A ballistic missile North Korea fired from a submarine on Wednesday morning flew 500 km over the Sea of Japan and raised concerns over progress in Pyongyang’s missile technologies after a failed test-firing last month. The missile fell into the sea inside Japan’s air defense identification zone.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters that the submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) was fired at 5:29 a.m. off Sinpo, North Korea. It soared in an east-northeasterly direction.
Tokyo filed a protest at the North’s embassy in Beijing, saying the launch posed a “grave threat” to Japan and other countries in the region and violated U.N. Security Council resolutions, Suga said.
The missile was fired shortly before Chinese, South Korean and Japanese foreign ministers met in Tokyo. Suga said the three nations would discuss a coordinated response.
The missile test came at a time of major military drills involving tens of thousands of U.S. and South Korean troops in the South.
Defense Minister Tomomi Inada said Pyongyang may have fired the missile “to demonstrate its military power” in a gesture of defiance during the exercise.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told a news conference after the meeting that Beijing has consistently opposed Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile work.
However, China does not have a track record of making strong responses after missile launches. When a North Korea ballistic missile reached Japan’s exclusive economic zone on Aug. 3, Beijing blocked the U.N. Security Council from adopting either a resolution or a statement condemning Pyongyang — despite lobbying for that by Tokyo and Washington.
During the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union fielded SLBM-armed submarines as a backbone of their nuclear deterrence. The vessels can approach an opponent’s shore undetected to conduct a surprise atomic attack.
Yoji Koda, a former fleet commander with the Maritime Self-Defense Force, told The Japan Times that Pyongyang is probably developing SLBMs to counter the planned U.S. deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea. He said North Korea is unlikely to see them as a viable means of attack for the U.S. mainland or Japan.
“North Korean submarines would never be able to advance into the Pacific Ocean beyond Japan and reach the U.S. It’d be impossible” given the MSDF’s superiority in anti-submarine operations, he said.
Meanwhile, Japan is unlikely to be the primary target because North Korea would be able to deploy only a limited number of SLBMs, Koda said. Instead, North Korea is believed to possess dozens of intermediate-range ballistic missiles that can hit Japan.
Koda said THAAD brings clear benefits for South Korea as it will allow the U.S. to detect and track all missiles fired from North Korea. Pyongyang therefore needs SLBMs to increase the survivability of its arsenal, he said.
“The THAAD system will be soon deployed in South Korea. That’s why the North has been desperately developing” its SLBM system in recent months, Koda said.
Other analysts said Wednesday’s test showed significant technological progress.
“The SLBM launch was most likely successful. The SLBM program has received quite a bit of attention and the testing is actively promoted and embellished in North Korean media,” said Melissa Hanham, a senior research associate in the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, California.
“I believe the SLBM program is very worrisome both as a tool of war and as propaganda. The submarines themselves, however, are poor in quality. They cannot go far and are fairly easy to track,” she added.
John Schilling, a California-based aerospace engineer specializing in rocket and spacecraft analysis, said Wednesday’s test-firing is “almost certainly a complete success.” However, he also believes Pyongyang may have some way to go before such a weapon is deployable.
“While this was a substantial improvement in North Korea’s demonstrated capabilities, it does not likely represent an operational SLBM capability at this time. A submarine-launched missile system is particularly complex and requires separate testing of the missile and the submarine, followed by testing of the integrated system,” he told The Japan Times.
“And with only one known submarine with two missile tubes, Pyongyang will not be eager to trust a system that has not been proven to be highly reliable,” Schilling said.
At the same time, he said North Korean submarines could remain undetected even in contested waters until the moment of an attack, as was the case in the 2010 Cheonan incident, in which 46 South Korean seamen died when their warship was sunk by an apparent North Korean torpedo.
“Operating from the Sea of Japan, such a submarine could launch one or two missiles — probably with nuclear warheads — against targets anywhere in Japan,” he said.