Lawmakers from South Korea’s ruling Saenuri Party have said the country should weigh building nuclear-powered submarines as Pyongyang makes progress in its atomic weapons program.
North Korea on Wednesday lofted a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) 500 km toward Japan — a distance analysts said highlighted weapons advances made by the reclusive regime of leader Kim Jong Un.
In a statement posted to Facebook Sunday, a group of 23 lawmakers led by Saenuri Party floor leader Won Yoo-chul blasted the North’s missile test and urged a more robust response by Seoul to Pyongyang’s saber-rattling.
“South Korea’s military should move to deal effectively with North Korea’s SLBM threat by deploying submarines with nuclear propulsion that can better detect and attack North Korean vessels,” the lawmakers said in the statement.
“Pyongyang must stop military provocations that threaten not only Northeast Asia, but the entire world,” it added. “North Korea should take the path of peace and prosperity and realize that nuke tests and missile launches will only lead to self-destruction.”
Nuclear submarines have considerable advantages over conventional diesel-electric subs, including the ability to stay submerged for long durations that are limited only by the need for the crew’s supplies.
When compared with land-based missile platforms, nuclear subs — which are far more difficult to detect — provide a safer bet of a successful launch.
Won said without such subs, South Korea is “vulnerable to North Korea’s SLBM threats,” the Yonhap news agency reported. “Deployment of nuclear-powered submarines is needed to counter such provocations.”While Kim has praised his country’s missile program for having “perfectly acquired” SLBM technology in a short period of time, rocketry analyst John Schilling cautioned Friday on the influential 38 North website run by Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies that an immediate rollout by the North should not be expected.
“The success of North Korea’s latest submarine-launched ballistic missile test suggests the program may be progressing faster than originally expected,” Schilling wrote. “However, this does not mean it will be ready next week, next month, or even next year.”
According to Schilling, the pace and method of the North’s SLBM testing suggests the weapon’s possible deployment in an initial operational capability by the second half of 2018 at the earliest.
The lawmakers’ push for a more robust response to the North comes amid questions over the reliability of the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system due to be deployed to South Korea next year.
Critics have said the THAAD system might be unable to defend South Korea if the North’s submarines launch ballistic missiles from waters off the Korean Peninsula’s southern coast, given that the system is designed to shoot down North Korean missiles fired from the north.
But Sebastian Maslow, an assistant professor at Tohoku University’s graduate school of law in Sendai, said the SLBM threat posed by the North will be limited considering Pyongyang’s aging submarine fleet.
“Bottom line, I expect more pressure on the DPRK (North Korea) and more U.S.-ROK (South Korea) naval deployment to deter DPRK subs, which are a limited threat given their noisy, outdated nature,” Maslow said, using acronyms for the two countries’ formal names.
South Korea’s Defense Ministry, apparently reluctant to publicly discuss the idea, said later Monday that no decision had been reached on the matter, according to media reports.
Malcolm Cook, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in Singapore, said the latest development shows a growing sense of fear and frustration in Seoul over the North’s military modernization.
“The decision to deploy a THAAD battery, invest in anti-submarine warfare capabilities and this legislative push for nuclear-powered submarines are all reactions to this fear,” Cook said.
“THAAD is part of the response and so is not undermined by the North Korean SLBM launch, he added. “Rather, the launch shows how much more Seoul must do to counter the threat from Pyongyang.”
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