Relations between the U.S. and Asia are becoming complicated.
North Korea successfully test-fired a new variant of a long-range cruise missile in its attempt to build a new system capable of launching nuclear strikes against not only South Korea, but also Japan, according to an initial report from Time Magazine.
And, unlike ballistic missiles which arc high into the atmosphere, North Korea's new cruise missiles could potentially evade detection long enough to prevent an adequate response from nearby nations.
Cruise missiles from North Korea could fly 'under the radar'
The new missiles from North Korea flew in "pattern-8 flight orbits" for more than two hours on both Saturday and Sunday, soaring roughly 930 miles (1,500 km) over both land and the sea off the coast before smashing into targets, according to a Monday report from the country's Central News Agency. This is significant because, if this range is accurate, then North Korea can now strike most of Japan. Additionally, the KCNA, North Korea's state news service, said the new missile was a "strategic weapon of great significance."
While still unconfirmed, if North Korea really does have long-range cruise missiles, this would be its first since firing two short-range ballistic missiles in March of this year. These launches were declared to the world while Sung Kim, the U.S. President Joe Biden's nuclear envoy, was en route to Asia to engage in talks with Japanese and South Korean counterparts designed to bring Pyongyang's government away from mounting tensions, and toward continued disarmament talks. In July, the U.N. said North Korea had resumed its plutonium production in its Yongbyon nuclear facility. While ballistic missiles can reach much farther targets than Japan is from North Korea, they also fly in a highly-arched trajectory, use no power for descent, and are thus remarkably easier to spot, prepare for via localized evacuations, and possibly even respond to with a nuclear counterattack before they even strike their targets.
North Korea's cruise missiles could complicate tense bilateral relations in Asia
By contrast, cruise missiles are powered for their entire flight, are more maneuverable, and stick significantly closer to the surface, and so won't offer as clear of a warning to potentially targeted populations, militaries, or governments. Cruise missile's capacity to fly "under the radar" and bypass defense systems are in line with Kim's aim to deter U.S.-led attacks, according to Director Jeffrey Lewis of the East Asia nonproliferation program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, in Monterey. "North Korea's war plan is to preemptively strike U.S. forces in South Korea and Japan if an invasion appears imminent," said Lewis in the Time report. "Cruise missiles offer significant advantages in terms of surprise, penetration of defenses and accuracy."
On the basis of pure speculation, should conflict erupt between China and the U.S., with North Korea siding with China against the U.S. and its allies, Pyongyang could use the threat of a cruise missile attack on Japan to keep one of the strongest American strongholds in Asia out of that conflict. But there's no telling what strategies either side of a hypothetical conflict would take. "We are aware of reports of DPRK cruise missile launches," said U.S. Indo-Pacific Command in the Time report. "We will continue to monitor the situation and are consulting closely with our allies and partners," they added, referring to North Korea by its formal, acronymic name. Time will tell whether reports of cruise missile launches are confirmed, but while tensions mount between the U.S. and China, a historically hostile nation developing new nuclear weapons systems could add complexity to an already chaotic situation.