By Douglas Barrie, Senior Fellow for Military Aerospace
While the regime showed what appeared to be a mobile-tracked-vehicle coastal-defence variant of its ‘Kumsong-3’ lookalike of the Russian 3M24 Uran (SS-N-25 Switchblade) anti-ship missile, there remains little evidence in public that North Korea has invested much effort in recent years in cruise-missile technology beyond this project. The ship-launched Kumsong-3 was first shown publicly in 2012.
The simplest answer to this continuing absence of cruise missiles is that Pyongyang decided earlier to focus solely on short-, medium- and longer-range ballistic missiles as the ultimate guarantor of the regime's security. The considerably larger diameter of the DPRK’s ballistic-missile designs are also less demanding in terms of packaging any nuclear payload inside. But there are, of course, other challenges, such as developing a re-entry body.
However, countries with a ballistic-missile arsenal have often pursued cruise missiles as a supplement. For example, South Korea has now conventionally armed short-range ballistic and cruise missiles in its inventory. Meanwhile, China, India, Iran, Israel, Pakistan and Russia – not to mention the United States – all have cruise missiles in their respective arsenals. Many of these designs are dual capable.
Pyongyang has in the past shown interest in fielding air-launched cruise missiles. US intelligence reports from as far back as the mid-1980s cite North Korean efforts to integrate the Styx anti-ship missile with the Ilyuhsin Il-28/Harbin H-5 Beagle light twin-engine bomber. Whether the DPRK was successful remains unknown; however, integrating a missile the size and mass of the Styx on an Il-28 would have been a challenge. Pyongyang also appears to have developed an unmanned aerial vehicle similar in design to the Chinese WZ-5 or US MQM-107 Streaker that could have an attack role.
At least two US intelligence-community designators are associated with North Korean anti-ship cruise-missile designs: the KN-01 and the KN-09. The KN-01 is often described in open sources as a Styx-based system, while the KN-09 was identified in a US Air Force (USAF) document only as a ‘CDCM’ (assumed to mean ‘coastal defence cruise missile’).
The KN-09 description would fit the 3M24-like system displayed by Pyongyang in April, except that all of the other systems in the USAF presentation are capable of carrying a nuclear payload. Packaging a nuclear warhead in a 42cm-diameter fuselage, however, likely remains beyond the DPRK’s capability. This would suggest either the KN-09 designation is associated with another system – perhaps a larger cruise missile – or that for some reason the description released by the US regarding the KN-09 was erroneous.
There have also been occasional reports over the years of firings of the KN-01 from an Il-28 bomber, including in 2008 and 2011. Whether the KN-01 designation refers to a Styx variant or another anti-ship missile – perhaps the Kumsong-3 – remains to be resolved fully.
Irrespective of the lack of clarity over the identity of some North Korean missile developments, there remains the possibility at least that as yet unseen cruise-missile efforts could further add to the concern already caused by Pyongyang’s ongoing ballistic-missile programmes.
This analysis originally featured on the Military Balance+, the new IISS online database that enables users in government, the armed forces and the private sector, as well as academia and the media, to make faster and better-informed decisions. The Military Balance+ allows users to customise, view, compare and download data instantly, anywhere, anytime.