The South Korean government reported on Wednesday that North Korea had fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile that morning, the first test of its kind in over three years. The missile launch, which occurred less than a day after Pyongyang announced it will resume working-level talks with Washington on October 5, illustrates Kim Jong Un’s determination to advance North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities despite his nominal commitment to denuclearize.
According to South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), Pyongyang likely tested a Pukkuksong submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) off North Korea’s eastern coast, near Wonsan. The JCS said the missile flew a distance of 450 kilometers and reached an altitude of 910 kilometers. Since 2015, North Korea has tested the SLBM six other times, with four of them failing. North Korea last tested an SLBM in August 2016. It is unknown if these missiles can be tipped with a nuclear warhead.
Over the last year, North Korea has conducted 10 other missile and rocket launches. Specifically, North Korea tested 300mm multiple rocket launcher systems as well as land-based KN-23 short-range missiles, which possess a striking range of 690 kilometers. If perfected, the recently tested SLBM could strike targets up to 1,200 kilometers away, nearly double the KN-23’s range.
In recent months, North Korea’s military submarine program has faced increasing scrutiny. Kim Jong Un visited and inspected military submarine facilities in July, with North Korean state media outlets reporting that Kim expressed “great satisfaction” and “stressed the need to steadily and reliably increase the national defense capability, by directing big efforts to the development of naval weapons and equipment, such as submarines.”
In September, experts at the Middlebury Institute and Planet Labs assessed that North Korea has built new structures with netting at the bases Kim visited in order to conceal North Korea’s newest submarine. This foreshadowed possible submarine-launched missile tests in the near future.
The timing of Wednesday’s missile test may reflect diplomatic calculations. The SLBM test likely constitutes a message to Washington that Pyongyang will enter working-level talks from a position of strength.
Pyongyang may also seek to signal dissatisfaction with Seoul. In recent weeks, North Korean state media and propaganda have lambasted South Korea’s government for damaging inter-Korean relations through its “betrayal behaviors.” Pyongyang’s propaganda outlets specifically called out Seoul for joint U.S.-ROK military exercises and Seoul’s showcasing of its F-35A stealth fighter jet. North Korea’s latest missile test may aim to forestall such activities.
At the same time, North Korea may have conducted the test to advance the SLBM program’s deterrent capability. Testing the SLBM also allows Pyongyang to further diversify its ballistic missile arsenal and ensure a second-strike capability. In this sense, the test may be another indicator that Kim has no intention of relinquishing his nuclear weapons.
The U.S should not be intimidated by North Korea’s provocations or reward Pyongyang with unjustified concessions. Instead, Washington should continue strengthening its alliance with South Korea and responding to North Korea’s tactics with additional pressure, integrating sanctions, diplomacy, military deterrence, cyber operations, and information and influence activities. Only in this way can Washington and Seoul remind Kim Jong Un that his nuclear and missile arsenal will bring his country more harm than good.
Mathew Ha is a research associate focused on North Korea at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). Follow Mathew on Twitter @MatJunsuk. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.