North's barrage of missile tests raises alarm bells
North Korea test-fired Hwasong-12, an intermediate range ballistic missile, on Jan. 30. Sunday's launch marked the unpredictable North's seventh show of force this year.
North Korea launched long-range cruise missiles on Jan. 25 and surface-to-surface tactical guided missiles on Jan. 27.
The flurry of missile launches raised concerns in South Korea that the recalcitrant regime is ramping up the diversity of its missile arsenal to evade interception in case of war.
North Korea announced Monday it test-fired a Hwasong-12 "intermediate and long-range" ballistic missile the previous day.
The accuracy of the weapons system "being produced and deployed" has been confirmed, according to Pyongyang's state media.
The launch was aimed to "selectively evaluate the missile being produced and deployed and to verify the overall accuracy of the weapon system," it added.
The launch on Jan. 30 was its longest-range missile test since the test-firing of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in November 2017.
The North’s last known test of a cruise missile took place in September last year, when state media crowed about a “new-type long-range cruise missile,” which it described as a “strategic weapon of great significance.”
At the time, the KCNA said the cruise missiles tested flew 1,500 kilometers (932 miles) for 7,580 seconds.
By comparison, the long-range cruise missiles fired on Jan. 25 flew for 9,137 seconds and hit a target island 1,800 kilometers away, according to the KNCA.
According to the JCS, two surface-to-surface tactical guided missiles the North launched from the northeastern city of Hamhung, South Hamgyong Province, on Jan. 27 landed 190 kilometers away in the sea after reaching an altitude of 20 kilometers.
North Korea conducted two separate tests of what it claimed were hypersonic glide missiles on Jan. 5 and 10, followed by a test of train-launched missiles Jan. 14 and a tactical guided missile test from Sunan Airfield near Pyongyang on Jan. 17.
The flurry of 11 missiles launched over seven tests in January alone has raised alarm that the North is rapidly verifying the capabilities of its diverse missile arsenal to evade interception by South Korean and U.S. defense systems.
The gliding warheads on the hypersonic missiles tested on Jan. 5 and 11 have a distance range of 700 kilometers and are capable of reaching speeds of Mach 5, complicating interception by defense assets stationed in South Korea, such as the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system, which can intercept missiles up to 200 kilometers away.
The short-range ballistic missiles launched by the North’s moving train missile regiments can also avoid interception, not only because their launchers are hidden in railcars, but also because they only reach altitudes of 30 to 50 kilometers and are equipped to perform evasion maneuvers as they approach their targets.
The North’s hypersonic cruise missiles, which fly at extremely low altitudes and are capable of changing direction mid-flight, can possibly target and neutralize missile defense systems such as Thaad by flying under radar detection systems.
The KCNA reported just after the September tests that the cruise missiles it fired traveled for 7,580 seconds along an "oval and pattern-8 flight orbit."
Both South Korean and U.S. military authorities were reportedly unaware of the September tests before the KCNA’s report, with a South Korean government official who spoke to the JoongAng Ilbo on the condition of anonymity saying neither countries' military authorities were certain of the missiles’ trajectory or where exactly they fell into the sea.
A combined barrage of cruise and ballistic missiles from the North could overwhelm the South’s missile defense systems.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was not present at this past week’s tests, instead inspecting a munitions factory responsible for manufacturing “a major weapons system,” the exact nature of which the KCNA did not specify. Kim was accompanied by his sister Kim Yo-jong, who is the deputy director of the ruling Workers’ Party’s propaganda department.
The KCNA’s report on the North Korean leader’s visit to the munitions factory took aim at the country’s foes, with the agency saying that officials at the factory lauded Kim’s “unwavering will” to “smash with his bold pluck the challenges of the U.S. imperialists and their vassal forces that try to violate in every direction our Republic's right to self-defense.”
The missile tests by Pyongyang were accompanied by a state media report which said the country was considering ending its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and long-range ballistic missile testing.
Expressing “deep regrets and concerns” over the North’s missile launches, Seoul’s Unification Ministry, which handles relations with the regime, has urged Pyongyang to return to talks over its weapons program.
Cha Duck-chul, the ministry's deputy spokesman, said in a regular press briefing that the South “will continue efforts to keep the situation on the Korean Peninsula under peaceful and stable control.”
BY MICHAEL LEE [firstname.lastname@example.org]