North Korean Missiles Extend Distance in Military Buildup as U.S. Talks Collapse

North Korea launched a succession of missiles again.

By Katsumi Sawada

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North Korea launched a succession of missiles again.

According to the announcement by North Korea, they “succeeded in the test-firing the long-distance cruise missile” on September 11 and 12. The missiles traveled 1,500 kilometers in an oval and pattern-8 flight orbits in their territorial airspace and hit targets. Then, on September 15, they launched two short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM) toward the Sea of Japan, which landed in the waters within Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

Regular ballistic missiles fly in a simple parabola, but these missiles travelled approximately 750 kilometers (800 kilometers according to North Korea) in an irregular trajectory, rising sharply after a decent.  

An unfamiliar unit called the Railway Mobile Missile Regiment conducted the SRBM launching. My first impression from North Korea’s announcement was that they were testing new technologies. I even had a bad feeling that Pyongyang was about to implement intensive testing of a new weapons system.  

North Korea has launched cruise missiles in the past, but all were within short range. Even Japan’s 2021 white paper on defense that expressed serious caution about North Korea’s military buildup did not mention cruise missiles. So it must have been overlooked. Then, a missile with several-times longer distance appeared out of the blue with almost whole of Japan within its range.

Meanwhile, the notable thing about the ballistic missile was the first use of a train for the launch pad. In the footage from North Korea’s Korean Central Television, the roof of what looks like a freight car opens, and a missile placed inside is erected and fired—just like a scene from the “Thunderbirds” TV series. This seems more difficult to discern from spy satellites compared to the conventional trailer-type launch pad.

According to the white paper on defense, since May 2019, North Korea has repeated the launch of SRBMs that can “fly lower than regular cruise missiles in an irregular trajectory.” Yet they did not have the range to reach Japan’s EEZ. So it is possible that the latest missile is a new or improved version with an extended range.

Triggered by Hanoi Summit Collapse

In the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) article reporting the success of the missile launch, there was a statement that caught my attention. “The long-range cruise missile development project has been carried out in line with scientific and reliable weapon system development process over the past two years.” This may not mean exactly two years, but we can assume the development began or went into full swing around the summer of 2019.  

The launch of the ballistic missiles with irregular trajectory was also after May 2019. Japan’s white paper on defense points out that since 2019, North Korea has launched at least three types of presumably new SRBMs, and also fired another new ballistic missile this March.

In February 2019, the second U.S.-North Korea summit was held and broke down in Hanoi. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had strongly hoped the meeting would lead to the lifting of sanctions, but it turned out to be a complete miscalculation.  

Subsequently, Pyongyang starts emphasizing “self-reliance” on the premises that economic sanctions exist. It is possible that considering U.S. negotiations will not proceed any soon, they have switched their military policies to “Plan B” too, and sped up the development of new technologies.   

Pyongyang may have expected the second term of President Trump, who “gets along” with Kim Jong-un. But the result of the U.S. presidential elections last November disappointed them. And at this January’s North Korea Party Congress, Kim Jong-un emphasized self-reliance for the economy and military buildup focusing on nuclear weapons.

At the Party Congress, Kim Jong-un presented the policies to:
・Develop tactical nuclear weapons by making smaller and lighter nuclear weapons
・Develop and introduce super hypersonic gliding air battle part
・Develop solid fuel intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)
・Proceed with spy satellite operation and drone development

“Super hypersonic gliding air battle part” probably refers to the hypersonic glide weapon, the most advanced arms China and Russia are developing. Since Kim Jong-un is saying they will implement the development of the super hypersonic gliding air battle part and the spy satellite operation in the near future, these two may have priority for development.

Shouldn’t Downplay Their Technological Capacity

On the other hand, Kim Jong-un does not deny talks with the U.S. At the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea this June, he stressed “the need to get prepared for both dialogue and confrontation, especially to get fully prepared for confrontation.” The comment is seen to show a confrontational stance so as not to seem weak-kneed, while suggesting to be open for dialogue depending on the situation.

Conditions on the U.S. side also prove difficult to expect imminent progress of the talks. With the Biden administration that follows the traditional diplomatic style of building up negotiations at the working level, Pyongyang cannot hope for a top-down decision making of the Trump era.

Although the Biden administration is calling on North Korea for dialogue, how enthusiastic remains questionable. Its priority is more on dealing with the situation in Afghanistan and escalating U.S.-China conflict, and less on the state of North Korean affairs.

Viewing these circumstances, Kim Jong-un must have decided to proceed with the development of military technologies for the time being. His ultimate goal to have the sanctions lifted remains unchanged, but since it will not come immediately, he is probably focusing on the military side to accumulate bargaining chips.

The pace of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles development has surpassed the expectations of the international community. This tendency is especially pronounced under the Kim Jong-un administration. Pyongyang’s repeated nuclear tests and ballistic missile launching in 2016 and 2017 that rapidly advanced its technology is still fresh in our minds.

North Korea claims they had already developed the technology for long-range ballistic missiles, so missiles will not fly frequently across Japan’s territorial space to set off the J-Alert that warns North Korea’s missile launch to the public. Still, advancement in North Korea’s military technology would impact the situation in Northeast Asia and requires vigilance.   

(Katsumi Sawada, Mainichi Shimbun editorial writer)

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