The test firing of what North Korea calls a new type of long-range cruise missile is shown on September 11 and 12. Photo: AFP / KCNA / KNS

North Korea test-fired a cruise missile over the weekend, state media reported Monday morning, a move that looks both brilliantly timed and cleverly calibrated.

The missiles are “a strategic weapon of great significance” and flew 1,500 km (930 miles) before hitting their targets and falling into the country’s territorial waters during the tests on Saturday and Sunday, North Korea’s Korea Central News Agency, or KCNA, reported Monday.

Also on Monday, senior diplomats from Japan, South Korea and the United States were scheduled to meet in Tokyo to discuss North Korea.

But the weekend launch was a cleverly calibrated semi-provocation for reasons that go beyond timing.

A strategic tactical weapon?

UN Security Council resolutions ban North Korea from owning or testing ballistic missile technologies – a wide definition that extends to satellite launch vehicles – but cruise missiles are permitted. Ballistic missiles fly in a parabola while cruise missiles fly in a flat trajectory, often hugging terrain or ocean.

KCNA images showed a cruise missile being fired from a road-based vehicle, rather than from a base facility. Mobility of weapons, thanks to the related ability to disperse and hide them, upgrades their survivability.

The stated range puts all of South Korea and Japan – including such key US bases as Pyongytaek in Korea and Yokosuka and Okinawa in Japan – within range.

But it is the adjective “strategic” that leaps off the page.

Cruise missiles are usually tactical assets, used to hit pinpoint military targets. The “S” word indicates that the missile could be used to convey weapons of mass destruction, such as a mini nuclear warhead, to a target.

The potential nuclearizing of a cruise missile presents yet another headache for regional defense planners already confounded by North Korea’s vast armory of missiles of multiple sizes, classes and ranges.

Whether Pyongyang’s intention was to send a political signal, test a weapon or – more likely – both, “does not matter to me; this is a significant capability,” Chun In-bum, a retired South Korean general, told Asia Times.

“These cruise missiles have another function, as they can simulate aircraft or other types of deception modes so they can really challenge our defense system,” he warned. “This is a new set of capabilities for North Korea.”

When it comes to setting not just security but also diplomatic agendas, Pyongyang’s timing looks impeccable.

Undiplomatic timing

Not only does it plant North Korea back on Washington’s radar after the humiliating Kabul retreat, but it was also made public the day a high-profile US diplomat begins a series of meetings in Japan.

According to a September 10 announcement from the US State Department, Sung Kim, the US Special Representative for North Korea, was to travel to Japan from September 13–15 for a trilateral meeting with Japanese Director-General for Asian and Oceanian Affairs Funakoshi Takehiro and Republic of Korea (ROK) Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs Noh Kyu-duk.  

The US official will also meet with other senior Japanese officials to discuss issues including not only the US commitment to the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula but also North Korea’s abductions of Japanese citizens – the latter a highly emotive issue in Japanese politics that dates back to the 1970s.

Now, the three envoys have something new to discuss.

“What makes this test provocative is North Korea’s public statement that these cruise missiles are a ‘strategic’ weapon, implying an intention to miniaturize nuclear warheads to fit on them,” said Leif-Eric Easley, an associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

“If that is the case, then the test is deserving of an international effort to strengthen sanctions,” Easley argued, in a message sent to foreign reporters. “However, Pyongyang may be calculating that Washington will take a weaker approach, given strained US relations with China and Russia and those countries’ general opposition to increasing sanctions.” 

Pyongyang’s move comes just four days after it held a midnight civil-military parade, and six days after South Korea successfully test-fired a domestically produced ballistic missile from a submerged submarine – the first non-nuclear state ever to do so.

Missile races and strategic dilemmas

The latter move suggests that South Korea – which won US approval for the lifting of a long-term ceiling on its missile development programs after President Moon Jae-in held a summit with President Joe Biden on May 21 – has now entered a de facto missile race with North Korea.

On September 2, it was announced in a budget release that Seoul is developing a surface-to-surface ballistic missile that can carry a three-ton warhead.

While some South Koreans have trumpeted this capability as equivalent to that of a tactical nuclear weapon, it still lacks the “grid square removal” capacity of the latter, which can shut down chunks of geography or close down vast bases due to deadly radiation.

This means that in payload terms, regardless of delivery vehicles, North Korea – having conducted six atomic detonations and owning an unknown number of warheads – trumps South Korea, which shelters under the US “nuclear umbrella.”

Its weapons of mass destruction certainly grant Pyongyang a very powerful deterrent. However, these programs – an altar upon which both the state’s economy and its profile in the global community has been largely sacrificed –  have failed, thus far, to earn diplomatic/political wins.

North Korea-US relations – and, relatedly, North-South Korean relations – have been largely frozen since the failure of a summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and then-US President Donald Trump in Hanoi, Vietnam, in 2019.

That freeze has left Kim – who had astutely leveraged his weapons to gain two unprecedented meetings with a sitting US president – in a strategic cul de sac. The failure of engagement with a now out-of-office US president, leaves his country – a nondescript economy amid the manufacturing powerhouses of Northeast Asia – mired in isolation and under harsh sanctions.

And since 2020, Covid-19, which has necessitated border closures and cut off trade with China, Kim is facing domestic economic and social pressures in addition to his strategic dilemma.

His diplomatic strategy moving forward is far from clear.

According to the KCNA, Kim himself – who has overseen past launches of ballistic missiles in photos that have become iconic – did not attend the weekend launch. That could be significant.

“That KJU was not present is also a political statement,” said Chun. “He is saying, ‘I am open to negotiations, but under my terms – I have these great, great capabilities.’”