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Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
The new “Pukguksong-3” missile, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) and party daily the Rodong Sinmun reported, was fired from near Wonsan on Wednesday.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un opted not to attend, notably, instead sending a message of “warm congratulations” to the national defense scientists involved.
“The Academy of Defense Science… successfully carried out the test-firing of the new-type submarine-launched ballistic missile in the waters off Wonsan Bay… in the morning on October 2,” the Rodong Sinmun and KCNA reported in a Korean-language dispatch.
The missile flew on a lofted trajectory, those reports added.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) on Wednesday said the projectile traveled around 450km with an apogee of approximate 910 km, adding that the North was believed to have tested a Pukguksong-type SLBM at 0711 local time.
The timing of Wednesday’s test was particularly noteworthy, coming just a day after North Korea confirmed that it would be holding working-level talks with the U.S. this coming weekend.
While a location for those talks is yet to be formally confirmed, sources indicated to NK News yesterday that they will be held in Sweden.
Despite the looming negotiations, the U.S. in the wake of Wednesday’s launch condemned North Korea’s “provocations,” urging it to engage “in substantive and sustained negotiations.”
One expert, however, said the test ought to cast major doubt on the DPRK’s purported intention to denuclearize.
“Solid fuel, underwater pontoon, all for survivability eventually,” Vipin Narang, an associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), said.
“Like a normal nuclear power. One that has no intention of disarming.”
Thursday’s coverage in North Korean state media, however, sought to emphasize the self-defensive nature of the test.
“Through the test-firing, key tactical and technical indices of the newly-designed ballistic missile were scientifically and technically proven,” the KCNA said.
“The test-firing did not even make a minor negative impact on the safety of neighboring countries,” the media added, despite reports suggesting that the projectile landed in waters within Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Leading functionaries of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) and those in the field of national defense science research “guided the test-firing on the ground,” in the absence of the leader, the report said.
They reported the “outcome of the successful test-firing” to the Party Central Committee, it added.
“Respected and beloved Supreme Leader Comrade Kim Jong Un, representing the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, sent warm and ardent congratulations to the units of defense science research engaged in the test-firing.”
Although North Korean state media did not name the officials present, photos provided by the Rodong Sinmun show Ri Pyong Chol, first vice director of the party Munitions Industry Department, and others at the venue for the missile test.
Also present was head of the country’s Academy of National Defense Science Jang Chang Ha, Kim Jong Sik from the ruling party’s Munitions Industry Department, and recently-promoted scientist Jon Il Ho.
In a Korean-language report, DPRK media hailed the “successful” test of the Pukguksong-3 as an “event of great importance in bolstering self-defensive national defense capabilities.”
“The success in test-firing the newly-type submarine-launched ballistic missile Pukguksong-3 is a significant achievement in carving out a new phase in containing the threat from outside forces to the DPRK and further bolstering the military power for self-defense,” the Korean-language dispatch read.
Since May 2019, Pyongyang has conducted 11 tests of its new weapons systems — including the short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) KN-25 and one resembling the U.S. Army’s Tactical Missile System (ATACMS).
North Korea test-launched the Pukguksong-1 SLBM six times between May 2015 and August 2016, according to database provided by the NK Pro missile tracker, though three of those tests ended in failure.
Pyongyang also test-launched solid-fulled Pukgusong-2 MRBM (KN-15) — fitted with a cold-launch system — twice in February and May 2017.
The new missile unveiled Wednesday, Ankit Panda, an adjunct senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists said, “appears to be a two-stage, solid-propellant-based SLBM.”
“The booster might be new or it might still use the Pukguksong-1 booster with airframe improvements; it’s difficult to tell from the early, low-resolution images,” Panda told NK News.
Also notable, he said, was Kim Jong Un’s decision not to attend Wednesday’s test.
“The fact that Kim Jong Un chose not to attend the launch is one of the most interesting developments,” he added. “He’s been present at every inaugural flight-test of a new strategic weapon system under his tenure.”
This absence is “unusual,” Minyoung Lee, a senior analyst with NK News’s sister site NK Pro, stressed.
“One possibility may be that he is preparing for another major event or focusing on some other major issue,” she said.
“I do not agree with the view that Kim chose to absent himself from this event so as to not provoke the U.S. prior to the upcoming talks,” she added. “The North knows the test itself was provocative, and state media knows how to tone down coverage to make it less provocative, even with Kim Jong Un’s attendance.”
Thursday’s test coverage was also notable for its references to “national defense,” Lee said, continuing a key theme seen in state media readouts of similar launches over the summer.
“This seems intended to play up the national security factor, a key theme during North Korea’s August missile campaign, by emphasizing that the North was driven to build up and test arms to defend itself against outside threats,” she said.
“It also appears aimed at signaling that the North will continue to further strengthen the country’s self-defensive military capabilities.”
One Seoul-based expert, however, said North Korea’s openness to working-level talks and Wednesday’s test-firing was indicative of competing concerns within the state.
“To put it simply, [Kim] aims to chase two hares at once, pursuing North Korea-U.S. dialogue and the solidity of [the regime] domestically,” Kim Dong-yub, Director of Research at Kyungnam University’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies, told NK News.
While the DPRK leadership appears to have sought to tone down the test not to spoil the atmosphere of the dialogue, it has also pushed ahead with the “modernization of weapons system,” Kim continued.
The test of the SLBM, which has “outstanding survivability” compared to other missiles that the North has developed, he added, has a more significant message, however.
“North Korea is asking the U.S. if it can continue dialogue under the circumstances… that the country has modernized its weapons system,” Kim argued.
Pyongyang, the South Korean expert said, may be able to claim that nuclear negotiations and strengthening its defensive capabilities are separate issues, given U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s remarks last month that “every nation has the sovereign right to defend itself.”
Additional reporting by Jeongmin Kim
Featured image: Rodong Sinmun