South Korea joined an exclusive club last week, becoming only the eighth country to successfully test-fire a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), as its rival to the north stepped up preparations for a military parade that could see Pyongyang unveil yet more powerful weapons.
Seoul test-launched what is believed to be a variant of the Hyunmoo-2B ballistic missile, which has a roughly 500-kilometer range, from its 3,000-ton Dosan Ahn Chang-ho submarine last week, the South’s Yonhap news agency reported Tuesday.
The successful launch means South Korea has joined seven other countries — all nuclear-weapon states — in possessing the technology. The United States, China, Russia, France, India, the U.K. and North Korea arm their SLBMs with nuclear warheads, or are believed to do so.
The South Korean Defense Ministry refused to comment on the development, citing security reasons. However, Bloomberg News, quoting an unidentified defense official, confirmed the launch.
The revelation comes as nuclear-armed North Korea appears to be preparing to hold a large-scale military parade this week to mark the anniversary of the country’s founding.
Satellite imagery taken last week and published by North Korea-watching website 38 North showed roughly 10,000 troops had massed in Pyongyang, apparently for training. Yonhap, quoting unidentified military sources, said they were likely to take part in a parade Thursday, given the status of preparations.
Last October, North Korea held a massive military parade to mark the 75th anniversary of the ruling party’s founding, unveiling a monster new intercontinental ballistic missile and a new SLBM.
SLBMs are harder to detect than conventional land-based missiles and would match recent developments by Pyongyang, which has showcased a number of different types of the sub-launched weapons in recent years, as well as a new submarine that is capable of carrying them.
Seoul’s development of the weapons had been limited to those under the range of 800 km under bilateral missile guidelines agreed to with the U.S. until May, when those were scrapped — effectively putting parts of China and North Korea within striking distance.
Although the SLBM development raised eyebrows among defense and Korea experts, it is not believed to signal that Seoul, which falls under Washington’s so-called nuclear umbrella, is in any hurry to develop its own atomic weapons program.
“As long as the United States and South Korea maintain their alliance, Seoul will not develop nuclear weapons,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
The two Koreas have engaged in tit-for-tat improvements in their missile arsenals, with the South’s Defense Ministry saying last week that it would develop new weapons “with significantly enhanced destructive power.”
“We will develop stronger, longer-range and more precise missiles so as to exercise deterrence and achieve security and peace on the Korean Peninsula,” the ministry said.
This includes a possible ballistic missile that could carry a warhead of up to 3 tons, Yonhap reported last week, noting that the weapon was in the final stages of development. Such a weapon would be intended to target underground and fortified facilities such as storage sites for a nuclear arsenal.
Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said the test sends a strong message to Pyongyang, especially in light of North Korea’s development of precision battlefield rockets and short-range ballistic missile systems.
“South Korea wants a secure deterrent capability — and sea-basing gives it that option, rather than risking delivery systems on land that could be targeted and destroyed with very little warning,” Davis said.
The move could also be intended to backstop long-stalled denuclearization talks between Seoul, Washington and Pyongyang in the event of their complete collapse.
“South Korea could be making clear that whilst it is willing to continue diplomatic efforts with North Korea, it’s backing up the velvet glove of diplomacy with the mailed fist of military capability,” Davis added.
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