In 2014, observers became aware of a North Korean variant of the Russian-designed Kh-35 antiship cruise missile (ASCM), now dubbed the Kumsong-3. How North Korea came to acquire the Kh-35 remains unclear. Conflicting reports suggest that North Korea may have acquired it from Myanmar, or from Russia directly.
The Kh-35’s range is between 130-250 kilometers, depending on the particular model. Although the exact capabilities of the North Korea’s Kumsong-3 variant are not yet fully known, North Korea’s employment of the missile represents a significant technological improvement in antiship and coastal defense capabilities in range, accuracy, and propulsion. Its existence adds a new threat dimension to naval and maritime activity in the Sea of Japan. North Korea’s only other antiship cruise is the aging KN-01, based on the Russian P-15 Termit and Chinese CSS-C-2 Silkworm.
Kumsong-3 at a Glance
Originated from: Russia
Possessed by: North Korea
Alternate names: KN-19, Kh-35, Kh-35(U)
Class: Surface-to-surface antiship cruise missile (ASCM)
Basing: Ground- or sea-launched
Payload: 145 kg HE, semi-armor piercing
Propulsion: Turbofan + solid-fuel booster
Range: 130-250 km
Status: Possibly Operational
In service: First appeared June 2014
Kumsong-3 Development / Acquisition
The Kumsong-3 first appeared in a DPRK propaganda video released in June 2014.1 The first apparent test launch of the missile occurred on February 7, 2015, according an article published by North Korea’s state sponsored KCNA news agency.2 The missile was reportedly fired from a patrol boat, and flew a range of 200 km.
In an April 15, 2017 military parade, North Korea displayed a four-canister cruise missile launcher on a tracked vehicle. The launcher displayed on that occasion is likely the ground-based launcher for the Kumsong-3.3
A second instance of flight tests possibly occurred on June 7, 2017, in which North Korea fired four antiship cruise missiles into the Sea of Japan, which also flew to a range of around 200 kilometers.4 Unlike the February 2015 test, the missiles were ground-launched rather than fired from a ship.
Numerous theories have arisen as to how North Korea came to possess the Kh-35. One report indicated that Russia may have sold a coastal defense version of the Kh-35 to North Korea in 2008.5 Russia has also sold Kh-35s to India, Vietnam, and Algeria. Others have speculated that North Korea acquired the missile from Myanmar, which uses the Kh-35 on its Aung Zeya-class frigates, and has exchanged military technology with North Korea in the past.6
The Russian Kh-35 is a subsonic ASCM capable of flying as low as 10-14 meters while cruising. It measures 4.4 meters long with a diameter of 0.42 meters, and has a launch weight of 620 kg.
Russia has displayed two basic models of the Kh-35. The first version appeared in 1992, and has an estimated range of 130 km. The second version, displayed in 2009, is designated the Kh-35 Unified, or Kh-35(U). This newer variant is believed to have an extended range of up to 250 km.7
The Kumsong-3’s true range remains a matter of speculation. Both suspected test flights have reportedly achieved a range of 200 kilometers. This could suggest that the Kumsong-3 is based on the newer, longer-range Kh-35(U) variant. Alternatively, it could also indicate that North Korea tested a modified version of the older Kh-35 with an enhanced propulsion system, a lighter payload, or both. One initial analysis, however, suggested that the North Korean variant most closely resembles the newer Kh-35(U).8 Photographic analysis suggests that the Kumsong-3 differs from other variants in its booster and separation design, body length, and possibly adds an infrared terminal seeker. 9 According to The Diplomat, the Kumsong-3 variants tested on July 8, 2017, “successfully demonstrated waypoint maneuvers in flight at a range of 240 kilometers and featured…considerably upgraded seekers, comprising active radar and infrared homing for terminal guidance.”10