North Korea Says It Tested a Cruise Missile, Flaunting New Nuclear-Capable Weapon

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea said Thursday it conducted its first flight test of a new cruise missile, as it expands its military capabilities in the face of deepening tensions with the United States and neighbors.

The report in state media came a day after South Korea’s military said it detected the North firing several cruise missiles into waters off its western coast. It didn’t immediately provide more details about the numbers of missiles fired or their flight characteristics.

The North’s official Korean Central News Agency said the Pulhwasal-3-31 missile is still in its development phase and that the launch did not pose a threat to neighbors. It described the missile as “strategic,” implying an intent to arm them with nuclear weapons.

Lee Sung Joon, spokesperson of South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the missiles flew a shorter distance than previous North Korean cruise missile launches, which he said suggested that the North was trying to improve the performance of existing systems.

The cruise missile launches were North Korea’s second known launch event of the year, following a Jan. 14 test-firing of the country’s first solid-fuel intermediate-range ballistic missile, which reflected its efforts to advance its lineup of weapons targeting U.S. military bases in Japan and Guam.

Yang Uk, an analyst at Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said North Korea is trying to highlight its diversifying arsenal of nuclear-capable weapons to increase pressure on rivals. But the recent displays of new weapons systems came amid a slowdown in tests of short-range ballistic missiles, which could indicate inventory shortages as North Korea continues its alleged arms transfers to Russia, Yang said.

U.S. and South Korean officials have accused North Korea of providing artillery shells, missiles and other supplies to Russia for its war in Ukraine, possibly in exchange for economic assistance and military technology.

Kim, who traveled to a Russian space launch center in September for a summit with Putin, has been taking aggressive steps to strengthen ties with Moscow as he tries to break out of isolation and join a united front against Washington.

Both Pyongyang and Moscow have denied that North Korea was sending weapons to Russia.

North Korea’s cruise missiles are among its growing arsenal of weapons aimed at overwhelming missile defenses in South Korea and Japan. They supplement the country’s huge lineup of ballistic missiles, including intercontinental ballistic missiles designed to reach the U.S. mainland.

While North Korean cruise missile activities aren’t directly banned under U.N. sanctions, experts say those weapons potentially pose a serious threat to South Korea and Japan. They are designed to be harder to detect by radar, and North Korea claims they are nuclear-capable and their range is up to 2,000 kilometers (1,242 miles), a distance that would include U.S. military bases in Japan.

Since 2021, North Korea has conducted at least 10 rounds of tests of what it described as long-range cruise missiles fired from both land and sea.

Tensions in the region have increased in recent months as Kim continues to accelerate his weapons development and make provocative threats of nuclear conflict with the United States and its Asian allies. In response, the United States, South Korea and Japan have been expanding their combined military exercises, which Kim condemns as invasion rehearsals and has used as a pretext to further ramp up his military demonstrations.

There are concerns that Kim could dial up pressure in an election year in the United States and South Korea.

South Korean experts and officials say Kim’s weapons drive has put further strain on a broken economy, crippled by decades of mismanagement and U.S.-led sanctions over his nuclear ambitions.

In a separate report, KCNA said Kim during a two-day ruling party meeting held through Wednesday criticized officials for failing to provide enough of “basic living necessities including condiments, foodstuff and consumption goods” to people living in the countryside and less developed cities and towns.

Kim called the meeting to discuss a 10-year project he announced last week to promote more balanced regional development, which includes a goal of building modern factories in every county nationwide.

Satellite images analyzed by The Associated Press this week suggest North Korea has torn down a huge arch in its capital that symbolized reconciliation with South Korea, a week after Kim dismissed decades of hopes for peaceful reunification with the war-divided peninsula’s south.

Kim last week described the Pyongyang monument as an “eyesore” and called for its removal while declaring that the North was abandoning long-standing goals of a peaceful unification with South Korea and ordered a rewriting of the North’s constitution to define the South as its most hostile foreign adversary. He accused South Korea of acting as “top-class stooges” of the Americans and repeated a threat that he would use his nukes to annihilate the South if provoked.

Analysts say North Korea could be aiming to diminish South Korea’s voice in the regional nuclear standoff and eventually force direct dealings with Washington as it looks to cement its nuclear status.

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