Asia Pacific

Pyongyang confirms test of new submarine-launched ballistic missile, says it did not threaten neighbors

Reuters, Kyodo, Staff Report

North Korea said on Thursday it had successfully test-fired a new submarine-launched ballistic missile the day before to contain external threats and bolster its defenses ahead of fresh nuclear talks with the United States.

The launch was the most provocative since North Korea resumed dialogue with the U.S. in 2018, analysts said, and was a reminder by Pyongyang of the weapons capability it has been aggressively developing, including intercontinental ballistic missiles.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “sent warm congratulations” to the defense scientists who conducted the test, state news agency KCNA said, indicating he did not attend the launch, unlike previous tests of new weapons systems.

The new type of SLBM, called Pukguksong-3, was “fired in vertical mode” in the waters off the eastern city of Wonsan, KCNA said, confirming an assessment by South Korea that the missile was launched at a lofted angle, flying high but not far.

“The successful new-type SLBM test-firing comes to be of great significance as it ushered in a new phase in containing the outside forces’ threat to the DPRK and further bolstering its military muscle for self-defense,” KCNA said. DPRK is short for the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The test “had no adverse impact on the security of neighboring countries,” KCNA said. It gave no other details.

Photos released in the official Rodong Sinmun newspaper showed a black-and-white missile emerging and clearing the surface of the water, then the booster rocket igniting to propel it into the sky.

A launch from a submarine deployed in waters surrounding a target nation would leave little time for a response and pose greater difficulty for missile defenses.

The threat of a submarine-launched ballistic missile grows exponentially with the range of the submarine. The North’s existing Romeo-class submarines, which were built in the 1990s, are believed to have a range of about 7,000 km (4,350 miles), potentially making a one-way trip to near Hawaii possible.

But they are diesel-electric powered and very noisy, making them highly vulnerable to detection, especially by U.S. forces with their decades of experience tracking Soviet submarines.

A State Department spokeswoman called on Pyongyang to “refrain from provocations” and remain committed to the negotiations.

South Korea expressed strong concern, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe condemned the launch, saying it was a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

North Korea rejects U.N. Security Council resolutions that ban Pyongyang from using ballistic missile technology, saying they are an infringement of its right to self-defense.

Talks aimed at dismantling North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs have been stalled since the second summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump in Vietnam in February broke down in disagreement over nuclear disarmament.

The two leaders agreed at their June 30 meeting in the inter-Korean truce village of Panmunjeom that North Korea and the United States would restart working-level negotiations within weeks, but these have yet to be held.

The Pukguksong-3 was seen as probably a modification of an earlier version tested in 2015 to enhance range, and was likely launched from a test platform and not an actual submarine, said Kim Dong-yub, a military expert at Kyungnam University’s Institute of Far Eastern Studies in Seoul.

Kim Jong Un’s absence at the test is “extremely unusual,” he said, and likely was meant to prevent the upcoming talks from falling apart before they even start.

On Wednesday, South Korea’s military said the missile flew 450 km (280 miles) and reached an altitude of 910 km. It was likely a Pukguksong-class weapon, as the North’s earlier submarine-launched ballistic missiles under development were known. The name translates as Pole Star.

South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo said the Pukguksong would have had a range of about 1,300 km (910 miles) on a standard trajectory.

Other military experts said the missile could have flown 2,000 kilometers — putting all of South Korea and Japan within reach.

In Tokyo, Defense Minister Taro Kono said Thursday that Japan has confirmed the test was of a midrange ballistic missile designed to be launched from a sub. It is not known if the missile was launched from a submarine or from a submerged platform, he added.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference earlier: “It is extremely important to fully implement relevant U.N. resolutions. Japan will continue to work closely with the United States as well as the international community to enforce them.”

North Korea had been developing SLBM technology before it suspended long-range missile and nuclear tests and began talks with the United States that led to the first summit between Kim and Trump in Singapore in June 2018.

The latest version of the Pukguksong may be the longest-range North Korean missile that uses solid fuel and the first nuclear-capable missile to be tested since November 2017, said Ankit Panda of the U.S.-based Federation of American Scientists.

North Korea has been developing rocket engines that burn solid fuel, which has advantages in military use compared to liquid fuel because it is stable and versatile, allowing it to be loaded in missiles until they are ready for launch.