North Korea announced on September 13 that it had tested long-range cruise missiles over the weekend. It described the missiles as a “strategic weapon of great significance.” The test caused alarm in North Korea’s neighbors — South Korea and Japan, both U.S. allies — as the revelation now puts both countries within striking distance. But despite the test, a spokesperson for the Biden administration said the United States remains prepared to engage with North Korea. USIP’s Frank Aum discusses the significance of the tests, the arms race on the Korean Peninsula, and what signals North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may be sending to the United States with this latest test. 

An anti-American propaganda poster on a main street in the Pyongyang, North Korea. October 4, 2017. (Jonah M. Kessel/The New York Times)
An anti-American propaganda poster on a main street in the Pyongyang, North Korea. October 4, 2017. (Jonah M. Kessel/The New York Times)

What do we know about the missiles North Korea tested over the weekend? And what does the test indicate about North Korea’s technological advancements?

According to the Korean Central News Agency, North Korea’s official news outlet, the country successfully launched two long-range cruise missiles last Saturday and Sunday. The missiles flew more than two hours, changed trajectories in circular patterns, and hit targets 1,500 kilometers away.

North Korea’s announcement called the cruise missiles, which unlike its ballistic missiles are not prohibited by international law, a “strategic weapon of great significance” that would provide “another effective deterrence means” against “the military maneuvers of hostile forces.” Cruise missiles can fly at low altitudes using circuitous routes, thereby strengthening North Korea’s ability to evade missile defense radars and potentially deliver nuclear weapons.

South Korea recently tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile and is conducting its own arms buildup. Are we seeing the signs of an intensifying arms race on the Korean Peninsula?

The Korean Peninsula has already been locked in a chronic arms race since the end of the Korean War in 1953 as both sides try to maintain sufficient military deterrence capabilities. In fact, the U.S. deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea in 1958 likely sparked North Korea’s own desire for nuclear weapons. The arms race intensified with North Korea’s serious pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles in the early 1990s. As it became clearer that North Korea intended to develop and maintain its nuclear weapons, including a period of nuclear and ballistic missile tests between 2006 and 2017, the United States and South Korea began ramping up their own indigenous and combined military capabilities.

In recent years, as South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s administration pursues defense reform that uses advanced military capabilities to deter and defend against the North Korean threat, offset reduced troops numbers and accelerate the transition of wartime operational control from the United States to South Korea, the rate of increase in Seoul’s defense spending has hovered around 7-8 percent, compared to the 4 percent of his predecessor. And based on North Korea’s own military buildup plan announced in January, it already appears that it is monitoring the South’s capabilities with one eye while keeping the other on the United States.

What is the significance of the timing of the tests, which come days before the Chinese foreign minister is scheduled to meet with his South Korean counterpart, as well as meetings between the U.S. special representative for North Korea and his South Korean and Japanese counterparts?

We can only speculate about the timing of North Korean provocations. Some tests are tied to internal technical development timelines or for domestic signaling. There have been many diplomatic meetings between South Korean and Chinese officials or among South Korean, Japanese and U.S. counterparts without any preceding tests so it’s difficult to draw a relationship between the cruise missile tests and any upcoming meetings. However, given North Korea’s promise to respond to the August U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises, and its statement that the missile tests were a demonstration of deterrence against “the military maneuvers of hostile forces,” it appears likely that the alliance military exercises were at least one factor.

Are you seeing any signs that Kim Jong Un is eager to return to the negotiating table with the United States? And, if so, could the tests be seen as North Korean signals toward the Biden administration?

There haven’t been any clear signs that Kim Jong Un is willing is accept the U.S. offer to meet with North Korea “anywhere, anytime, without preconditions.” Instead, Pyongyang appears to be treading water while it addresses a “tense” food situation and a “grave incident” related to COVID-19. North Korea is also frustrated by the Biden administration’s unwillingness to provide “corresponding measures” (e.g., partial sanctions relief) for the range of conciliatory actions that the regime took in 2018, including the moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests, the release of three U.S. detainees, the delivery of 55 boxes of U.S. remains and the shutdown of its nuclear test site at Punggye-ri and missile engine test stand at Dongchang-ri. 

The latest cruise missile tests could be both a signal to the United States about North Korea’s displeasure regarding the joint military exercises as well as a hint of future actions to come if the Biden administration doesn’t improve its offer beyond unconditional meetings.

Related Publications

Removing Sanctions on North Korea: Challenges and Potential Pathways

Removing Sanctions on North Korea: Challenges and Potential Pathways

Friday, December 10, 2021

By: Troy Stangarone

Sanctions have been a key part of US and international policy toward North Korea since the Korean War. In more recent decades, sanctions have been used to deter North Korea from pursuing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles programs. This report describes the impact sanctions have had on North Korea and examines the question of whether a different approach—one focused on sanctions relief and removal—might better facilitate long-term peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.

Type: Special Report

Conflict Analysis & Prevention

Is an End-of-War Declaration for the Korean Peninsula a Risk Worth Taking?

Is an End-of-War Declaration for the Korean Peninsula a Risk Worth Taking?

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

By: Frank Aum

As efforts to resume nuclear negotiations with Pyongyang go nowhere, the concept of an end-of-war declaration for the Korean Peninsula has become a polarizing topic in both Washington and Seoul. USIP’s Frank Aum explains how it could serve Washington and Seoul’s interests, how such a declaration could advance the peace process between North and South Korea, what risks it could pose and how the U.S. Congress could play a role in shaping such a declaration.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Mediation, Negotiation & Dialogue

The Case for Maximizing Engagement with North Korea

The Case for Maximizing Engagement with North Korea

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

By: Frank Aum;  Daniel Jasper

As the Biden administration’s North Korea policy review nears completion, there is growing worry that it could dig in its heels on previous U.S. efforts to change North Korea’s behavior through isolation and pressure. Early signals indicate the Biden team is prioritizing pressure among many options. Several experts, however, believe this approach will continue to fail because it incorrectly assumes North Korea will yield to coercive tactics and that China will cooperate in this effort.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Mediation, Negotiation & DialogueConflict Analysis & Prevention

Can Markets Help Foster Civil Society in North Korea?

Can Markets Help Foster Civil Society in North Korea?

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

By: Anthony Navone

After North Korea’s planned economy faltered in the 1990’s, resulting in a devastating famine known as the “Arduous March,” citizens turned to an informal market system for survival. Desperate for some semblance of stability, the North Korean state initially tolerated these rudimentary transactions as a financial necessity. These markets have grown in scale and complexity over the last two decades—and in the process, have facilitated the growth of unofficial economic networks that exhibit signs of a nascent semi-autonomous public sphere that is unprecedented in North Korean society.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Democracy & Governance

View All Publications