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(News Focus) N. Korea's SLBM launch stokes worries over pursuit of nuke-tipped ballistic missiles

2016/08/24 19:34

By Kim Soo-yeon

SEOUL, Aug. 24 (Yonhap) -- North Korea's latest launch of a ballistic missile from a submarine represents technical advances in the country's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program and brings the country closer to developing the capability to threaten faraway countries with nukes, experts here said Wednesday.

The South Korean military said the North's missile flew about 500 kilometers on Wednesday from waters off its east coast toward Japan. It marked the longest flight by a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) fired off by the North to date.

The South's Joint Chiefs of Staff said that the SLBM launched earlier in the day indicated technical improvements in delivery capacity compared with the North's previous tests.

The missile, fired off at a high angle, could have flown more than 1,000 km if it was launched at a lower angle, a military source said.

Military experts said that the launch could be viewed as a success, and said it raised concerns over the North's advances in missile technology.

"North Korea's development of SLBMs may indicate headway of making a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on a ballistic missile," said Moon Keun-sik, an expert at the Korea Defense and Security Forum. "North Korea may be seeking to build a nuclear-powered submarine armed with nukes."

  

This image released by North Korea's Rodong Shinmun shows what Pyeongyang claims to be a ballistic missile being launched from a submarine in waters near the northeast coast of Sinpo on May 9, 2015. The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the North's state media, said the communist state successfully test-fired the submarine missile. (Yonhap) This image released by North Korea's Rodong Shinmun shows what Pyeongyang claims to be a ballistic missile being launched from a submarine in waters near the northeast coast of Sinpo on May 9, 2015. The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the North's state media, said the communist state successfully test-fired the submarine missile. (Yonhap)

Wednesday's launch marked the sixth time that North Korea has tested its SLBM capabilities after its first attempt in May 2015. It also marked the third SLBM test launch this year.

North Korea's possible success of the SLBM launch could serve as a fresh threat to regional security, as it is difficult to detect ballistic missiles that are launched underwater.

North Korea is seeking to develop a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting targets on the U.S. mainland.

If an SLBM carries a small nuclear warhead, it can pose a formidable threat, as the North would be able to hit targets with very little warning, experts said.

In defiance of international condemnation, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has never given up the country's nuclear and missile programs. He vowed to "permanently" seek his dual pursuit of nuclear and economic development, commonly known as the "byeongjin" policy.

North Korea has claimed technological breakthroughs in its nuclear and missile programs, saying that it has succeeded in developing a nuclear warhead small enough to be put on a missile. Seoul and Washington have been skeptical about the North's claims.

In March, Pyongyang also said it conducted tests of missile re-entry technology and solid fuel rocket engines. Uses of solid propellants for its rocket engine can make it easier for the North to swiftly launch missiles, experts said.

Since the North's leader took office in late 2011, North Korea is believed to have test-fired more than 30 ballistic missiles. In June, Pyongyang claimed the successful launch of an intermediate Musudan missile, which theoretically can fly as far as the U.S. territory of Guam.

Experts said that the North may be able to move forward its deployment of SLBMs for combat uses to as early as late this year.

"For North Korea, it would not be difficult to develop a nuclear-powered submarine as it has developed nuclear weapons," said Park Hwee-rhak, a professor at Kookmin University. "The North could have developed a submarine carrying ballistic missiles or be in the process of building one."

   A 2,000 ton-submarine being used by North Korea is believed to be able to operate underwater for just a few hours and to possess only one launcher for a ballistic missile.

Analysts said that it would take some time for North Korea to improve its existing submarines or build a large and nuclear-powered submarine that can be used to threaten other countries.

The success of North Korea's SLBMs could complicate South Korea's move to intercept an incoming North Korean missile with an advanced U.S. missile defense system to be placed on its soil, experts said.

Pyongyang has vowed to take unspecified "countermeasures" against Seoul and Washington's July decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) by the end of 2017 in a bid to counter North Korea's evolving nuclear and missile threats.

It would make it difficult for the THAAD system to intercept an SLBM since the missile can be fired underwater anywhere near South Korea, observers pointed out.

The South Korean military said that if deployed, a THAAD missile is capable of intercepting it, but some experts raised doubts about such claims, calling for the military to build up its anti-submarine capability.

This photo shows a THAAD interceptor being fired from its launcher. (Yonhap) This photo shows a THAAD interceptor being fired from its launcher. (Yonhap)

"We will continue to strengthen our capacity to eliminate sources of threats encompassing not only the launch point of an SLBM but also the movement of submarines," said a military official.

The North's provocation came amid high tensions as Seoul and Washington on Monday kicked off their annual joint military exercise, which Pyongyang has long denounced as a rehearsal for a northward invasion.

Experts said that North Korea is widely expected to engage in further provocations in a bid to strengthen internal solidarity at a time when Thae Yong-ho, a high-ranking North Korean diplomat, has recently defected to Seoul.

"Thae's defection can deal a blow to the North's (elites). In order to prevent internal agitation, North Korea is likely to raise cross-border tensions on the peninsula," said Moon Sung-mook, a senior researcher for the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy.

sooyeon@yna.co.kr

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