Korea’s military confirmed the launch, saying it is conducting a “detailed analysis in close coordination with South Korean and U.S. intelligence agencies.”
It is North Korea’s first known missile launch since March, when it also appeared to test cruise missile technology. That test was only confirmed by U.S. officials after the first reports of the test appeared in The Washington Post.
Cruise missiles are harder to detect than the ballistic missiles typically launched by North Korea, since they fly at a relatively low altitude and can be controlled in-flight.
“This is another system that is designed to fly under missile defense radars or around them,” Jeffrey Lewis, an expert in nuclear nonproliferation with the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, said on Twitter.
North Korean state media referred to the cruise missiles as “strategic,” implying a nuclear capability. Some defense experts are not sure whether that statement reflects current or eventual capabilities.
“While you could say the missile will be nuclear capable, there is no known North Korean warhead for it yet,” said Melissa Hanham, an affiliate with the Stanford Center for International Security and Cooperation.
Hanham stressed that she has not yet conducted analysis to estimate the size of the missile, but it does not appear North Korea has a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on it.
“They are certainly claiming to have a new cruise missile with a range and look similar to the U.S. Tomahawk,” Hanham said.
A range of 1,500 kilometers would mean that the new North Korean cruise missiles could reach all of South Korea and most of Japan.
The missile represents another lethal component in North Korea’s missile arsenal, which has significantly expanded since 2019, when Pyongyang resumed major weapons tests.
Since then, North Korea appears to have test-fired at least five types of new missiles — mostly short-range ballistic missiles also designed to evade its neighbor’s defenses.
North Korea has not conducted an intercontinental ballistic missile or nuclear test since 2017, though Pyongyang has at times hinted it may do so.
In January 2020, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un announced he no longer felt bound by his self-imposed moratorium on long-range ballistic missile and nuclear tests.
That moratorium was put in place during the diplomacy between Kim and former U.S. President Donald Trump.
Trump repeatedly downplayed North Korea’s short-range launches. Biden, too, in March, shrugged off North Korea’s cruise missile test, calling it “business as usual.”
Biden has not yet responded to the North’s latest test.
Under United Nations Security Council resolutions, North Korea is prohibited from any ballistic missile activity. Although those resolutions do not mention cruise missile technology, some analysts say the latest tests could still receive a tough U.S. response, given the missiles’ possible nuclear capability.
“If that is the case, then the test is deserving of an international effort to strengthen sanctions,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
Negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea broke down in 2019 over disagreements on how to pace sanctions relief with steps to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program.
The Biden administration has repeatedly said it is open to resuming talks with North Korea, but for now North Korea’s focus appears elsewhere.
For the past year and a half, North Korea has imposed a strict pandemic lockdown, sealing its borders, cutting imports, and restricting domestic travel.