North Korea test fires 2 short-range ‘tactical-guided missiles’

The missiles are likely for precision strikes, not destroying whole cities with nuclear warheads, experts say.
By Jaeduk Seo
North Korea test fires 2 short-range ‘tactical-guided missiles’ A tactical guided missile is launched, according to state media, at an undisclosed location in North Korea, in this photo released January 17, 2022 by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
KCNA/via Reuters

North Korea conducted its fourth missile test this month on Monday when its military fired two short-range ballistic missiles at an island about 236 miles northeast from the capital Pyongyang.

Experts said the missiles would probably be armed with conventional, not nuclear, warheads in an attack, but their launch is likely to ratchet up tensions in the region as both the U.S. and South Korea governments promptly criticized North Korea’s latest action.

The state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper reported that the two “tactical-guided missiles” hit their objectives. Experts said these missiles were more accurate than other missiles that North Korea tested recently. Based on photos in the newspaper, the fired missiles were similar to the KN-24, which Pyongyang tested on multiple occasions in 2019 and 2020.

South Korea’s defense ministry has said that the KN-24 missile resembles the U.S. MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) and has been designed to avoid missile defense systems and perform precision strikes.

Monday’s test followed a test of two ballistic missiles on Friday, which came after North Korea warned of a “stronger and certain reaction” if Washington were to authorize more sanctions in response to the test Pyongyang conducted days before.

The Pentagon was not able to confirm that the missile was a KN-24 or any other missile resembling ATACMS, press secretary John Kirby said in a news briefing Tuesday.

“We've assessed them as ballistic missiles, and we're still we're still running the traps on that,” Kirby said.

When asked if the U.S. was downplaying the missile launches because they do not pose a threat to the U.S. mainland, Kirby reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to the defense of South Korea.

“We have as an administration condemned these missile launches and called them out for what they are, clearly violations of various U.N. Security Council resolutions and dangerous to the region certainly dangerous to our allies and partners and we're taking that very seriously,” Kirby said.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, through spokesman Stéphane Dujarric, on Monday repeated calls for a diplomatic solution, referring to North Korea by its acronym.

"There haven't been that many periods, I think, in recent time where we have seen so many launches from the DPRK," Dujarric said. "And for us, it is just another reminder of the need for the DPRK, and all the parties engaged to involve themselves, engage themselves in diplomatic talks so we can get what the United Nations would like to see, which is a very verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and, in the more immediate term, a lowering of tensions."

Nevertheless, the missile tests are a “direct and serious military threat,” Boo Seung Chan, a spokesman for South Korea’s Defense Ministry said.

South Korea’s main opposition People Power Party released a statement condemning North Korea’s many missile provocations and called on the ruling party to do the same.

Several U.S.-based analysts told RFA’s Korean Service that the KN-24 missiles were likely conventional-only systems for North Korea. Joshua Pollack, a senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, California, noted that the KN-24 and the KN-23 before it were introduced as “tactical weapons.”

“[That implies] that they would be intended to carry conventional warheads only. But that picture was muddied in January 2021, when Kim Jong Un introduced the subject of ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons,” Pollack told RFA.

“For now, at least, I think they are meant to be conventional precision-strike weapons. They appear to be North Korea's response to similar missiles developed in South Korea in previous years,” he said.

Bruce Bechtol Jr., professor of political science at Angelo State University, agreed that it was unlikely that weapons would be used to deliver nuclear warheads.

“My best guess would be it's likely going to be used as a tactical support system for ground maneuver forces in any conflict, Bechtol said.

“That would probably be more of a conventional warhead … because, in a combat situation, ground forces want to take and hold ground. So, if they put a nuclear warhead on that thing, they're not going to be able to hold that ground because it's going to be contaminated,” he said.

Michael Duitsman, a researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, told RFA that the KN-24’s higher accuracy might even decrease incentives for Pyongyang to use nuclear weapons for short-range missions.

“Precision strike weapons like the KN-24, U.S. ATACMS, and South Korea’s Hyunmoo-2 can accurately hit high-value targets with single, conventionally-armed missiles. Hitting these targets with older, less accurate missiles could require several missiles, or one missile with a nuclear warhead,” Duitsman said.

North Korea has, however, been able to produce the KN-24 in significant numbers, Ian Williams of the Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies told RFA.

We've seen them in the parades they have done. We've seen a good number of them … and just the number of times they have fired particularly the KN-23, we've seen them test launch this now multiple times, typically firing them in pairs. So that suggests they've got a fairly good production capacity for them,” Williams said.

Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.


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