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North Korea Launches SLBM, Amid Fears of Korean Arms Race

People watch a TV broadcasting file footage of a news report on North Korea firing a ballistic missile off its east coast, in Seoul, South Korea, October 19, 2021.
People watch a TV broadcasting file footage of a news report on North Korea firing a ballistic missile off its east coast, in Seoul, South Korea, October 19, 2021.

North Korea test-fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) Tuesday, South Korea’s military reported, just a month after Seoul conducted its own SLBM test.

South Korea’s military, which monitors North Korean launches, said the North fired a short-range ballistic missile, presumed to be an SLBM, from an area off its east coast at about 10:17 a.m. local time.

The missile flew about 430-450 kilometers, reaching a maximum height of 60 kilometers, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.

The timing of the launch is notable. Last month, South Korea became just the eighth country to successfully test an SLBM. Two days from now, South Korea will try to launch its first homegrown space rocket.

South Korea is undertaking an ambitious defense modernization plan, which includes several new missiles, domestically produced fighter jets, and even plans for its first aircraft carrier. South Korea, which hosts over 28,000 U.S. troops, is trying to take more responsibility for its own defense, as well as take a bigger role in regional affairs, analysts say.

However, North Korea has slammed the South Korean moves as provocative and destabilizing, even while vowing to continue its own weapons testing. It accuses the United States and its allies of employing double standards.

North Korea is banned from any ballistic missile activity — short or long-range — by a series of United Nations Security Council resolutions put in place to punish Pyongyang for its illicit nuclear weapons program.

A more survivable deterrent

North Korea firing a ballistic
North Korea firing a ballistic

SLBMs would add an unpredictable component to North Korea’s arsenal. They are mobile, potentially increasing the range of North Korea's ballistic missile arsenal. They are also easier to hide.

North Korea has tested SLBMs before — most recently in October 2019, when it fired the Pukguksong-3 missile from an underwater platform. But the country has yet to demonstrate it can fire an SLBM from an actual ballistic missile submarine.

Earlier in 2019, North Korea unveiled photos of a gigantic ballistic missile submarine being built at a shipyard in Sinpo. But it is not clear whether it has been completed.

“North Korea’s SLBM is probably far from being operationally deployed with a nuclear warhead, but Kim cannot politically afford appearing to fall behind in a regional arms race,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.

Talks stalled

The North’s test comes as the intelligence chiefs of the United States, Japan, and South Korea meet in Seoul, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.

South Korea and the United States have repeatedly offered to resume talks with North Korea, also known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, in order to reduce tensions and make progress on denuclearization.

“To reach this objective, we will seek diplomacy with the DPRK to make tangible progress that increases the security of the United States and our allies. This includes considering potential engagement with the DPRK to reduce tensions,” Sung Kim, the U.S. envoy for North Korea, said late Monday.

“We harbor no hostile intent towards the DPRK, and we are open to meeting with them without preconditions,” he added.

In a speech last week, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un rejected those offers.

“Recently, the United States has frequently sent signals that it is not hostile to our state, but its behaviors provide us with no reason why we should believe them,” Kim said, according to state media.

In recent weeks, North Korea has released statements objecting both to U.S.-South Korea military exercises, as well as the U.S. military presence in the wider region.