North Korean SLBM Launch

On Friday, May 8, North Korea conducted an underwater test-fire of a submarine ballistic missile, displaying a new threat and growing missile capability. The next day, North Korea fired three ship-to-ship missiles from the city of Wonsan on the east coast into the sea.

Q1: What do we know?

A1: According to the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), Kim Jong-un ordered and watched a successful test-fire of North Korea’s submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), possibly from a location near Sinpo South Shipyard on the east coast on May 8, where he was also reported to have visited a fishery complex there earlier. It appears as though North Korea has finally succeeded in installing a missile launcher of about 2,500 tons onto a submarine after a series of underwater and on-shore tests. In February, North Korea had tested a missile ejection launcher near Sinpo.

On May 9, a South Korean Ministry of National Defense official also announced that North Korea had tested three KN-01 missiles on Saturday afternoon, between 3:25 p.m. and 4:23 p.m. (KST).

Q2: What does this mean for North Korea’s capability?

A2: The underwater missile test on Friday shows that North Korea’s missile capabilities are advancing at a clip that is concerning, if not alarming. This follows NORAD commander Admiral William Gortney’s disconcerting statement on April 7 acknowledging North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability in the form of the untested road-mobile KN-08, which will make North Korea’s nuclear force more survivable and less deterrable (at least in their minds). The two tests came after North Korea’s warning on May 8 that it will fire without warning at any South Korean vessels it believes are violating its territorial waters off the west coast.

In line with its Byunjin doctrine, it is clear that North Korea is not just trying to develop a crude nuclear device that it could put atop a missile for some sort of rudimentary deterrent purpose. The North is moving headlong toward the development of a modern, survivable nuclear deterrent, with the full range of capacity from battlefield nuclear forces to high-yield fission and fusion weapons. If Chinese nuclear experts are right, according to news reports of their estimates last month, North Korea could have as many as 40 to 80 nuclear weapons by the time the Obama administration leaves office. It would be an understatement to say that this would increase the risk of nuclear proliferation among rogue states and nonstate actors significantly.

Q3: What’s the road ahead?

A3: The impact on diplomacy is unclear. Friday’s SLBM launch is a violation of multiple standing UN Security Council Resolutions (UNSCRs 1718, 1874, 2087, and 2094), so we will see if the Security Council will meet on it. Regarding the Six-Party Talks, the ROK negotiator, Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs Hwang Joon-kook, was in Washington last week on May 4 to see if anything was possible in terms of talks this summer. Hwang’s itinerary included Beijing, so the timing of the SLBM launch could create an impetus for talks or could kill them.​

Victor Cha is a senior adviser and holds the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.


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Victor Cha
Senior Vice President for Asia and Korea Chair