North Korea has highlighted its growing “military muscle” with the launch of a “new type” of submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), the nuclear-armed country said Wednesday, in a move that has intensified talk in Tokyo of Japan acquiring the capability to strike enemy bases.
The North’s official Korean Central News Agency said in a dispatch that the new weapon “will greatly contribute to putting the defense technology of the country on a high level and to enhancing the underwater operational capability” of its navy.
In an apparent sign that the North hopes to regularize these kinds of tests, leader Kim Jong Un did not oversee the launch, instead delegating the duties to a lower-level official, KCNA said.
North Korea fired the SLBM into the Sea of Japan on Tuesday as campaigning for Japan’s Oct. 31 Lower House election kicked off and nuclear envoys from Washington, Tokyo and Seoul met in the United States.
The new weapon appeared to be a mini-SLBM that was unveiled at an unusual defense exhibition in Pyongyang last week. Japanese Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihiko Isozaki told a news conference Wednesday that the two “were similar in appearance,” but declined to say definitively whether they were the same.
Japan has also assessed that the weapon tested was likely solid-fueled, he said, making it easier to transport and hide from spy satellites.
The test included “advanced control guidance technologies,” North Korean state media said, adding it included “flank mobility” and “gliding skip mobility” capabilities.
Analysts said the new weapon, which flew about 600 kilometers, bears a striking resemblance to the North’s KN-23 missile, a short-range missile that flies on a quasi-ballistic trajectory that makes it potentially difficult to intercept.
Pictures released by the North showed a smaller and thinner SLBM compared with earlier sub-launched models it has tested. The country said the as-yet-unnamed weapon was fired from the same submarine from which it tested its first SLBM, the Pukguksong-1, in August 2016.
Some observers had expected the latest test to involve a new submarine shown off in 2019 that is believed to be capable of launching multiple SLBMs. That submarine could potentially give the North a second-strike capability in the event of an attack on the country.
But the use of the same submarine Tuesday as the one that tested the North’s first SLBM five years ago is an indication that the country may still be struggling with the technology. Still, the smaller SLBM could suggest that Pyongyang is moving closer to fielding an operational ballistic missile submarine, since the new weapon would allow for more missiles to be deployed on the vessel.
“Though a smaller North Korea SLBM design could enable more missiles per boat, it could also enable smaller less challenging (ballistic missile submarine) designs, including easier integration/conversion on pre-existing submarines,” Joseph Dempsey, a defense researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, wrote on Twitter.
In recent weeks, North Korea has tested a range of increasingly powerful new weapons systems. These have included a long-range cruise missile believed to be capable of delivering a nuclear bomb to Japan, as well as a train-launched weapon and what the North said was a hypersonic gliding vehicle. All are believed to represent progress in Pyongyang’s quest to defeat missile defenses.
U.N. Security Council resolutions ban North Korea from launching ballistic missiles, and the United States and U.K. plan to raise the latest test during a council meeting on Wednesday.
On Tuesday, the U.S. State Department condemned the latest test, calling it a “violation of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions,” while the White House reiterated its stance that it remains open to meeting unconditionally with the North Koreans.
Kim, however, has condemned the U.S. offer of dialogue as a “petty trick.”
Although the South Korean military said Tuesday that the North had tested a single SLBM, Japan said the same day that it had detected two launches. On Wednesday, Tokyo reiterated it’s stance that two missiles had been launched. The reason behind the discrepancy was unclear.
The increased pace of weapons testing has triggered concern in Tokyo, with top officials — including Prime Minister Fumio Kishida — openly suggesting the possibility of Japan acquiring the capability to attack enemy bases.
“North Korea’s remarkable nuclear and missile technology development is something we cannot overlook,” Kishida said Tuesday. “Amid this situation, I’ve already given instructions to revise our country’s National Security Strategy, including considering the option of acquiring the so-called capability to strike enemy bases.”
Asked about Kishida’s comments, Isozaki, the government spokesman, emphasized Wednesday that while the prime minister had specifically mentioned acquiring a strike capability, this was only “one of the options being considered.”
“Protecting the peace and security of Japan and its residents is an important responsibility, so in that sense, I think that we will be considering a wide range of options,” Isozaki said.
The remarks by the Japanese leader, which some observers say would have been unimaginable as recently as a few years ago, highlight the fraught security environment the country currently faces.
“Pyongyang’s recent test of an SLBM, as well as last month’s long-range cruise missile, which could target most of Japan, are resurrecting advocacy for Tokyo to develop strike capabilities,” said Bruce Klingner, a retired CIA North Korea analyst now at the Heritage Foundation think tank. “The issue had largely been quiescent during Prime Minister (Yoshihide) Suga’s tenure, but was raised by several LDP (Liberal Democratic Party) candidates, including Kishida, during the leadership campaign.”
Klingner said that, despite Kishida’s reputation as a dove on security issues from when he served as former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s top diplomat, North Korea’s continued upgrading of its nuclear and missile arsenals is forcing the new leader to seriously consider a strong response.
“Some may suspect Kishida, known for being a dove to Abe’s hawk, was only playing to conservative voters,” he said. “However, Kishida must now incorporate and represent all of his party’s views, including pushing for a stronger security posture against the growing regional security threats.”
But while the new government has vowed to bolster Japan’s defense posture, any attempt to acquire a strike capability would face a number of daunting challenges.
Although Japan has the technological know-how and material to quickly build up a ballistic missile force — outside of related intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities — doing so would come at a great cost, both in terms of yen and political capital.
For one, the country would have to deal with the contentious issue of increasing defense budgets, said Corey Wallace, an expert on Japanese politics at Kanagawa University. The issue, already controversial in pacifist Japan, is facing additional pushback as Japan seeks to repair its pandemic-battered economy and social welfare spending takes precedence in the rapidly graying country.
Rather than acquiring a strike capability, Wallace said that “the much more important debate, the more substantive debate, is connected to defense spending itself.”
“In order to do any of these things, it’s hard to see how Japan avoids spending more,” he said.
Any switch toward offensive weapons could also face opposition at home, including from the ruling LDP’s junior coalition partner, Komeito, as well as from a number of Japan’s neighbors, namely China and the two Koreas. Thorny legislative and legal questions would also have to be addressed.
For the time being, much of the talk surrounding strike capabilities appears more symbolic than substantive, said Wallace.
“It might be cheap talk without a much more significant and controversial commitment to defense spending.”
Staff writer Satoshi Sugiyama contributed to this report.
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