A nonproliferation expert argues in a new report that North Korea has developed a new cruise missile based on a Russian model.
In a Monday analysis for 38 North, Jeffrey Lewis drew attention to a North Korean propaganda video posted online. For a brief second during the 50-minute recording, which focuses on North Korean military capabilities, a missile is seen fired from what looks to be a ship.
“The video confirms a surprising fact: the cruise missile is a copy of the Russian-produced Kh-35,” wrote Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center. “These cruise missiles fly at a very high speed just above the water’s surface in order to target ships” and were designed in the 1980s and 1990s, his assessment states.
North Korea is the subject of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions that forbid it from engaging in any weapons commerce with other countries.
Prior reports have suggested that North Korea is working on a cruise missile. Air Force Lt. Gen. James Kowalski, then head of the service’s Global Strike Command, included in a slide presentation last year the suspicion that Pyongyang is working on a KN-09 cruise missile that could be fielded within five years. The Air Force considers this cruise missile to be nuclear-capable, though independent experts have criticized that assessment.
Lewis said the North Korean video may depict the KN-09 cruise missile mentioned in last year’s Air Force presentation. What is less clear, however, is how the North managed to acquire the precursor Kh-35 missile, he said.
The Russian Kh-35 cannot carry a payload heavier than 150 kilograms or fly further than 130 kilometers, Lewis noted. The Missile Technology Control Regime does not define a missile with those characteristics as nuclear-capable.
Lewis postulated the North “most likely” bought the Kh-35 directly from Russia, but alternatively it might have come from a third-party nation known to have purchased the missile from Moscow. Countries that have imported the Kh-35 include Algeria, India, Vietnam and Myanmar. The latter country’s military ties with North Korea have come under most suspicion by the international community.
Not everyone is convinced the North Korean video footage is evidence of a cruise missile capability. Chad O’Carroll, founder of the North Korean news website NK News, in an online post noted “there is nothing concrete in the several frames of footage to indicate the cruise missile was filmed flying anywhere near North Korea.”
O’Carroll acknowledged on Tuesday it was possible the footage was real. However, he argued for skepticism when analyzing anything produced by North Korean propagandists, particularly “when the primary source is in fact nothing but one second of unattributed footage broadcast on [regime-controlled] KCTV.”