North Korea’s New Nuclear-Tipped Cruise Missile Makes Any U.S. Invasion Much Harder: Bases Across Japan in Range

North Korea has successfully test launched a new class of nuclear capable precision guided cruise missile, which was referred to by the state run Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) as an asset that would “enhance the combat efficiency and might” for the military’s “operation of tactical nukes.” Although North Korean doctrine previously left little room for tactical applications of nuclear weapons, and bound the country to only use them to deter and if necessary respond to enemy nuclear attacks, the country in 2022 for the first time showed indications that both of these restrictions had been abandoned and that serious conventional attacks could be responded to with tactical nuclear force. North Korean leader Chairman Kim Jong Un stated in relation to the test that Pyongyang “should continue to expand the operational sphere of the nuclear strategic armed forces to resolutely deter any crucial military crisis and war crisis at any time and completely take the initiative in it.” The missiles hit targets 2000km away, demonstrating a capability to engage targets across Japan. 

Although the primary focus of North Korea’s military modernisation efforts was previously its ballistic missile arsenal, advanced new weapons programs have covered a much more diverse range of systems with a fast growing number of new cruise missiles being unveiled. One of the most notable which entered service as tensions between Pyongyang and Washington spiked in the mid 2010s was the Kumsong-3, which demonstrated the ability to carry out advanced waypoint manoeuvres and could be launched from mobile vehicles, warships and possibly even the country’s Il-28 bombers providing a sophisticated anti shipping capability. The possibility that the Kumsong-3 could integrate nuclear warheads has been speculated. The yet unnamed new much longer ranged cruise missile is expected to further diminish U.S. options for a large scale military campaign against North Korea, for which bases across Japan serve as a key staging ground. The ability to strike these bases with a more diverse range of assets, including not only ballistic missiles and special forces but now also nuclear tipped cruise missiles, provides North Korea with an important means of preventing the use of these facilities to stage an invasion of its territory. 

Complementing the focus on targets in japan, North Korea’s ballistic missile development efforts achieved the ability to launch nuclear strikes against U.S. military facilities on Guam, which has served as another a key base for power projection into Northeast Asia. These capabilities are particularly significant because Pyongyang and Washington remain technically at war, with North Korea seeing its missile arsenals among other asymmetric assets as key to deterring and if necessary defeating an American attack. Washington has come close to initiating open hostilities with the country on a large scale on several occasions since 1953, most recently in 2016 under the Obama administration and in 2017 under the Trump administration – the latter which came close to approving mass nuclear strikes that were estimated to kill millions of Koreans according to Defence Secretary James Mattis. The Eisenhower, Nixon and Johnson administrations were otherwise the ones which came closest to initiating mass nuclear strikes on the East Asian state, although the possibility of such an attack is thought to have diminished considerably since North Korea developed a nuclear deterrent capable of striking the U.S. mainland.