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North Korea Is Assembling An Epic Missile Arsenal

October 26, 2021
Via North Korean media.

In the span of two months the isolated pauper state ruled by a chubby dictator tested four missiles with varied destructive effects–that is, if they’re launched in a real war. The series of live fire demonstrations began in mid-September with a “long-range cruise missile” followed by a “railway mobile missile” that was actually an Iskander-esque SRBM tucked away in a railcar. Then in October what looked like a genuine hypersonic IRBM was tested and later revealed at an exhibition in Pyongyang. As the month drew to a close a new SLBM was also tested in the Sea of Japan. At this rate North Korea’s impoverished military boasts one of the world’s biggest missile arsenals that was put together in a few year’s time.

The North Korean military’s rapid pace of adoption for new weapon systems since 2015 puts other country’s similar efforts to shame. This also presents a burden for those who follow North Korean politics and its fixation on martial strength. The variety of weapons and equipment being introduced can be too much to handle. What is happening under Kim Jong Un’s leadership is a deliberate program to shed an “obsolescence gap” that has crippled the armed forces since the 1990s. Indeed, there remains a consensus that despite the reform and transformation of the North Korean military it still suffers from a deep-seated readiness problem and has insufficient war material stocked. This is why it matters to scrutinize new weapon systems developed in North Korea since these offer insights on the pauper state’s overall strategy.

Indeed, since 2017 the remarkable leaps of North Korean military technology appear for deterrence purposes rather than an impending struggle with South Korea. This applies to the “long-range cruise missile” that North Korean media claim was tested from September 11 until 12. The TEL and an example of the cruise missile appeared at the “Self Defense 2021” exhibition in Pyongyang in mid-October attended by Kim Jong Un. (An inert model is pictured above.) It’s remarkable how colorful the reportage from North Korean media turned out when describing the missile. According to Rodong Sinmun the development for “a strategic weapon of great significance” only lasted two years and it functions as intended. Before the publicized live fire of the weapon system its manufacturer undertook “…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.”

Via North Korean media.

Rodong Sinmun also explained why this road mobile weapon system was needed because it “…holds 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 against the DPRK.” Rodong Sinmun didn’t withhold important details about the weapon system either. Adding, “the launched long-range cruise missiles traveled for 7,580 seconds along an oval and pattern 8 flight orbits in the air above the territorial land and waters of the DPRK and hit targets 1,500 kilometers away.” The accompanying photos showed a transporter with five launch tubes.

Assuming North Korean media’s claims are accurate a road mobile launcher armed with cruise missiles that have a range of 1,500 km is an extremely sophisticated weapon system for striking enemy infrastructure as far as Japan. Being road mobile, it’s now possible for North Korea to attack targets in any part of Japan no matter where the transporter deploys, a fact that should worry Tokyo and INDOPACOM. Aside from Japan these cruise missile launchers are ideal anti-access weapons that put the entire East China Sea within range. The implication here is if North Korea comes under sustained attack by a US-led coalition it has the means to fend off naval forces before these neutralize its nuclear deterrent with sustained bombardment. When used alongside the KPA’s large diameter rocket artillery the cruise missiles help even the odds against South Korea’s powerful air force and its ability to wreck the north’s command and control infrastructure.

How North Korea acquired the expertise for a cruise missile will never be known. But its military technology isn’t as limited as some imagine; assembling a cruise missile’s airframe is easy enough given North Korea’s experience in rocketry. Local production of the Soviet vintage P-15 Termit anti-ship missile and later the Kh-35 anti-ship missile may have left a robust technical foundation for cruise missile assembly. The accompanying rocket booster and guidance system could be a result of reverse engineering as far back as the 1990s when North Korea maintained illicit networks with several countries for technology transfers.

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