On September 13, North Korea released a statement reporting successful flight tests on September 11 and 12 of “new type long-range cruise missiles.” It also released photographs depicting a cruise missile resembling the US Tomahawk and other foreign long-range cruise missiles, both in flight and being launched from one of five launch tubes/canisters mounted on a wheeled mobile launcher.
We have no corroborating information about this new missile. We also do not yet know if this missile will end up being deployed, in what numbers, on what platforms, or with what warhead type or accuracy. In any case, a North Korean land-attack cruise missile (LACM) will almost certainly augment rather than supplant Pyongyang’s ballistic missile force, which is already capable of accomplishing just about any mission a North Korean LACM can.
Nevertheless, a LACM force could augment the ballistic missile force in several useful ways, including by further complicating alliance air and missile defenses, permitting a substantial increase in overall ballistic-plus-cruise missile force size and further diversifying and increasing the flexibility of the missile force. The North also clearly had political purposes for publicizing the LACM, including demonstrating the continued advancement of its missile (and, by extension, nuclear) capabilities in the face of international opposition, bolstering deterrence of external threats and seeking to gain prestige with domestic and international audiences by pitching the North’s technological prowess.
Information to Date
The September 13 statement reported:
- the missile is “a strategic weapon of great significance” and “another effective deterrence means”;
- it “traveled for 7[,]580 seconds [2.1 hours] along an oval and pattern-8 flight orbits in the air above the territorial land and waters of the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] and hit targets 1[,]500 km away [an average speed of 712 kph/442 mph]”;
- that “the technical indices such as the thrust power of the newly developed turbofan (“turbine-blast”) engine, the missiles’ navigation control and the end guided hit accuracy by the combined guided mode (“last-stage guiding and hitting by combined guidance”) met the requirements of designs”;
- the missile “has been pushed forward according to the scientific and reliable weapon system development process for the past two years and, in this course, detailed tests of missile parts, scores of engine ground thrust tests, various flight tests, control and guidance tests, warhead power tests, etc. were conducted with success”; and that
- “The achievement is a bright fruition of our Party’s policy of prioritizing defence science and technology and a signal success made in the defence field,” and “another great manifestation of the tremendous capabilities of the defence science and technology and the munitions industry of our country.”
The US, South Korea and Japan have thus far not directly confirmed the tests, missile type or reported performance. They are likely to have obtained much less information than in the case of a 1,500 km ballistic missile test, however, given the lower altitude and much less energetic propulsion of a cruise missile and the reported conduct of the test solely within North Korean territory.
Kim Jong Un’s report to the January 2021 Eighth Party Congress mentioned that the North had “proceeded to develop…intermediate-range cruise missiles.” The missile unveiled on September 13 presumably is the missile Kim referred to, although a 1,500-km system technically is medium-range rather than intermediate-range (3,000-5,500 km). It could cover all of South Korea and Japan if launched from within North Korean territory, as well as from the adjacent sea areas.
If the North’s claims are accurate, this would be its longest-range cruise missile and, by implication, its first purpose-built land-attack cruise missile, although the September 13 statement does not directly claim a land-attack mission or test. The claimed range, speed and configuration of the missile are consistent with LACMs developed in the US (deployed 1983), Russia (1984), China (1996), Pakistan (2010), India (first tested 2013) and South Korea (deployed 2006).
The statement did not specify the type of warhead the missile is intended to carry, but the references to “strategic” and “deterrence” suggest a nuclear one. It is unknown, however, whether North Korea has yet developed a nuclear warhead small enough in diameter to fit the apparent size class of this missile (perhaps 0.5-0.6 meters). Kim’s January 2021 report noted, “It is necessary to…make nuclear weapons smaller and lighter for more tactical uses.”
Interestingly, that report also referred to “ultra-modern tactical nuclear weapons including new-type tactical rockets and intermediate-range cruise missiles whose conventional warheads are the most powerful in the world.” This suggests the missile is intended to carry a conventional payload—either exclusively or in addition to a nuclear one. The military utility of a conventional LACM would be highly dependent on its accuracy. The September 13 statement’s references to “combined guidance” and “end guided” or “last-stage” guidance imply use of inertial guidance and some sort of terminal update/seeker. But the type of terminal guidance and its accuracy are unknown.
The statement’s claim that the missile uses a turbofan engine is consistent with the reported range, speed and size of the missile. North Korea probably gained access to turbofan technology by acquiring Russian Kh-35 anti-ship cruise missiles some years before the deployment in 2014 of its own apparent spin-off, the Kumsong-3 (KN-19) missile. The LACM’s “newly developed” engine presumably is based on the Kumsong-3’s.
The statement’s description of the missile’s development and test procedures (including ground tests of the engine, guidance system, and warhead, racetrack and figure-8 flight trajectories) appear sensible for this type of missile. This continues a trend of the North taking pains to try to substantiate that its missiles are reliable. The reference to conducting “various flight tests” suggests the September 11/12 tests were not the first. The reference to development having been “pushed forward…for the past two years” could be read as bragging that the entire development process took that long. But that is highly unlikely; it is much more likely that the system has been in development for several years, and that development was accelerated two years ago.
