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North Korea's SLBM test launch

  • On October 2, North Korea conducted a test launch of its new Pukguksong-3 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), which landed in Japan's exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

By Atsuhito Isozaki<

On October 2, North Korea conducted a test launch of its new Pukguksong-3 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), which landed in Japan's exclusive economic zone (EEZ). This is the first launch of an SLBM since August 2016, the first time that a ballistic missile has landed in Japan’s EEZ since the launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in November 2017, and the first ballistic missile launch since North Korea began its diplomatic offensive. The test launch came after Chairman Kim Jong-un’s inspection of progress on a new submarine in late July led observers to surmise that development of an SLBM was underway.

On October 3, the test launch was reported extensively over two pages by North Korea’s Workers’ Party organ Rodong Sinmun, proclaiming that it was “of great significance in bolstering its military muscle for self-defense.” This manner of reporting when Chairman Kim did not attend the test launch is unprecedented.

After the US-North Korea summit in Hanoi effectively ended in failure, North Korea conducted a series of new missile test launches, particularly since July. The aim was to rapidly bolster its military muscle for self-defense under the pretext of opposing joint military exercises between the US and South Korea. The range of these missiles suggests that the series of tests was intended to enhance attack capabilities against South Korea rather than keep the United States in check.

However, with an estimated range of more than 2,000 kilometers, the launch of this latest SLBM was an attempt to demonstrate that it is capable of targeting US military bases in Japan and the US Air Force base in Guam. The use of SLBMs is a clear violation of UN Security Council resolutions and US President Donald Trump’s response that he has “no problem” with “short-range missiles” is concerning. Unlike previous tests, Kim has not been reported to have been at the site, indicating that the test was considered to entail a degree of risk.

North Korea appears to have rushed to develop a weapon, working backward from the imminent resumption of talks with the United States. The SLBM test was conducted before talks with the US shift into high gear, when a repeat of the test will be difficult. This calls to mind the sudden launch of a diplomatic offensive after an intensive period of developing nuclear missiles from 2016 to 2017 and the test-firing of an ICBM in November 2017, with Kim declaring North Korea had “finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force.” At that time, public opinion outside of North Korea, including Japan, turned a blind eye to the diplomatic offensive, focusing only on the fact that North Korea was striving to reinforce its military capacity.

Future US-North Korea negotiations are expected to be complicated. However, North Korea is prepared to relinquish some of its nuclear weapons, including ICBMs, according to the conditions stated by Trump based on the denuclearization agreement concluded at the US-North Korea Summit in Singapore last year. Otherwise, the normalization of diplomatic relations could end without the easing of economic sanctions, for the United States president who succeeds Trump will not necessarily “trade” with North Korea.

However, Kim’s authority could be lost if North Korea were to be seen as having compromised with the United States, so he needed to showcase North Korea’s bolstered military muscle at home before the negotiations. The more cards North Korea has in its hand, the greater its advantage when it comes to negotiating. We must be mindful of the fact that the number of cards has been increasing steadily during the several months of deadlock in US-North Korea relations.

(Atsuhito Isozaki is an associate professor at Keio University, Japan.)

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