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Pyongyang may have tested SLBM: JCS

Submarine-launched missiles can threaten U.S. bases, territory
Oct 03,2019
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North Korea fired what may have been a submarine-launched ballistic missile on Wednesday, according to South Korea’s military, a day after announcing it would resume denuclearization talks with the United States later this week.

The projectile, which Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said was likely a submarine-launched Pukguksong-class ballistic missile, was launched at 7:11 a.m. from off the coast of Wonsan, Kangwon Province.

The rocket flew eastwards around 450 kilometers (280 miles), reaching a peak altitude of approximately 910 kilometers, before landing in the East Sea, a JCS spokesman said.

South Korea’s National Security Council concurred with this determination in a subsequent press release, expressing “grave concern” over the test, which it said raised tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

This was the 11th weapons test this year and, if it was a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), the first such test in three years. On Aug. 24, 2016, the regime conducted its first successful full-range SLBM test, launching a Pukguksong-1 missile from near Sinpo, South Hamgyong Province, the location of the country’s largest submarine base. Earlier SLBM tests were not fully successful.

Recent satellite footage of Sinpo obtained by U.S. analysts showed the country apparently gearing up to launch a new submarine, possibly the same vessel that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was pictured with on July 23 while on a visit to the naval base there.

Believed to have a displacement of approximately 3,000 metric tons (3,306 tons), that new submarine may be responsible for Wednesday’s test.

The launch came less than a day after North Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui announced that working-level denuclearization talks with Washington would resume on Saturday at an undisclosed location.

A missile launch in that context - following the regime’s 10 earlier weapons tests throughout this year - can be interpreted as Pyongyang’s attempt to escalate pressure on the United States and beef up its position ahead of the talks.

The test could also be a thumbing of the nose at Seoul, particularly after South Korea’s National Assembly on Monday passed a resolution condemning Pyongyang’s recent missile tests as a violation of the Sept. 19 inter-Korean military agreement.

South Korea commemorated its Armed Forces Day on Tuesday with a public ceremony unveiling a number of its newest weapons, including F-35A stealth jets that it recently acquired from the United States - a procurement deal that has been fiercely condemned by the North.

United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2397, the most recent of UNSC resolutions imposing economic sanctions on the North, calls for Pyongyang to “suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile program and in this context re-establish its pre-existing commitments to a moratorium on all missile launches.”

Yet the UNSC did not impose any additional punishments for North Korea’s 10 earlier weapons tests this year - most of which are believed to involve short-range ballistic missiles - short of strongly worded condemnations.

According to the Yonhap News Agency, an official at South Korea’s Blue House said Seoul would leave it up to the UNSC to decide whether its resolutions were violated with the North’s most recent tests.

Japan, on the other hand, immediately labeled the launch a violation of UN resolutions, with its Prime Minister Shinzo Abe condemning the test Wednesday morning. Abe’s chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga claimed there were two projectiles fired that morning, with one landing near the North Korean coast and the other in waters in the East Sea that were within Japan’s exclusive economic zone near the island of Dogojima in the Shimane Prefecture.

South Korean analysts interpreted Japan’s announcement as a sign that the North Korean projectile was a two-stage rocket with a booster compartment that detached from the rest of the rocket.

Both the Pukguksong-1 and its land-based successor, the Pukguksong-2, were two-stage rockets. The weapon from Wednesday could be the Pukguksong-3, a synthesis and successor to the two missiles.

An SLBM launch contrasts with earlier surface-to-air tests in terms of the launching submarine’s mobility and the difficulty of intercepting such missiles. The Sinpo-class of submarines - which the North’s new 3,000-metric-ton vessel is believed to belong to - are based on Russia’s Golf-class submarines, which can travel up 70 days submerged and cover a distance of up to 17,600 kilometers.

According to some South Korean estimates, the Pukguksong-1 missile has a working range of somewhere between 1,500 to 2,500 kilometers. The Pukguksong-2, which was tested on Feb. 12, 2017 from land, flew around 500 kilometers, but its operational range is believed to also reach around 2,000 kilometers.

This means a North Korean submarine could get somewhat close to the U.S. mainland and remain undetected - say 1,500 to 2,000 kilometers away - from which it could fire Pukguksong-1 at targets in the United States. The distance that separates North Korea from the U.S. western seaboard is approximately 9,000 kilometers.

One South Korean military expert said if North Korea is able to equip its 3,000-metric-ton submarine with a Pukguksong-3 missile, it could very easily put Hawaii or Guam within strike range.

Some in the South Korean military, however, say the SLBM threat stemming from Pyongyang has been overblown. North Korea’s submarines are not believed to be equipped with air independent propulsion technology, which allows the vessels to operate without access to oxygen, so their ranges are limited and they must surface frequently, making them vulnerable to detection by U.S. maritime surveillance.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK, LEE KEUN-PYUNG [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]