EXPLAINED: Why North Korea Is Stepping Up On Missile Tests, What's The Strength Of Its Arsenal

·6-min read

It is one of the poorest countries of the world and faces a deepening economic and humanitarian crisis amid the Covid-19 pandemic. But that has not stopped North Korea from moving ahead with its weapons programme, which is advanced enough to have the international community alarmed every time it test fires a new missile. In the first two weeks of September 2021 it tested one cruise and two ballistic missiles. Here’s what you need to know.

What Are The Missiles It Has Tested?

The South Korean military reported that North Korea had fired two missiles into the sea off its east coast on September 15, days after the country conducted a test of a long-range cruise missile. The pair that was tested on the heels of the cruise missile are reported to be ballistic missiles. United Nations (UN) sanctions prohibit North Korea from testing ballistic missiles, but cruise missiles are not banned.

Ballistic missiles are seen as being more destructive and capable of travelling longer distances than cruise missiles, which have a more controlled flight path and travel slower than ballistic missiles.

A statement from the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said “two unidentified ballistic missiles” were fired from the central region of North Korea into the sea, while the Japanese Coast Guard, too, reported that an object had landed outside its exclusive economic zone.

“The firings threaten the peace and safety of Japan and the region and are absolutely outrageous. The government of Japan is determined to further step up our vigilance and surveillance to be prepared for any contingencies,” Japanese PM Yoshihide Suga is quoted as having said in reaction to the missile test.

Earlier this week, North Korea had also tested a long-range cruise missile that had a range of about 1,500km and which, experts say, is likely capable of being fitted with a nuclear warhead.

What Explains The Flurry Of Missile Tests?

Following the cruise missile test on September 13, the state-run KCNA news agency in North Korea said it was “a strategic weapon of great significance” and that it had been two years under development and is in keeping with a five-year plan laid out by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at the 8th Congress of the Workers’ Party held in January this year “for the development of… defence science and the weapon system”.

Experts said that “strategic weapon” may imply a nuclear connection. The cruise missile that was tested “mark(s) the first claimed nuclear-capable cruise missile in North Korea’s inventory, underscoring its nuclear arsenal’s continued advances and the country’s growing number of nuclear delivery options,” Ankit Panda, a Carnegie Endowment researcher was quoted as saying by South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.

KCNA said the successful cruise missile test gives North Korea “another effective deterrence means for more reliably guaranteeing the security of our state and strongly containing the military manoeuvres of the hostile forces against the DPRK”.

But experts say that more than deterrence value, the significance of these tests may lie in the message Pyongyand wants to send out through them, which is to get the US back at the talks table.

What Is The Status Of Anti-Nuclear Talks?

South Korea — which carried out a test of its own of a submarine-launched ballistic missile hours before the North Korean test — and Japan are both wary neighbours who have much to worry about vis-a-vis North Korea’s nuclear weapons, advanced missiles programme and its proximity to China.

The two nations, along with their ally US, have long pressured Pyongyang to drop its nuclear weapons programme, but have met with little success. US President Joe Biden’s predecessor in the White House, Donald Trump, had reached out to Kim in 2019, also meeting him for a summit, but the talks did not progress much.

The stalemate in 2019 had come after the US refused to accept Pyongyang’s offer to only partially dismantle its nuclear facilities in exchange for sanctions relief. That had seen North Korea go back to exploring weapons and nuclear development with a recent report by nuclear watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) saying the country had also revived its main nuclear complex after a years-long gap.

But experts say that more than weapons, what North Korea needs at the moment is international assistance because of the blows that its economy has suffered due to Covid-19 and floods amid the pandemic. While the country has not reported a single case of Covid-19 — which is attributed to its move to strictly seal its borders last year — the decline in trade with the likes of China, its biggest trading partner due to the Covid curbs means the country is staring at a grave economic crisis. Further, floods last year also hit its domestic food production capabilities. By flexing its military muscle, experts say, it is inviting the US to again engage with it so that it can pitch for concessions in return for anti-nuclear actions.

However, the Biden administration — Pyongyang also conducted a cruise missile test hours after the Democrat president’s swearing-in in January this year — has refused to play ball and said that it would not take any special steps to engage with it. That has seen North Korea, too, harden its stand, with Kim reportedely having asked his officials to prepare for both “dialogue and confrontation” with Washington.

In fact, the tests carried out by Pyongyang coincided with a visit to Tokyo by White House’s North Korea envoy to meet Japanese and South Korean officials and discuss ways to end the diplomatic standoff, reports said. The fresh tests are expected to provide a further push in that direction.

What Are Its Missile Capabilities?

To be sure, these are not the first cruise or ballistic missiles tested by North Korea. It has by now got ballistic missiles that can hit the US mainland and cover all of Japan while its military build-up on the border with South Korea remains a constant source of tensions with Seoul and Washington.

Reports say that through much of 2017, Pyongyang carried out multiple tests of long-range missiles that showed to the world the strides made by its weapons programme. It has in its arsenal the Hwasong-12 missile — which, with a range of 4,500km, brings US military bases on the Pacific island of Guam within striking distance — while the Hwasong-14 has a range of between 8,000-10,000km, which means it can fly as far as New York.

It has also tested the Hwasong-15, which BBC says “if fired on a more conventional ‘flatter’ trajectory… could have a maximum range of some 13,000km, putting all of the continental US in range”.

Then, late last year, it is reported to have tested a ballistic missile that experts say may be able to carry multiple warheads.

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