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Analysis: North Korea tests new cruise missiles that put Japan in striking distance

  • September 14, 2021
  • , The Japan Times , p. 1
  • English Press

By Jesse Johnson, staff writer


North Korea has developed yet another weapon that can put most of Japan within striking distance, this one potentially capable of evading missile defenses and delivering a nuclear bomb to a large chunk of the archipelago.


The North announced Monday that it had test-fired “new-type, long-range” cruise missiles over the weekend, according to state-run media. The launches were the country’s first missile tests since March, when it fired off two short-range ballistic missiles.


The country’s official Korean Central News Agency said the new missile, which it called “a strategic weapon of great significance,” had traveled for nearly two hours over North Korean land and air, ultimately hitting targets 1,500 kilometers away.


Vipin Narang, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who specializes in nuclear strategy, said the development of the long-range cruise missile was “definitely a problem for Japan.”


“They can fly low and maneuver and can be very difficult to intercept by air and missile defenses,” Narang said.


The U.S. military’s Indo-Pacific Command said it was “aware of reports” of the launches but did not confirm that it had tracked them, adding that it would “continue to monitor the situation” and was “consulting closely” with allies and partners.


“This activity highlights DPRK’s continuing focus on developing its military program and the threats that poses to its neighbors and the international community,” it said in a statement, using the country’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “The U.S. commitment to the defense of the Republic of Korea and Japan remains ironclad.”


The new weapon is also likely to play into the ongoing debate over Japan acquiring the capability to strike enemy bases. The issue has already been taken up by candidates seeking to replace outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s leadership election, which is scheduled for Sept. 29.


The new missiles are believed to be nuclear-capable — the use of “strategic” to describe weapons is a common euphemism for being able to carry such warheads — though some experts said more analysis is needed.


Tokyo voiced “concern” over reports of the cruise missile test, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, the government’s top spokesman, told a news conference Monday.


“​​If it’s a fact that the missile traveled 1,500 km, this threatens the peace and security of Japan,” Kato said, adding that Tokyo is continuing to work closely with Washington and Seoul to monitor the situation.


The missile, which had been developed over the past two years, is a key element of a five-year defense development plan that was outlined at a rare ruling party congress in January, KCNA said.


The test provided the “strategic significance of possessing another effective deterrence means for more reliably guaranteeing the security of our state and strongly containing the military maneuvers of the hostile forces,” KCNA said.


It added that “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.”


Last week, North Korea held its first military parade since the start of U.S. President Joe Biden’s term. While leader Kim Jong Un presided over that scaled-down event, he appeared not to have been present for the weekend missile tests.


Denuclearization talks between the United States and North Korea have been stalled since 2019, and in the absence of negotiations, Pyongyang has continued to build up its nuclear and missile arsenal. This has included a focus on shorter-range, quick-strike capabilities, rather than the longer-range weapons that put the continental U.S. at risk.


Unlike ballistic missiles, the cruise missiles tested over the weekend remain within the atmosphere for the duration of their flights. Cruise missiles are propelled by jet engines and, due to their constant propellants, are more maneuverable than ballistic missiles, though they are typically also slower than their ballistic counterparts.


Although the North is barred from conducting ballistic missile tests under U.N. resolutions, those same restrictions have not been applied to its cruise missile program, which is relatively new.


Tetsuo Kotani, a professor of global studies at Meikai University, said that the reported range “indicates the target of the missile is outside the Korean Peninsula, which means Japan, including U.S. bases in the country.”


Japan hosts a number of U.S. military bases that would be crucial for logistics in any conflict on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea in the past has conducted simulated “strategic” strikes on U.S. bases in Japan using shorter-range ballistic missiles.

Kotani said that while cruise missiles are relatively easy to intercept, detecting them is often more difficult than finding ballistic missiles.


“Japan would need to have additional detection and interception capabilities to deal with the new missile,” he said.


Kato said Monday that Japan will “continue to strengthen” its ability to defend the country, including bolstering air defense.


While he did not specifically mention Japan acquiring the capability to strike enemy bases — which would also have ramifications for Sino-Japanese ties — the North Korean test is likely to rekindle the simmering debate over whether acquiring the ability would run counter to Japan’s pacifist Constitution and exclusively defense-oriented policy.


Kotani said the North’s launch will “definitely” play into that debate — especially as the LDP leadership race heats up.


Two candidates have already weighed in on the issue, with former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida saying that while Japan shouldn’t be able to attack potential enemies first, it needed to be prepared for scenarios in which it was hit first and was expecting further attacks. Former internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi has been even more strident, vowing to push through legislation on pre-emptive strike capabilities.


Staff writer Satoshi Sugiyama contributed to this report

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