North Korea has carried out successful tests of a new long-range cruise missile over the weekend, its state media outlet KCNA said, sparking fresh criticism from the US amid a protracted standoff over denuclearisation.
The missiles are “a strategic weapon of great significance” and flew 1,500km (930 miles) before hitting their targets and falling into the country’s territorial waters during the tests on Saturday and Sunday, KCNA said. The missiles travelled for 126 minutes along “oval and pattern-8 flight orbits”, it reported.
The latest development came just days after a military parade was held in the capital, Pyongyang, to mark the 73rd anniversary of the country’s founding. In the past year, there have also been speculation outside the country over to what extent Covid-19 has affected its economy and the health of its population of nearly 26 million.
The United States military said Pyongyang’s latest missile tests posed “threats” to the country’s neighbours and beyond. “This activity highlights [North Korea’s] continuing focus on developing its military program and the threats that poses to its neighbours and the international community,” the US Indo-Pacific command said in a statement.
North Korea’s neighbour Japan said it had “significant concerns” about the latest development. The chief cabinet secretary, Katsunobu Kato, said Tokyo would continue to work closely with the US and South Korea to monitor the situation.
Pictures in North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper showed a missile exiting one of five tubes on a launch vehicle in a ball of flame, and a missile in horizontal flight.
Such a weapon would represent a marked advance in North Korea’s weapons technology, analysts said, better able to avoid defence systems to deliver a warhead across the South or Japan – both of them US allies.
“This would be the first cruise missile in North Korea to be explicitly designated a ‘strategic’ role,” Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the US-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Reuters. “This is a common euphemism for nuclear-capable system.”
Analysts say it is unclear whether North Korea has mastered the technology needed to build warheads small enough to be carried on a cruise missile, but the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, said earlier this year that developing smaller bombs was a top goal.
Kim did not appear to have attended the test. KCNA said Pak Jong-chon, a member of the Workers’ party’s powerful politburo and a secretary of its central committee, oversaw it.
The reported launches are the first since March by the North. The regime also conducted a cruise missile test just hours after the US president, Joe Biden, took office in January.
North Korea’s cruise missiles usually generate less interest than ballistic missiles because they are not explicitly banned under UN security council resolutions.
“North Korea is exploring new ways to add more bargaining chips on the negotiation table, but such a provocation will almost certainly dominate the current round of trilateral dialogue among the US, Japan and South Korea,” said Prof Ramon Pacheco Pardo of Kings College London.
The unveiling of the test came just a day before chief nuclear negotiators from the United States, South Korea and Japan meet in Tokyo to explore ways to break the diplomatic impasse with North Korea.
China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, is also scheduled to visit Seoul on Tuesday for talks with his counterpart, Chung Eui-yong.
Talks aimed at dismantling the North’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes in return for US sanctions relief have stalled since 2019, despite Donald Trump’s high-profile meetings with Kim Jong-un.
Last month, the UN atomic watchdog said North Korea appeared to have restarted a nuclear reactor that is widely believed to have produced plutonium for nuclear weapons.
Biden’s administration has said it is open to diplomacy to achieve North Korea’s denuclearisation, but has shown no willingness to ease sanctions. Sung Kim, the US envoy for North Korea, said in August in Seoul that he was ready to meet North Korean officials “anywhere, at any time”.
With Reuters, Associated Press and Agence France-Presse