(ATTN: ADDS defense chief's comments in last 3 paras)
By Oh Seok-min
SEOUL, Sept. 14 (Yonhap) -- South Korea and the United States have yet to figure out detailed information on North Korea's latest cruise missile tests, including the location of their launch and impact sites, sources said Tuesday.
The North's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported on Monday that the country successfully conducted tests of a new long-range cruise missile on Saturday and Sunday, which flew around 1,500 kilometers for about two hours and hit targets.
South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) has not disclosed any details about the latest tests, sparking speculation that the South Korean and U.S. authorities failed to detect the test-firings, at least on a real-time basis.
"South Korea and the U.S. are closely analyzing the information regarding the tests," a government source said. "We've yet to learn such details as their exact flight route. There seem to be some limits and difficulties given the characteristics of cruise missiles."
In the case of ballistic missile tests by the North, the JCS has made public related information instantly. As for cruise missile tests, however, whether to make a public announcement depends on related situations, according to another source.
"Cruise missiles move slower and are less powerful than ballistic missiles, so it would be relatively easy to counter an attack involving cruise missiles. But they travel at lower altitudes, making them hard to detect with radars, and can strike targets more precisely," Chang Young-keun, a missile expert at Korea Aerospace University, said.
The recently tested missiles appeared to have flown at a maximum altitude of around 100 meters, Chang said, adding that the current air defense system is designed to respond to ballistic missiles flying higher than cruise missiles.
Ankit Panda, a researcher and nonproliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, also said that cruise missiles' lower flight altitude than ballistic missiles means that "missile defense operators may need to reorient sensors, including radars, for optimal detection and tracking."
"Many North Korean missiles that have been tested in recent years have exhibited characteristics that would make missile defense more challenging," he noted.
Under U.N. Security Council resolutions, Pyongyang is banned from using ballistic technologies. But that is not the case for cruise missiles.
The new weapon, however, is deemed particularly threatening, Panda said.
This type would "mark the first claimed nuclear-capable cruise missile in North Korea's inventory, underscoring its nuclear arsenal's continued advances and the country's growing number of nuclear delivery options," he said.
KCNA called the new long-range missile "a strategic weapon of great significance," and experts say "strategic weapon" commonly indicates that it has nuclear capabilities. During the eighth congress of the North's ruling party in January, leader Kim Jong-un ordered the development of tactical nuclear weapons.
Defense Minister Suh Wook, however, said the military detected the firings and analysis is underway.
"We did detect the missiles through the South Korea-U.S. combined assets and are now conducting an initial analysis," Suh told a parliamentary interpellation session, refusing to elaborate when and how they detected the firings.
"We've learned the North began developing such missiles in the early 2000s and has accumulated related technologies," Suh said. "We have a detection and interception system against the North's cruise missiles. We will continue to review and complement the defense system down the road."
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