The mobile launcher depicted in the photo appears to be the same vehicle used to carry the North’s new “oversized” multiple-launch rocket in previous military parades. Such a vehicle would provide for a highly survivable ground-launched missile system, akin to the North’s longstanding ballistic missile force. The missile also would be capable of launch from aircraft, submarine and surface ship platforms if the required development work is done.
It is important to recall that we do not yet know if this missile will end up being deployed, or in what numbers and on what platforms—much less its warhead type, accuracy or even range. In any case, a North Korean LACM will almost certainly augment rather than supplant the existing, longstanding and extensive ballistic missile force. The ballistic missile force is already capable of accomplishing just about any mission a North Korean LACM can.
Nevertheless, a force of 1,500 km range LACMs could augment the ballistic missile force in several useful ways:
- Instead of focusing mainly on the threat from ballistic missiles (which is challenging enough), the allies in Northeast Asia would also have to contend with a low-flying, maneuverable LACM threat that is difficult to defend against in its own right. And attacking with both ballistic missiles and LACMs offers synergies the North can use to better suppress allied air and missile defenses.
- LACMs can enter allied airspace from unexpected directions, using circuitous flight routes from land, or if launched from sea or air platforms.
- Assuming a North Korean LACM is small enough to be launched from a torpedo tube, LACMs could be carried on many more submarines than ballistic missiles, which require purpose-built or modified submarines. (Indeed, LACMs would be a much more sensible and cost-effective option for the sea-based leg of a North Korean “triad” than submarine-launched ballistic missiles.) Most surface ships also could be fitted to launch LACMs, which would be easier to conceal onboard than ballistic missiles.
- LACMs probably can be produced more easily than ballistic missiles, assuming North Korea has mastered aero-engine production. This would make it possible to substantially increase the overall size of the ballistic-plus-cruise missile force, which would be especially important for boosting conventional warfighting capabilities. (Nuclear force size probably would be limited by the size of the warhead stockpile.) A large LACM force, in conjunction with the existing large ballistic missile force, would also aid in saturating allied air and missile defenses.
- North Korea also has the option of developing an anti-ship version of the LACM, although it would have to overcome the challenges of obtaining sufficient long-range targeting data—especially during wartime.
- Overall, adding LACMs would further diversify and increase the flexibility of the North’s missile force.
There are also two potential implications of a LACM force that are open to more scrutiny:
- First, the concern that dual-capable LACMs “are particularly destabilizing in the event of conflict as it can be unclear which kind of warhead they are carrying.” This implies that, during a crisis or a conventional conflict with North Korea, the US would be maintaining a hair-trigger nuclear posture and might mistakenly “go nuclear” if North Korea launched what were, in fact, conventional LACMs. As this author has contended previously, however, such a scenario “is much more reflective of the US and USSR during the Cold War than it is of the situation on the Korean Peninsula.” Both sides on the peninsula almost certainly expect a conflict to begin with the use of conventional weapons, and probably to continue conventionally for a substantial period. North Korea has long had the option to initiate a war (or escalate a conventional war) with nuclear-armed dual-capable ballistic missiles. But the allies appear to have relied on the threat of retaliation by America’s massive, survivable nuclear capabilities deployed offshore to deter such a move rather than to hold forces on a hair trigger to launch before the DPRK can (which still might not prevent a DPRK nuclear strike).
- Second, the concern that the advent of the North Korean LACM marks “a new indication that an arms race between North and South Korea was heating up on the Korean Peninsula,” part of a “tit-for-tat weapons buildup.” We do not know the actual motivation behind the North’s unveiling of the LACM, or even if the system will end up being deployed. Any military motivations the North has in pursuing a LACM are more likely to take into account the overall capabilities (both conventional and nuclear) posed by the entire alliance than just a North/South missile-for-missile comparison.
The September 13 statement clearly shows the political purposes behind publicizing this missile system. As is often the case, Pyongyang apparently is trying to demonstrate the continued advancement of its missile (and, by extension, nuclear) capabilities in the face of international opposition, United Nations sanctions, economic hardship and COVID. In addition to bolstering deterrence of external threats, the regime is probably seeking to gain prestige with domestic and international audiences by showing the North’s technological prowess and showing the North Korean public that its policy direction is correct.
“On Report Made by Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un at 8th Party Congress of WPK,” Korean Central News Agency, January 9, 2021.
Missile Defense Project, “Missiles of the World,” Missile Threat, Center for Strategic and International Studies, https://missilethreat.csis.org/missile.
“On Report Made by Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un at 8th Party Congress of WPK,” Korean Central News Agency.
“Long-range Cruise Missiles Newly Developed by Academy of Defense Science Successfully Test-fired,” Korean Central News Agency; and Newly-developed long-range cruise missiles test-fired,” Voice of Korea.
“Long-range Cruise Missiles Newly Developed by Academy of Defense Science Successfully Test-fired.”