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Implications of North Korea’s Anti-Ship Missile Launch By Rajaram Panda

C3S Paper No. 0048/ 2015

In yet another demonstration of missile power, North Korea tested five missiles following a separate guided missile test on 8 February even as the US and South Korea prepare for joint exercises in March 2015. This has again heightened tensions in the Korean Peninsula. North Korea fired five short-range missiles into the Sea of Japan on 8 February, following tests of a self-guided missile a day before. The tests also marked the 67th anniversary of the Korean People’s Army (KPA). Washington and Seoul blame Pyongyang for developing rocket capabilities, which they see as a move towards the latter’s move to create an effective inter-continental ballistic missile.

 According to JCS spokesman Jeon Ha-kyu, the projectiles were “presumed to be fired from its eastern border town of Wonsan in a northeastern direction for about 50 minutes from 4.20 p.m. in succession”. The missiles flew some 200 km before landing in the sea. This North Korean act has made South Korea and the US to be vigilant against additional launches. Both the allies are also strengthening their joint surveillance postures. South Korean military analysts are of the opinion that these missiles are new-type of tactical missiles that North has developed as these are different from the one that it test-fired in 2014 around this time before the US-Korea joint military exercises. As usual, Pyongyang continues to perceive Seoul-Washington military drills as “dress rehearsal for a northward invasion”. Pyongyang’s saber-rattling is also partly in response to fresh sanctions imposed by the US over its alleged hacking attacks on Sony Pictures after it released “The Interview”, a satire film which depicts a plot to assassinate the North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un.

 Though Pyongyang claims that it has developed a new “ultra-precision anti-ship rocket” on its own, it is believed to be a Russian-made Kh-35E anti-ship cruise missile. Irrespective of such contending claims, the bottom line is that the deployment of this new missile will help modernise the North’s navy and represent fresh threats to South Korea and the US. Given the secretive nature of North Korean system, it would remain in the realm of conjecture if the Korean People’s Navy (KPN) acquired the system directly from Russia or a third party or whether it is a licensed produced or reversed engineered version of the missile. Nevertheless, should the new system be successfully integrated into the KPN and widely deployed as is feared, it would “represent a significant step toward redressing the service’s obsolescence and increasing the threat poised to South Korean and U.S. Navy vessels in the region”. If Pyongyang actually succeeds in doing so, the next logical step would be to deploy a coastal defense version, adding to worries of Seoul and Washington.

 Joseph Bermudez, an expert on North Korea’s military, in a report carried by the website 38 North observes that “the potential threat posed by a Kh-35 system could be further expanded if the North’s air force deploys the Kh-35EUL air-launched version, which could endow its ancient obsolete fleet of Il-28 light bombers with a modern standoff missile capability”. Bermudez cautions, however, that these potential developments are just possibilities. According to him, “the North’s navy — and military industrial system in general– has a long history of slow and often poor system integration. While these recent developments are important, time will determine whether North Korea has the ability to realize the potential of this new system”.

 How does North Korea’s new acquisition add to its existing military capabilities? True to the nature of its secretive system, the images of an anti-ship missile test firing revealed the existence of one of Pyongyang’s most secret programs for the production of advanced naval craft, the picture that depicted an indigenous version of the dreaded Kh-35 anti-ship missile. These naval craft, named surface effect ships (SES), use an effect similar to that powering a hovercraft to reach rapid speeds without sacrificing weight in the form of heavy weaponry.

 “The SES in question is the second of a series of now four types of prototypes, and the first to be confirmed to have been put into service. Based on a hull-design seen as early as 2002, the new craft carries a range of the most modern equipment the Korean People’s Navy has to offer, yet lacks the advanced stealth features and heavy weaponry seen on later prototypes, such as the copy of the Italian 76mm OTO Melara.”

“Aside from the layout of the ship and angled hull, another important innovation tested on this craft comes in the form of trainable racks, meaning the anti-ship missiles can be transported while lying down and raised before firing, a capability that would be fully exploited on later prototypes.”

