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Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
North Korea launched a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) at around 5:30 am Wednesday, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said, revealing the launch to have occurred near Sinpo, a port in North Korea’s northeast.
The missile – likely a Pukkuksong-1 SLBM (known as the KN-11 in South Korea and the United States) – traveled some 500km, JCS later confirmed, adding the launch “showed progress compared to several firing tests in the past”.
The test comes just two days after South Korea and the U.S. kicked off joint Ulchi Freedom military drills on Monday, which will last until September 2.
Sinpo, in South Hamgyong province, is the location of a shipyard that is home to North Korea’s Gorae-class experimental ballistic missile submarine.
The United States Forces Korea (USFK) said on Monday the Ulchi drills would enhance “alliance readiness, protect the region and maintain stability on the Korean peninsula.”
But South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye said the same day that “the military should maintain full readiness in preparation for the possibility of provocations … (and) punish (the North) in a decisive manner if it makes physical provocations.”
She said Pyongyang was likely to lash out during the drills because of a “grave rupture” and “unrest in the North’s regime” due to the high-profile defection last week of a senior diplomat from North Korea’s London embassy.
“There is little reason to interpret the launch as anything more than a typical reaction to ROK-U.S. joint military exercises and another test in their weapons program,” said John Grisafi, NK News director of intelligence.
“North Korea routinely conducts tests and other military demonstrations in response to drills in the South and is continuously testing weapons, a necessary part of the research and development process. It is unlikely the test is the result of anything more than that.”
A South Korea-based observer agreed.
“To counter UFG, North Korea conducts its own summer training as well,” Yang Uk, the senior research fellow from the Korea Defense and Security Forum (KODEF) told NK News on Wednesday.
“However, as the country can’t afford to conduct a large-scale training they have to make use of their ‘most proud’ military asset they have,” said Yang, adding that such launches are aimed at telling the U.S.-ROK forces that the North can “strike the back of their heads.”
And Tal Inbar, an Israeli missile expert, described the latest test as “a further step in the missile diplomacy of Kim Jong Un.”
Pointing out the test involved a new missile type under active development, Inbar underscored that Pyongyang was still “comfortable enough” to test it over more reliable missile types, like the Rodong or Scud.
“By choosing the SLBM option, in my view, North Korea made another step in the path to operational use of its submarine based ballistic missile force,” he said.
North Korea last launched an SLBM on July 9, from a submarine in the waters of the Sea of Japan (known in Korea as the East Sea) near Sinpo, South Hamgyong Province.
The JCS reported that the missile flew about 30 kilometers before exploding and breaking into two or three pieces. The JCS assessed that though the missile successfully ejected from the submarine, the flight portion of the test was a failure.
North Korea is prohibited from developing and launching ballistic missiles under multiple UN Security Council resolutions, mainly due to its ongoing nuclear weapons testing and long-range rocket launching programs.
“I do believe that North Korea will continue efforts to miniaturize its nuclear weapons and load them on SLBMs,” Moon Keun-sik, the director at the Korea Defense and Security Forum, told NK News following a previous SLBM launch in April.
“But SLBM launches need multiple test launches to refine, both on land and at sea, so they will continue launches until they successfully launch the SLBM loaded with a warhead,” he added.
Land-based testing of the Pukkuksong-1 SLBM began as early as 2013, when the test stand at Sinpo was built, and the first confirmed submerged test launch was conducted in May 2015.
The Pukkuksong-1 SLBM is believed to be based on the visually-similar Soviet-designed R-27 Zyb (NATO reporting name SS-N-6) SLBM.
Main picture: Rodong Sinmun
JH Ahn contributed to this report