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Monday, March 4, 2024

Cruise missiles to nukes: North Korea’s arsenal

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Seoul – North Korea has enshrined its status as a nuclear power in its Constitution, with leader Kim Jong Un calling for bigger, more modern atomic weapons.

The move follows Kim’s declaration last year that North Korea is an “irreversible” nuclear power.

Here is a look at North Korea’s arsenal:

Cruise missiles tend to be jet-propelled and fly at a lower altitude than more sophisticated ballistic missiles, making them harder to detect and intercept.

North Korea has an array of short, medium and long-range cruise missiles.

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Unlike their ballistic counterparts, cruise missiles are not banned from testing under current UN sanctions against Pyongyang.

In March, two cruise missiles launched from a submarine flew 1,500 kilometers, Pyongyang said, putting South Korea and much of Japan within range.

Intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs), which are rocket-propelled in the first stage of flight, have a range of about 3,000-5,500 km.

North Korea’s main IRBM, the Hwasong-12, is capable of hitting the US territory of Guam.

Pyongyang first successfully tested the Hwasong-12 in May 2017 and has since fired three variants of the missile over Japan and into the Pacific Ocean.

North Korea is banned from testing all ballistic missiles under current UN Security Council sanctions.

Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) have a minimum range of 5,500 kilometers and are primarily designed to deliver nuclear warheads.

North Korea first claimed to have successfully tested the Hwasong-15 — a missile capable of reaching Alaska — on July 4, 2017 — as a gift for the “American bastards” on US Independence Day.

Three years later, an even bigger and more powerful Hwasong-17 was showcased at a massive military parade.

North Korea fired this “monster missile” in November 2022. Analysts believe that is the first successful full flight test of the Hwasong-17.

This year, Kim oversaw the successful test of North Korea’s newest ICBM, the solid-fuel Hwasong-18.

But all of North Korea’s ICBMs have been test-fired on a lofted trajectory — up not out, to avoid flying over Japan— raising questions about their performance, including surviving reentry into the atmosphere and accuracy over greater ranges.

A submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) can be launched from under the ocean making them extremely mobile and harder to detect.

Proven SLBM capability would take North Korea’s arsenal to a new level, allowing deployment far beyond the Korean peninsula and a second-strike capability in the event of an attack.

North Korea’s operational SLBM is called the Pukguksong-3, with an estimated range of 1,900 km. In October 2021, it announced a successful test of a new version of the missile.

Pyongyang’s exact sea-based launch capabilities remain unclear.

Previous tests were carried out from older vessels, including from a submerged platform, rather than an actual submarine.

North Korea said it fired two strategic cruise missiles from a submarine in March 2023, but analysts said it appeared they had been launched from above water level, thereby removing the stealth benefit of the weapon.

North Korea has also conducted what it called simulations with its “first tactical nuclear attack submarine.”

Hypersonic missiles travel at speeds of at least Mach 5 — five times the speed of sound — and can manoeuvre mid-flight, making them harder to track and intercept.

Depending on their design, analysts say these missiles can carry both conventional and nuclear warheads.

After three tests — one in September 2021, and two in 2022 — North Korea said it had completed the final verification of its first hypersonic missile.

North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006, and carried out its sixth and most powerful one in September 2017.

Estimates of that device’s explosive power, or yield, ranged from 100 to 370 kilotons, far exceeding the 15 kilotons of the US bomb that devastated Hiroshima in 1945.

A report published this year by the US Congressional Research Service cited external estimates of North Korea possessing enough material for “20 to 60 warheads”.

North Korea is also pursuing the development of smaller warheads to fit a variety of delivery systems, it said.

In March this year, Kim called for expanded production of “weapon-grade nuclear materials” as North Korea unveiled what appeared to be a new, smaller tactical nuclear warhead. AFP

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