“Equipped with two 30mm automated close-in weapon systems (CIWS) based on the Soviet AK-630 (yet fitted in the AK-230 turret), four indigenously-designed 14.5mm rotary cannons, a new surface-to-air missile system and two mounts for two of the lethal anti-ship missiles (opposed to the four per rack seen on other Korean People’s Army Navy ships), this new vessel is an attempt at creating the perfect coastal defense class.”

Though the advanced design and the prospect of capable stealth features on later variants are likely to provide opposing navies with a hefty challenge, the variant lacks actual stealth and radars and therefore would be vulnerable to aircraft, incoming missiles and opposing ships. This variant also lacks the 81 mm chaff dispensers that are seen on other new and refurbished naval craft.

“The anti-ship missiles mounted on the ship now appear to have been modified more extensively from their original, Soviet design than was initially thought. The missiles, which have already been exported to Myanmar, are based on a design capable of hitting targets 130 km away incorporating features such as sea-skimming capabilities and a low radar signature, differ from their ancestors in a modified propulsion system and a slightly lengthened body, and are fired from indigenously designed canisters. During the exercise all four missiles were fired and reportedly hit their target 100 km away.”

Though North Korean defense industry has its own limitations to produce the high-tech components used in the design because of poor R & D facilities, it is believed to have borrowed some of the modifications based on the design originally adopted in the Chinese C-802 anti-ship missile. This is purportedly to have been delivered by Iran as part of technology exchanges between the two nations.

The latest prototypes of the stealthy craft have a strong resemblance to the Norwegian Skjold-class SES in dimensions, appearance and capabilities alike. Each vessel is different from the next. And, not all have entered active service yet. However, North Korea can officially call itself the largest operator of surface effect ships in the world. The weapons systems seen on the ‘stealth SES’ signify the general trend of modernization in the KPA Navy. The modernization of the KPA originates from the 1990s and appears to be picking up speed now that most systems are leaving prototype status and are entering mass production. The future will likely see many more North Korean naval vessels outfitted with advanced weaponry. If tensions between the North and South Koreas increase, the former is likely to bring into play the indigenous version of the Kh-35 missile and that would present the navies of South Korea and the US with new challenge.

Apart from the nuclear weapons program, Pyongyang seems determined to beef up its naval capability and now with its Kh-35 derivative, can boasts of robust deterrent capability. In fact, though its origin is suspected to be from Russia, the existence of the anti-ship missile in the KPA inventory was first revealed in early June 2014 in a North Korean military video. Other footage also revealed the presence of launch racks for such a missile on North Korean naval vessels, including the Najin-class frigate as part of an ongoing modernisation of these vessels. Now Pyongyang boasts to be in possession of this kind of lethal weapon system that can be delivered with “ultra-precision and capable of precisely tracking and hitting an enemy naval vessel. The state also boasts that the missiles as “capable of striking any enemy fleet of battleships at will from a long distance”. Thus it is evident that Pyongyang seeks to demonstrate its capabilities as deterrents against foreign navies.

Pyongyang is determined to project itself to the world that it is a strong military power, no matter how impoverished the nation is or how poor its people are. In particular, its possession of missiles that can be launched from mobile platforms such as naval vessels, are effective deterrents since they can strike at enemy forces at greater distances and from less predictable locations.

The new acquisition of anti-ship missiles by the North is not only a threat to its immediate neighbour but to the US well. The South Korean Defence Ministry in its white paper observed that North Korean missiles could reach the US mainland. This conclusion was reached after the North completed five rounds of long-range missile testing. The assessment was also said to be based on North Korea’s successful launch into orbit in December 2012 of the Unha-3 rocket with a range of some 8,000 km (almost 5,000 miles). The Taepodong-2 missile has an even longer range of some 10,000 km. Coupled with this, North’s alleged advancement in miniaturizing nuclear weapons, attributing to the country’s nuclear tests, poses significant threat to the world and a potential destabilising factor to the peace and stability in Northeast Asia.

