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N. Korea Tests New Guided Missile to Reinforce ‘Tactical Nuclear Operation’

Pyongyang has become outspoken about intent to develop tactical nuclear weapons delivery systems, say analysts.
A new type of tactical guided weapon is launched from a transporter erector launcher in a photo released by North Korea‘s state-run Korean Central News Agency on Sunday. (Yonhap)
A new type of tactical guided weapon is launched from a transporter erector launcher in a photo released by North Korea‘s state-run Korean Central News Agency on Sunday. (Yonhap)

North Korea on Sunday said the country test-fired a “new-type tactical guided weapon system” to enhance its capabilities to effectively operate “tactical nuclear weapons,” as part of a five-year defense plan to bolster up its “war deterrent.”

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un observed the test launch of the new weapons system which has been “developed under special attention of the Party Central Committee,” the state-run Korean Central News Agency reported without revealing the date of the test-firing.

The state media outlet notably indicated that the tactical guided missiles are designed to carry tactical nuclear weapons, which the North Korean leader ordered be developed at the 8th Party Congress in January 2021.

The tactical guided weapon system is of “great significance in drastically improving the firepower of the frontline long-range artillery units and enhancing the efficiency in the operation of tactical nukes of the DPRK and diversification of their firepower missions,” KCNA reported in an English-language dispatch.

Kim Jong-un highly appreciated a series of achievements by the national defense scientific research sector in “attaining the core goals of securing the war deterrent set at the 8th Party Congress,” according to KCNA.

The North Korean leader also “gave important instructions on further building up the defense capabilities and nuclear combat forces of the country,” while revealing the Party Central Committee’s “long-term plan for bolstering up the defense capabilities of the country.”

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff on Sunday belatedly confirmed that North Korea test-launched “two projectiles” on Saturday at around 6 p.m. from the Hamhung area toward the East Sea, emphasizing that South Korea and the US were “closely tracking” North Korea’s move related to the test-firing.

The South Korean military, intelligence agencies and Cheong Wa Dae’s National Security Office held an emergency meeting immediately after the launches, assessed the situation and discussed countermeasures, according to the JCS.

National security adviser Suh Hoon on Sunday convened another meeting of the presidential National Security Council on North Korea’s military activities, while South Korea and the US brace for the possibility of North Korea conducting a major weapons test on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of the Korean People’s Army on April 25.

The two projectiles flew approximately 110 kilometers at an altitude of around 25 kilometers, with a maximum speed of Mach 4.0 or lower, the JCS said in a statement, without defining the launched projectiles as “ballistic missiles” in the public statement.

But the South Korean military authorities and analysts assess that the new-type tactical guided weapon is analogous to South Korea’s Korean Tactical Surface to Surface Missile (KTSSM) in appearance.

“My first impression is that it looks similar to the KTSSM. One can also say that it is a smaller KN-23/24. I believe it shares their trajectory characteristics, and it is also an aero-ballistic missile that flies at low altitude and can maneuver during flight,” Xu Tianran, an analyst for Open Nuclear Network, told The Korea Herald.

North Korea has developed KN-23 and 24 solid-propellant short-range ballistic missiles reportedly have greater maneuverability and conduct “pull-up maneuvers” in flight to evade and penetrate South Korea and the US missile defenses. The KN-23 and 24 are believed to be dual-capable missiles that are capable of delivering both conventional and nuclear payloads.

“It’s a small, solid-fuel close-range ballistic missile. North Korea appears to indicate that they will use this system for tactical nuclear weapons delivery,” Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told The Korea Herald, noting that the CRBM appears to be of the KN-23 and 24 lineages.

Analysts also noted that Sunday’s KCNA report shows North Korea’s intent to develop missiles that can carry tactical nuclear weapons. The test also came amid Pyongyang reportedly having geared up for a seventh nuclear test at the Punggye-ri test site.

“North Korea no longer hides that short-and medium-range missiles have been developed to deliver tactical nuclear weapons,” Park Won-gon, professor of North Korea studies at Ewha Womans University, said.

Park said Pyongyang has “bluntly” declared that the “the test launches of short and medium-range tactical missiles, which began in May 2019, aim to develop and deploy the missiles which can target South Korea, Japan, and Guam.”

Saturday’s new weapons test also shows North Korea’s goal to “incapacitate South Korea and the US’ missile defenses by continuously developing and variegating tactical nuclear weapons.”

Specifically, the North Korean media report on the effectiveness of tactical nuclear operations and diversification of firepower missions suggests that North Korea seeks to “utilize a wide variety” of tactical nuclear delivery vehicles such as KN-23, 24, 25, hypersonic missiles, and long-range cruise missiles.

“As North Korea is replacing the (previous missile program) with a new corps of the solid-propellant missiles which can conduct an evasive and circling maneuver, there is a clear limit in intercepting missiles with the current South Korean and US missile defenses,” Park said.

Xu also pointed out that it is “apparent that they (North Korea) are aware of their weakness in conventional weapons, and are compensating with nuclear weapons on all layers and levels” despite questions remaining on the North’s definition of a tactical nuclear weapon. 

Sunday’s report came around two weeks after North Korea warned that it will inevitably use nuclear weapons to “annihilate” South Korean conventional forces if South Korea chooses a military confrontation in a statement issued by the North Korean leader’s powerful sister Kim Yo-jong.

Xu said North Korea’s recent moves could indicate a shift in nuclear use doctrine, which the country has not yet publicly declared, from “assured retaliation to first use and nuclear warfighting.”

North Korea had focused on ensuring nuclear retaliatory or second-strike capability as a deterrence. But Xu said it seems North Korea is “more serious about nuclear warfighting” as the country enhances nuclear capabilities, diversified nuclear delivery systems, and continues fissile material production.

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