After what North Korea claimed was the successful test-firing of a submarine-launched ballistic missile on Wednesday, Pyongyang is on track to develop the capability to strike targets in the region, including Japan, by 2020, given the speed of its development, according to a website run by a U.S. research institute.

The report posted on the website 38 North was compiled by the U.S. Korea Institute at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University.

North Korea’s official media reported Thursday that leader Kim Jong Un supervised the test-firing of the SLBM and declared it “the greatest success,” one that put it in the “front rank” of nuclear military powers.

“A test-fire of strategic submarine-launched ballistic missile was successfully conducted under the guidance of supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army Kim Jong Un,” the North’s official KCNA news agency said. “He appreciated the test-fire as the greatest success and victory.”

The KCNA report did not give the date of the missile launch, as it customarily omits references to the time and location of the leader’s activities.

The test showed that the solid-fuel missile’s control and guidance system, as well as the atmospheric re-entry of the warhead all met operational requirements, KCNA said.

The North’s Nodong missiles have a range of 1,300 km and can strike Japan. But Japanese experts also said Pyongyang could have its SLBM system in place by 2020, given Wednesday’s success, implying that Japan, the United States and South Korea could face more nuclear threats from the defiant hermit nation.

Hideshi Takesada, a professor at Takushoku University who is an expert on North Korea, said it is possible North Korea’s SLBMs already have a range of 3,000 km, based on Wednesday’s test, but merely adjusted the flight range to about 500 km for demonstration purposes.

“North Korea is likely to have already completed the development of SLBMs. In theory, the North is taking the same logical nuclear strategy as the Western powers,” he said.

Takesada said North Korea needs to have at least four SLBM-armed submarines to successfully deploy SLBMs. The North has one 1,800-ton Romeo-class sub and is apparently developing 3,000-ton submarines that can be fitted with SLBMs. He also said the North could develop more submarines by 2020.

North Korea has reportedly started building a facility to make a nuclear sub that can stay submerged longer than nonnuclear types and even reach the United States without being detected.

Takesada also said a North Korean SLBM could strike Hawaii, even if launched from a non-nuclear submarine.

One of the main purposes of SLBMs is to retaliate against nuclear attacks, since they can approach an opponent’s shoreline undetected and unleash surprise attacks.

That is why experts say the successful development of an SLBM program in the North could be problematic for Japan, the United States, and South Korea because SLBMs are hard to intercept by current missile defense systems, including the Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC-3), the SM 3 and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) sytem that the U.S. plans to deploy in South Korea.

However, it is unclear whether the North will have the capability to regularly deploy SLBMs due to the subpar quality of North Korean subs. The report by 38 North said the hermit kingdom could still face significant technological challenges, such as building a new class submarine to carry the missile.

To strategically deploy SLBMs as a deterrent, a submarine needs to be able to cruise below the surface undetected for a long period of time. But Masao Kobayashi, a former Maritime Self-Defense Force submarine commander, said North Korean subs have not yet reached that point, especially in terms of noise level.

“In order to use an SLBM as a deterrent, it has to be ready to strike back. But I am not sure if the North has such a capability, given the quality of its submarines. The most they could do is probably launch guerilla-like attacks for now,” he said.

Information from Reuters added

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