North Korea’s new sub-launched missile sign of diversifying nuclear arsenal, experts say
The barrage of tests in recent weeks by North Korea has served as a reminder that Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions aren’t going away — and that, in fact, the country is chipping away at the wishlist of new weapons that leader Kim Jong Un laid out in January. And with many items still on that list, there likely will be more tests to come.
The launches have come at a remarkable pace — at least five tests since September. And they’ve showcased a range of new developments that highlight how North Korea’s weapons program is diversifying and expanding, coming up with new options to make it harder to detect and predict its launches, experts said.
Whereas tests in previous years focused on showing that North Korea is developing its nuclear capability to reach the United States, analysts said it is now focusing on tactical nuclear weapons to respond to attacks closer to home.
The tests have underscored the need for a diplomatic breakthrough on nuclear talks with North Korea — and the challenges of bringing it back to negotiations.
Biden administration officials renewed calls for Pyongyang to return to talks, and said they have offered “specific proposals.” But the administration has not shown any public indication that it is willing to grant the sanctions relief that Kim desires.
Kim has called America his country’s “biggest enemy” regardless of who is president, and has refused to engage, bemoaning “double standards” and “hostile policy” from Washington.
North Korea announced on Wednesday that it had launched a new short-range missile from a submarine, the first test of its kind in two years, and despite United Nations sanctions prohibiting it from testing ballistic missiles.
Its short range suggests the missile could target South Korea and Japan. It did not fly very high so ground-based radars may not be able to track it until it is on its way down. Missiles fired from a submarine are already harder to detect, and to make matters more concerning, South Korea’s radars currently point upward — not out to the sea, analysts said.
“It poses a huge risk. It is a risk that could be a game-changer for South Korea and Japan,” said Shin Beomcheol, director of the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy in Seoul.
“North Korea is concentrating on developing a variety of nuclear weapons and missiles that are difficult to evade — not only to attack the United States but also South Korea and Japan,” Shin said. “North Korea has consistently pursued this strengthening of nuclear capabilities.”
The U.S. military said North Korea’s new launch did not pose an immediate threat to U.S. personnel, territory or allies, and condemned Pyongyang’s “destabilizing acts.”
North Korea said the submarine used in Tuesday’s test was the same one from a 2016 test, and dubbed it “Hero August 24.” According to South Korean news agency Yonhap, the missile flew about 430 to 450 kilometers (267-279 miles) and reached a height of 60 kilometers (37 miles).
Vann Van Diepen, a former weapons analyst for the National Intelligence Program, said it is still unclear whether North Korea has the capability to develop a ballistic missile submarine force of at least several boats.
Instead, North Korea may be looking to send a message domestically and internationally about the progress of its missile development program, he said. North Korea already has hundreds of land-based short-range ballistic missiles that can reach the South, he noted.
“Presumably, they’re trying to show they’re continuing to roll out new types of missiles despite international criticism and sanctions,” Van Diepen said. “They’re showing their technological capabilities. At a minimum, they’re showing that they have the ability to diversify the missiles that they have.”
During a speech last week, Kim said that Pyongyang is working toward developing defense capabilities in the face of growing military ambitions by South Korea and the United States, which raises the “urgency to further strengthen ourselves.”
South Korea has been holding its own series of new weapons tests — including its own first-ever submarine-launched ballistic missile that successfully hit a designated target. South Korean officials boasted that they were one of only a handful of countries to develop the ability to do so.
This week, South Korea is holding its largest-ever defense expo, showing off an array of new technology that included a next-generation fighter jet, drones and more, Reuters reported.
The submarine missile launched Tuesday appeared to be the same one North Korea introduced during a weapons exhibition of its own last week, where it revealed an array of new weapons, according to analysts who reviewed the photos released in state media.
“The quick spate of qualitatively new capabilities being tested, I think, should remind us of all the behind-the-scenes research and development work North Korea was able to do in the last few years,” said Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the U.S.-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“I don’t suspect that the overarching and primary purpose of this campaign is to put pressure on the U.S. and South Korea; the primary goal is just to improve their capabilities,” Panda said. “But in the process, they are seeking leverage for the inevitable next round of diplomacy.”