Why North Korea may not have just developed a cruise missile

North Korean media's track record seemingly ignored in 38 North analysis
June 17th, 2014

Has North Korea just entered “the cruise missile business“? Reading Jeffrey Lewis at 38 North on Tuesday, you might be persuaded to think so.

Citing a few frames of low-resolution footage injected into a 49 minute film broadcast about DPRK military capabilities, Lewis “confirms a surprising fact” – that the missile seen in a recent North Korean video is a copy of the modern, Russian-made KH-35.

Asking “Where did North Korea get the Kh-35,” Lewis speculates that Russia would be “the most likely candidate,” suggesting the “implication of new North Korean capabilities” means Washington now needs to “work more energetically to engage the North Koreans”.

Lewis goes from first-class detective work in identifying the cruise missile – no easy feat – to pro-engagement policy recommendations for the White House, all based on under one second of video. But let’s not forget this is video broadcast by Korea Central TV (KCTV), an outlet well known for being part of a propaganda apparatus that is manipulative with facts, Photoshops material, and that even engages in historical revisionism.

That’s a big omission to make, especially when considering there is nothing concrete in the several frames of footage to indicate the cruise missile was filmed flying anywhere near North Korea!

Of course, it is possible the footage could very well be genuine, perhaps a tease of a rapidly evolving North Korean military capabilities in spite of ever-tighter sanctions. But then again, what would be the goal of parading this new capability for just under a second, right at the very end of a video on broader military capabilities that could be easily missed?

Regardless of the answer, I believe it is important to be skeptical about everything North Korea says. Especially when there is mounting suspicion North Korean propagandists know analysts and observers are watching – even from the satellites above.

But why is this important – and why do I want to draw attention to this now?

As someone who is contacted frequently by media to offer an opinion on whether the latest story about Kim Jong Un executing his former girlfriend is true, I am increasingly frustrated by the echo-chamber I observe on North Korea reporting every week.

When the Chosun Ilbo says an official was executed by mortar round, it’s safe to expect this to become headline news in pretty much every Asia section the very next day. And despite the absurdity, there’s always enough plausible deniability to publish these stories because Asia editors can always say, “the Chosun Ilbo said it!”

In a similar vein, when respected analysts like Jeffrey Lewis and specialist websites like 38 North make claims, mainstream media also listens – and usually for the right reasons.

But should stories about new North Korean cruise missiles be re-reported as a matter of fact when the primary source is in fact nothing but one second of unattributed footage broadcast on KCTV? Only, I believe, if proper context is provided.

Yet, within just a few hours of 38 North publishing the post, the BBC had re-reported the cruise missile story without any air of doubt, omitting to mention North Korea’s highly dubious propaganda track record. In “N Korea develops Russian cruise missile“, the BBC told readers about the risks Lewis said a North Korean cruise missile capability might pose to neighbouring nations, even adding additional analysis from Jonathan Marcus, a diplomatic correspondent.

The issue is, when the BBC spotlights a North Korea story, you can be sure of extensive re-reporting – as was the case when a story about Kim Jong Un haircuts went viral recently. And so the process began: VOA followed suit not long after, with “Report: N. Korea Has New ‘Potentially Destabilizing’ Cruise Missile“.

Regardless of whether these cruise missiles are real or not, there is a more serious issue at play. That is, when extensive re-reporting of North Korea stories occur, experts often get called in to give their two cents – and I would not be surprised to even find State Department spokespersons fielding questions on the topic later today.

Is all this good for policy-making? It seems some are letting KCTV decide.

The views expressed here are the authors alone.

Picture: KCTV


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About the Author

Chad O'Carroll

Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.

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  • Guest

    I would point out that he does say, “As I have argued before, the implication of new North Korean capabilities is not that Kim Jong Un is crazy or that the KPA is ten-feet-tall, but that Washington needs to work more energetically to engage the North Koreans. I say this fully aware that such engagement is likely to be slow, painful and largely unsatisfying. But it remains necessary.”

    It seems to be a bit of an exaggeration that the Kh-35 is the only reason why Lewis is arguing for engagement. Plus, he’s not the only one urging the White House to engage North Korea.

    • Warren Lauzon

      I don’t think that the current administration has a single clue on how to handle North Korea. While supposedly “rebalancing to Asia”, it seems like they are much more intent on the Middle East. In the long run, despite all the current atrocities going on in Libya and Iraq, I think that Asia and North Korea is a much more important focal point. The Middle East has been unstable for hundreds of years, but North Korea going (more) unstable could end up involving most of the entire region, not to mention putting the West at odds with China.
      As much as people worry about oil in the Middle East, as long as oil Is worth money it will reach the market under whoever the current dictator is, but turmoil in Asia could have much bigger consequences.

  • http://spioenkop.blogspot.com Joskip

    A solid article, but the use of this missiles by North Korea has been confirmed (in fact, for quite some years in private circles). More evidence and information can be found in this article:

    • saveourmoney

      Well put. Mr. O’Carroll can answer for himself, but I perceive his theme as being more about the over reactions and over reaching in the media when the DPRK is seen as having a “new” military capability.

      At the risk of straying off subject, reverse engineering a cruise missile to enable native production isn’t a big deal if you’re North Korea. Propulsion, conventional warhead construction and shaping, and fusing can utilize older technologies and still manifest themselves in an effective weapon. Guidance and steering might be difficult for the DPRK, but not impossible.

      Overreaction to the presence of these weapons could be a greater risk than the weapons themselves.

  • Warren Lauzon

    I totally agree that we should all be skeptical. One reason is that normally when North Korea comes up with something new (to them), they emphasize it in propaganda films, and a blurred 4 second shot looks a bit iffy just for that reason alone. North Korea may in fact have some version of the cruise missile, but that clip alone is not enough to verify it.

  • keve

    When there are claims about North Korea missiles, it was not just a rumor from North Korea. North Korea always delivered when related to military issues. Politically, non-East media, only have rumors or claims often exaggerated with selective heavily filtered information; often this claims or propagandas are almost always to degrade and mock North Korea. Engagement would provide alternative to sanction/censorship. Sanction/Censorship hurt BOTH societies with ignorance promoted by immaturity in media. North Korean and US Citizens deserver better with open information and engagement without the political immaturity. Depending on politicians and media claims to learn about another society……it does NOT get any worse.