- North Korea has tested a new long-range cruise missile, which appears to be a step towards developing a nuclear-capable cruise missile that would enhance survivability and increase the sophistication of its overall nuclear forces.
- The timing represents a complementary demonstration of strength to the 9 September Foundation Day military parade and is also a response to South Korea's recent submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) test, but may also indicate underlying domestic problems.
- Pyongyang is still leaving the door open to diplomacy by testing this rather than a nuclear or inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) test, but may also be ramping up pressure on the US, though the once-bitten Biden Korea team appears reluctant to (re-)engage despite words to the contrary.
North Korea's state news agency KCNA reported that the missile successfully struck a target 1500km away, a range that would put Tokyo within reach. While it involved a conventional warhead on this occasion, the test appears to be a step towards developing a land-based nuclear-capable cruise missile, which would enhance survivability and add sophistication to North Korea's overall nuclear forces, at a time when its outdated conventional force capabilities are becoming obsolete. The Kim Jong-un regime is also believed to be developing a new SLBM and two 3000-ton ballistic missile submarines (SSBs), twice as large as the single ballistic missile capable vessel it currently possesses. The most recent commercial satellite imagery from the Sinpo South shipyard indicates no current activity of note in this area, but the country retains the capability to test such a missile at relatively short notice.
The ongoing arms race on the peninsula is driving the testing of increasingly advanced weapons systems on both sides of the parallel, but in addition to the practical technological development aspects this test also serves other purposes. It provides a complementary demonstration of the country's strength following the slightly scaled-back Foundation Day military parade on 9 September, an event at which ballistic missiles were notably absent. It is also a rejoinder to South Korea's propaganda victory last week when it successfully launched a 500km-range conventional SLBM from its silent-running Dosan Ahn Chang-ho submarine, which gives Seoul a credible second-strike capability against Pyongyang. The US decision at May's Biden-Moon summit to terminate guidelines including an 800km missile strike range limit was greeted in South Korea as the return of “missile sovereignty,” and will put the country's ballistic missile and space exploration industries on an upward trajectory going forward.
At the same time, the 12 September test was the first major action in some time by North Korea, following more minor missile tests back in January and March. The North reacted with nothing more than angry statements after last month's US-South Korea joint naval exercises. This uncharacteristic silence from the Kim regime could indicate the extent of problems on the domestic front due to the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic. Last year's decision to largely shut the border with China helped delay the transmission of the virus into a country with very little real healthcare infrastructure, but came at a high economic cost, including trade falling around 90% year-on-year. With Kim admitting in July that the virus was now present in the country, the pressures on healthcare and shortages of food and hard currency may now be ramping up. At best, North Korea is expected to receive coverage for only around 10% of its population by year-end through the international COVAX program, so the challenges of the pandemic are likely to continue for the regime well into 2022.
In diplomatic terms, Kim's choice to showcase a cruise missile rather than undertake a more provocative nuclear or ICBM test could be a way of leaving the door open for future engagement, while starting to dial up the pressure. This week, representatives of the United States, South Korea, and Japan are holding three days of meetings in Tokyo to discuss strategy and cooperation in relation to North Korea, while China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi is also due to visit Seoul for talks with counterpart Chung Eui-yong. North Korea may also be on the agenda at the upcoming Quad summit at the White House on 24 September.
However, despite words to the contrary, it seems unlikely that the Biden administration wants major diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang at this point, let alone the easing of sanctions. Many of President Biden's Korea hands are veterans of the Obama administration's ill-starred 2012 deal with Kim, which subsequently collapsed when North Korea resumed rocket launches and nuclear testing, and the team is unenthusiastic about the prospect of a repeat.