Tensions are rekindling between the United States and North Korea. Pyongyang announced on Monday via its official news agency KCNA that it had successfully carried out test firing of a new “long-range cruise missile” on Saturday and Sunday. While the previous North Korean fire in March in the Sea of Japan had already been interpreted as a sign of defiance against the administration of US President Joe Biden, Washington has again expressed its concern.
“This activity underlines the continued development by North Korea of its nuclear program and the threats that this poses to its neighbors and the international community,” the Pentagon reacted in a statement.
A “deterrent weapon”
The missiles, of which KCNA published photos, traveled a trajectory of 1,500 kilometers, before reaching their target, not specified by the agency, which evokes “strategic weapons of great importance”. “The effectiveness of this weapon system has confirmed its excellence,” said the official North Korean agency, celebrating a “weapon of deterrence” intended to “counter the military maneuvers of hostile forces.”
The South Korean military, which is usually the primary source of information on North Korean fire, did not confirm the fire at first. “Our soldiers are conducting a detailed analysis, in close cooperation with South Korean and American intelligence,” the South Korean army reacted cautiously.
A technological advance and a considerable threat
These long-range cruise missiles, if confirmed to have them, would represent a technological breakthrough for North Korea, analysts said. As described, this missile “poses a considerable threat,” worries Park Won-gon, a specialist in North Korea at Ewha Womans University. “If the North has sufficiently miniaturized the heads of its nuclear missiles, they can also be loaded on cruise missiles”, he speculates, fearing new tests, “very likely”.
Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute for International Studies is also worried about a new type of missile capable of hitting targets in South Korea and Japan. “It’s a new system, made to go under anti-missile defense radars,” he worries.
“Japan is very concerned”
The resumption of test firing is a response to joint exercises by the South Korean and US armies last month, Park Won-gon believes. The Pyongyang maneuver also comes days after South Korea announced a test launch of a strategic sea-to-surface ballistic missile (MSBS) of its own manufacture.
For Japan, a missile of such range “would present a threat to the peace and security of Japan and the surrounding region”. “Japan is very concerned,” government spokesman Katsunobu Kato told reporters.
Unalterable Kim Jong Un
North Korea had nevertheless given signs of goodwill, with last week a parade of tractors and fire trucks rather than the usual tanks and missiles, for its third parade in less than a year, at the occasion of the anniversary of the founding of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the official name of the northern peninsula. Pyongyang has used military parades on several occasions in the past to send messages abroad and to its own people, usually on certain birthdays.
Several United Nations Security Council resolutions prohibit North Korea from continuing its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. But, although hit by multiple international sanctions, this country has rapidly developed its military capabilities in recent years under the leadership of Kim Jong Un.
The United States desperately want a meeting
North Korea has carried out several nuclear tests and successfully tested ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States. Nuclear talks with Washington have been suspended since the failure of the Hanoi summit in February 2019 between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump. Current US President Joe Biden’s representative for North Korea has repeatedly expressed his willingness to meet his North Korean counterparts “anywhere, anytime.” The Biden administration has promised a “practical, calibrated approach,” with diplomatic efforts to induce Pyongyang to abandon its weapons program, which North Korea has never been ready to do.
At the end of August, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had reported “signs” indicating that North Korea seemed to have restarted its reactor producing plutonium in the Yongbyon nuclear complex. The IAEA had estimated that the signs of operation of the reactor were “deeply disturbing”.