In September 2021, North Korea reportedly released a statement claiming that they had successfully flight tested a long range cruise missile on September 11 and 12, 2021,
The missile flew a range of 1500kms and has been called as “strategic weapon of great significance.”
There are myriad reasons why North Korea’s cruise missile has been called a “strategic weapon.”
From the North Korean perspective, they are ramping up capabilities against their primary adversary, South Korea.
In May this year, the United States lifted its restrictions it had put on South Korea to develop long range ballistic missile capabilities and brought an end to the missile guidelines South Korea was bound to follow.
With the end of the missile guidelines, South Korea could develop longer range capabilities that could threaten North Korea’s sea-based deterrence. North Korea already possesses ballistic missile capabilities of varied ranges. However, these missiles could be intercepted by missile defence systems in South Korea. Cruise missiles are difficult to be intercepted given their low flying capability.
In August 2021, South Korea and the United States conducted joint military drills as part of what North Korea considered a provocation.
Then in September 2021, South Korea successfully test fired a submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM), thereby becoming the only state without nuclear weapons to possess such capabilities.
However, it must be noted that South Korea is under the extended nuclear deterrence of the United States, though the deterrence is only as of now tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs).
For North Korea, their own cruise missile launch missile test might be seen as part of a strategy to starting hotlines with South Korea again in the hope of expecting South Korea to act as a mediator between Pyongyang and Washington to relieve North Korea of sanctions due to its nuclear and missile program.
In April 2018, North Korea announced a self imposed moratorium on long range missile and nuclear tests. However, by the end of 2019, North Korea was ready to end the moratorium as there was no concession of sanctions from the United States. Testing of cruise missile capabilities that are difficult to be intercepted and have ranges extending to 1500kms is a probably North Korea’s way to push the United States for sanctions relief if denuclearization has to take place.
Again, North Korea also asserts its right to a ‘first use’ of nuclear weapon. ‘First-use’ weapons have to be credible enough to strike on adversary’s counter-force or counter-value targets and not get intercepted even before it could wreath havoc.
Cruise missiles could act as a credible ‘first-use’ weapon, followed by its land based ballistic missiles and then submarine based missile capabilities.
With the development of such credible nuclear delivery systems, a denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is only becoming a coveted dream.
Even if North Korea agrees to engage in nuclear talks, greater nuclear deterrent capability would give North Korea bigger leverages in the nuclear talks.
That North Korea possesses land attack cruise missile (LACM) capability capable of putting U.S. forward bases in South Korea and Japan at threat along with its ballistic missile capability gives a bigger leverage in nuclear talks amid U.S. missile defence systems in the region and North Korea’s weaker air power capability compared to the United States.
Also, the United States itself has tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) deployed in its forward bases (Japan and South Korea) under its extended nuclear deterrence strategy. LACMs and nuclear artillery systems provide North Korea with tit-for-tat TNW capability vis-à-vis the United States and its allies in the region.
Again, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution adopted unanimously prohibited the development and testing of ballistic missiles but does not per se mention anything about cruise missiles. A cruise missile capability keeps North Korea at an advantage during future denuclearization talks and also gives North Korea a scope to ensure it gets a greater concession in terms of lifting off economic sanctions should it decide to give up its nuclear weapons or at least accept a moratorium on developing and testing of weapons.
It is clear, unless economic sanctions imposed on North Korea are lifted, North Korea will continue to test nuclear capabilities as a way to coerce the United States. Nuclear weapons for one are best means of coercive diplomacy and North Korea is using this tool in its policy and decision making to the best of its ability. North Korea believes its missile and nuclear capabilities are for ‘self defence’ and possessing such capabilities is its sovereign right.
Survivable nuclear capability provides North Korea greater advantage in nuclear talks if those are held.
Debalina Ghoshal is a Non Resident Fellow, Council on International Policy, Canada.
Featured Photo: The North Korean Academy of National Defense Science conducts long-range cruise missile tests in North Korea, as pictured in this combination of undated photos supplied by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on September 13, 2021.