North Korean cruise missile tests add to country's provocative start to 2024

FILE - In this photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks at the Supreme People's Assembly in Pyongyang, North Korea, Monday, Jan. 15, 2024. Independent journalists were not given access to cover the event depicted in this image distributed by the North Korean government. The content of this image is as provided and cannot be independently verified. Korean language watermark on image as provided by source reads: "KCNA" which is the abbreviation for Korean Central News Agency. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP, File)

By KIM TONG-HYUNG Associated Press

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea’s weekend test of new cruise missiles for submarine launches added to its provocative start to 2024, as leader Kim Jong Un flaunts his growing nuclear arsenal and threatens nuclear conflict with Washington, Seoul and Tokyo.

Kim has gained confidence from the advancement of his nuclear weapons program and from strengthened ties with Russia as he looks to break out of diplomatic isolation and strengthen his footing against the United States.

Kim also likely wants to maintain a sense of external threat as he seeks tighter control over a populace suffering from prolonged economic woes.

North Korea’s military actions and hostile statements in January have raised concerns that it is ramping up pressure in an election year in the United States and South Korea.


Days after a year-end political conference at which Kim accused South Korea of hostility, North Korea fired hundreds of artillery rounds on three consecutive days near a disputed western sea boundary with South Korea, prompting the South to conduct similar firings in response.

While the artillery fire caused no known casualties or damage on either side, the disputed sea boundary could emerge as a crisis point.

At a Jan. 15 meeting of North Korea’s rubber-stamp parliament, the Supreme People’s Assembly, Kim reiterated that his country does not recognize the Northern Limit Line, which was drawn up by the U.S.-led U.N. Command at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. North Korea insists upon a boundary that encroaches deeply into waters currently controlled by South Korea.

Kim said if South Korea “violates even 0.001 millimeter of our territorial land, air and waters, it will be considered a war provocation.”

Concerns about a military clash have grown in recent months as both Koreas have taken steps that breached a 2018 military agreement on reducing border tensions which had established border buffers and no-fly zones.

The poorly marked western sea boundary was the site of bloody naval skirmishes between the Koreas in 1999, 2002 and 2009. North Korea allegedly torpedoed a South Korean warship in March 2010, killing 46 South Korean sailors, and its artillery bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island near the disputed border in November 2010 killed four South Koreans.


On Jan. 14, North Korea conducted its first flight test of a new solid-fuel intermediate-range missile that it said was tipped with a hypersonic warhead.

The launch reflected Kim’s pursuit of more powerful, harder-to-detect weapons designed to strike remote U.S. targets in the Pacific, including the military hub of Guam.

North Korea’s existing intermediate-range ballistic missiles are powered by liquid-fuel engines, which must be loaded with fuel before a launch and cannot stay fueled for long. Missiles containing solid propellants are ready to launch faster and are easier to move and conceal, making them harder for adversaries to detect and counteract.

Since 2021, North Korea has been testing hypersonic weapons designed to exceed five times the speed of sound. If perfected, they could pose a challenge to missile defense systems because of their speed and maneuverability. So far, experts say it’s unclear whether its hypersonic vehicles have been able to consistently maintain speeds faster than Mach 5 during their tests.

North Korea has a broad range of solid-fuel short-range missiles targeting South Korea and tested a solid-fuel intercontinental-range ballistic missile for the first time last year, adding to its arsenal of long-range weapons designed to reach the U.S. mainland.


A day after the intermediate-range missile test, Kim declared at the Supreme People’s Assembly that North Korea is abandoning its long-standing goal of reconciliation with South Korea and ordered the rewriting of its constitution to declare that the South is its most hostile foreign adversary.

In a fiery speech, Kim accused South Korea of acting as “top-class stooges” of Washington, citing joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises that are being expanded in response to the North’s weapons testing activity. Kim said he would use his nuclear weapons to annihilate South Korea if provoked.

Analysts say North Korea no longer sees South Korea as a useful middleman to extract concessions from Washington, and instead an obstacle to its efforts to carve out a more assertive presence in global affairs and negotiate an easing of U.S.-led sanctions from a position of strength.

Satellite images analyzed by The Associated Press last week suggest North Korea has torn down a huge arch in its capital that symbolized reconciliation with South Korea after Kim called it an “eyesore” that should be removed.


In supervising the test-firing of the cruise missiles designed to be launched from submarines, Kim reiterated his goal of building a nuclear-armed navy to counter what he described as growing external threats. State media said Kim also stressed North Korean efforts to build a nuclear-powered submarine, although experts say that would require significant outside help.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether the cruise missiles were fired from a submarine or from an underwater test barge. South Korea’s military says North Korea may have exaggerated the performance of the missiles, which the North said flew more than two hours before accurately hitting an island target.

Experts say North Korea would require considerable time, resources and technological improvements to build at least several submarines that could travel quietly and reliably execute attacks.


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