South Korea and the United States launched a joint naval exercise involving a U.S. nuclear submarine today, following a weekend of ratcheting nuclear tension on the Korean peninsula. The submarine is capable of striking targets anywhere in the DPRK with cruise both nuclear and kinetic cruise missiles.
While South Korean military officials stressed the drill had been scheduled well before North Korea threatened to detonate a third nuclear device, Pyongyang’s Korean Central Broadcasting Station this weekend described the joint marine exercises as the work of “U.S. imperialists and South Korean warmongers”.
The nuclear-powered submarine USS San Francisco is joined by the Aegis cruiser USS Shiloh, with both vessels entering waters near Jinhae and Pusan Ports in South Kyo’ngsang Province this weekend. Armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles, the USS San Francisco has the capability of firing on targets with conventional or nuclear warheads up to 1,550 miles away – putting all of North Korea within range.
For its part, the South Korean Navy is represented by 10 vessels including one 7,600-ton King Sejong the Great class Aegis destroyer, a corvette and its newest Type-214 submarine. Providing aerial support, a P-3C Orion turboprop anti-submarine and maritime surveillance aircraft and Super Lynx helicopters will also take part in maneuvers.
“The exercise includes at-sea operating training, detecting and tracking a submarine, anti-air and anti-ship live fire training and anti-missile training,” Yonhap News today quoted one military official as saying. With the drills marking the first time in 19 years that an American nuclear submarine has entered South Korean waters, an anonymous South Korean military official also told Yonhap that the nuclear-powered submarine could send a warning against possible North Korean provocations.
The naval tension follows news this weekend that an “enlarged meeting” of the Party Central Military Commission was held in Pyongyang under the guidance of Kim Jong Un. At the meeting North Korean state radio reported that Kim Jong Un made an “important conclusion” about how to further strengthen the army and “defend the security and sovereignty of the country”. No details were provided about the nature of the “conclusion”, though some observers worry it was yet another indication of Kim’s firm decision to conduct a third nuclear test.
Inter-Korean relations worsened this weekend when Pyongyang issued a new threat to Park Geun-hye’s incoming administration, warning that South Korea should think twice about taking part in new UN sanctions related to Pyongyang’s December satellite launch. North Korea’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland said, ”The DPRK is fully ready for both economic and military sanctions and anyone who encroaches upon its dignity and sovereignty even a bit with any form of sanctions will not be able to avoid deadly retaliation”.
In the diplomatic realm, a flurry of voices meanwhile added to calls for North Korea to abandon plans to conduct any third nuclear test. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his South Korean and Japanese counterparts Sunday warned North Korea against any “provocative” moves, while incoming South Korean President Park Geun-hye today urged Pyongyang to “immediately halt nuclear test plans”.
As observers continue to second-guess when any third nuclear test will take place, a report today in the Chosun Ilbo said new analysis of satellite images showed “brisk activity of support vehicles and personnel near a tunnel on the southern part of the test site”. The report further added that pictures taken on Saturday indicated that “the area near the entrance to the tunnel was cleaned and personnel left.”
With satellite imagery revealing two tunnel entrances in the mountain that North Korea conducts nuclear tests, there are worries that Pyongyang might even conduct two tests in quick succession. A military source told the South Korean journalists that ”there is a chance that the southern tunnel is a decoy, but we are not ruling out that the regime will conduct nuclear tests simultaneously at both tunnels.”
Testing multiple devices would be consistent with the historical efforts of other nuclear weapons states seeking to develop a miniaturized warhead capability to use on a intercontinental ballistic missile. In 1998, Pakistan conducted eight nuclear tests over two days, which allowed it to accelerate the miniaturization of its own nuclear weapons.
If fears of a third or even fourth North Korean nuclear test realize in the coming days or weeks, tensions will dramatically increase on the peninsula and it is likely that the UN Security Council will respond with more tightening of sanctions.
North Korea has conducted two nuclear tests in the past, in 2006 and 2009, but has given no time-frame for its third test.