Three after-effects to the North’s acquisition of further military muscle cannot go unnoticed. The first is the relevance of the joint military drills by the US and South Korea is greater now than ever before. It was for this reason that the latest drills was conducted in close proximity to the reclusive North near Ganghwa Island in the Yellow Sea, close to the North Korean coast. About 200 South Korean troops and 20 American military personnel stationed in the base in Okinawa, Japan, participated in the drills that included simulations of infiltrating enemy territory. During the drill, the troops attacked designated targets while also being trained in escaping from the sites. The drill was a part of the ongoing Korea Marine Exercise Program, a regularly scheduled military training program aimed at enhancing troops’ combat readiness while also improving coordination between the two countries’ naval forces. Such exercises have never been held in such close proximity to North Korea. Besides this, troops from South Korea and the US are also expected to conduct an annual landing drill in the South Korean port city of Pohang in March. The upcoming drill is expected to include nearly 1,000 US troops and 3,000 South Korean forces. The US and South Korea have consistently claimed that the annual drills are defensive in nature and are conducted to test Seoul’s readiness to counter any North Korean threat.

The second factor is the inability or unwillingness on the part of China to rein in on Pyongyang despite reports of frustrations in Beijing on the Kim Jong-un’s recent behaviour. In fact, Beijing continues to be Pyongyang’s life line by providing economic assistance. North Korea’s trade dependence on China is deepening over the years. In 2013, for example, more than 90 percent of North Korea’s exports were bound for China, indicating that Pyongyang’s trade dependence on its main ally has deepened significantly over the past decade. According to the report by the Beijing office of the Korea International Trade Association, North Korea exported 90.6 percent of its products to China in 2013, much higher than the 50.9 percent tallied in 2003. North Korea’s exports to China totalled $400 million in 2003; it jumped by more than six-fold to $2.9 billion in 2013. Though despite the increase, North Korean products accounted for only a small portion of China’s imports, for the North this business means a lot for its economy. China’s investment in North Korea also expanded sharply from $1.2 million in 2003 to $86.2 million in 2013. The number of North Koreans visiting China also surged 162.5 percent from 80,000 in 2003 to 210,000 in 2013. These suggest China is unlikely to abandon the North as North’s existence has huge strategic value for Beijing.

The third after-effect is that South Korea is now prepared to develop new arms in response to North Korea’s accumulation of military muscle as the sense of unease increases in Seoul. In January 2015 Defense minister Han Min-koo presented the plan on the armed forces’ modernization to President Park Geun-hye. According to the plan, by 2020s, South Korea will develop a laser weapons system, high-power microwave (HPM) bombs and electromagnetic pulse (EMP) warheads, which will cost $28 million. After 2020, the laser weapons system will be put into service on South Korean warships. South Korea will spend almost $19 million to develop drone watercraft able to undertake military operations in the Yellow Sea.

The plan also pays attention to the armed forces’ use of emerging technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT). South Korea feels that reinforcement of the country’s defense capacity will create a basis for the reunification of North and South Korea and will help elaborate the defense policy of the new country.

These are ambitious plans. There are no details how the unification could be achieved, however. Both the Koreas are technically in a state of war as a peace treaty has not been signed following the end of the Korean War in 1953. While both talk about unification, both are engaged in arms race, triggered in the first place by the North. While North Korea’s surge in military modernization continues, the South is not shy to develop countermeasures. With no resolution seen in the horizon, it remains in South Korea’s interests to remain tied with its alliance relationship with the US and this would only secure stability in the region. In the meantime, no effort should be spared to dissuade Pyongyang from pursuing the kind of path it has chosen. The global community has responsibility to address to this issue.

(Dr. Rajaram Panda, former Senior Fellow, IDSA, New Delhi, is now an Independent Researcher based in New Delhi. E-mail:

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