Los Angeles Times

North Korea arms tests renew worries

Long-range missiles may threaten rivals in region, experts say, but the launches also suggest tech issues.

- By Kim Tong-hyung Kim writes for the Associated Press.

SEOUL — North Korea says it successful­ly tested what it described as new long-range cruise missiles over the weekend, renewing concerns that Pyongyang is building its capacity to deliver strikes on U.S. allies South Korea and Japan.

Experts weigh in on what the missiles tests show about the ambitions of the North’s isolated ruler, Kim Jong Un, and whether this signals a new threat.

The missiles’ design

Experts say the projectile­s launched over the weekend appear to resemble U.S. Tomahawk cruise missiles and are probably designed to overwhelm the missile defenses of North Korea’s neighbors.

The North said the missiles it described as “new type long-range cruise missiles” were a “strategic weapon of great significan­ce” that met leader Kim’s call to strengthen his country’s military might — implying that they were being developed with an intent to carry nuclear weapons.

Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency said Monday that the missiles traveled for 126 minutes along “oval and pattern-8 flight orbits” above land and water, demonstrat­ing an ability to hit targets 932 miles away.

Although North Korea had tested anti-ship cruise missiles before, the ones from its latest tests are probably built with different designs and engines that provide improved range and maneuverab­ility, experts say.

A new threat

Although data from the tests are so far limited, it’s clear the new missiles represent “another significan­t milestone for North Korea’s nuclear program,” said Melissa Hanham, an affiliate at Stanford’s Center for Internatio­nal Security and Cooperatio­n.

North Korea’s rulers are probably moving toward putting their cruise missiles on submarines and other naval vessels, Hanham added, as they try producing new delivery mechanisms for nuclear weapons.

“Cruise missiles are almost like little airplanes — they can be very accurate,” Hanham said. “They can turn corners. They can go into valleys where radars would not see them easily. It would be a much more difficult problem for South Korea and Japan to monitor.”

Seoul, Washington and Tokyo said they were examining the North’s latest tests but didn’t immediatel­y release specific assessment­s from their militaries.

Regional ambitions

Kim has unilateral­ly halted North Korean testing of nuclear bombs and longrange ballistic missiles designed to target the American homeland since 2018, when he initiated diplomacy with then-President Trump while attempting to leverage his arsenal for sanctions relief.

However, the North continues to pursue a policy threatenin­g regional confrontat­ion.

Although Kim has maintained the suspension on nuclear and long-range tests even after his talks with Trump collapsed in 2019, the North has since tested a growing arsenal of shortrange solid-fuel weapons fired from land-based launchers.

Experts say those weapons threaten South Korea and Japan because they can be launched quickly from vehicles and travel in flattened trajectori­es that make them harder for defense systems to detect and intercept.

Tech problems

Although the new cruise missiles potentiall­y expand North Korea’s capacities to attack its Asian rivals, the informatio­n released by the official news agency signaled a need for technologi­cal improvemen­ts, said Lee Choon-geun, a missile expert and honorary research fellow at South Korea’s Science and Technology Policy Institute.

The weapons were slow, even by the standard of cruise missiles, traveling at roughly 218 yards per second. It’s also unclear whether North Korea has precise computeriz­ed data of South Korea’s geographic­al features or an ability to communicat­e that informatio­n to its missiles so that they could navigate the terrain and find their targets.

Accuracy issues will matter less if the North acquires the ability to arm the missiles with miniaturiz­ed nuclear warheads, Lee added.

“South Korea probably has the tightest air defense network in the world, but it will still be difficult to respond if North Korea fires its artillery, low-flying shortrange missiles, submarinel­aunched missiles and cruise missiles in large numbers all at once,” Lee said.

Kim’s bluff ?

The North’s latest tests came before President Biden’s special representa­tive for North Korea, Sung Kim, was to meet his South Korean and Japanese counterpar­ts in Tokyo this week to discuss the stalled nuclear diplomacy with North Korea.

In his recent political speeches, Kim has vowed to bolster his nuclear deterrent while his government rejected the Biden administra­tion’s overture for talks, urging Washington to abandon its “hostile” policies first.

Kim, however, may be looking to angle his way back to the negotiatin­g table, as he faces perhaps his toughest test in his almost decadelong rule, with North Korea maintainin­g an indefinite border lockdown amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and no prospect in sight of an end to internatio­nal sanctions.

Although the cruise missiles were a statement of defiance toward Washington, the tests possibly indicated that the North is struggling with more provocativ­e weapons systems such as submarine-launched ballistic missiles, said Du-hyeogn Cha, an analyst at Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

He questioned whether North Korea’s cruise missiles would meaningful­ly increase its striking capacity unless the North demonstrat­es an ability to fire them from underwater.

“If North Korea had that ability, it surely would have displayed it by now,” Cha said.

“It’s possible that the North might have hit a wall technologi­cally and is squeezing out what it can,” he added.

 ?? Lee Jin-man Associated Press ?? PEOPLE IN SEOUL watch a news segment Monday on North Korea’s weekend weapons testing. Experts say the North’s rulers are probably moving toward putting their cruise missiles on submarines and other vessels.
Lee Jin-man Associated Press PEOPLE IN SEOUL watch a news segment Monday on North Korea’s weekend weapons testing. Experts say the North’s rulers are probably moving toward putting their cruise missiles on submarines and other vessels.

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