SEOUL • North Korea's firing of a new submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) this week, the first such test in three years of what had been a relatively young but rapidly progressing programme to deliver nuclear weapons, "creates new complications", an analyst has said.
The Pukguksong-3 appeared to be a new design that has enhanced range and stability compared with a version tested in 2016, Reuters reported, citing three analysts.
The missile was launched from the sea soon after 7am on Wednesday about 17km north-east of the coastal city of Wonsan. South Korea's military said it flew 450km and reached an altitude of 910km.
If the missile had been launched on a standard trajectory, the range would have been up to 1,900km, which would put it in the medium-range missile class.
That missile would have all of South Korea and Japan within range. It was probably launched from a test platform and not a submarine, which would be the final stage of testing, said Dr Kim Dong-yub, a military expert at Kyungnam University's Institute of Far Eastern Studies in Seoul.
A launch from a submarine deployed in the surrounding waters would pose greater difficulty for missile defences. The threat of an SLBM grows exponentially with the range of the submarine.
The North's Romeo-class submarines, which were built in the 1990s, are believed to have a range of about 7,000km, potentially making a one-way trip to near Hawaii possible. But they are diesel-electric powered and very noisy, making them highly vulnerable to detection, especially by US forces who have decades of experience tracking Soviet submarines.
North Korea began testing submarine-launched ballistic missiles in 2015 and had conducted four submarine launches by August 2016, when a two-stage solid-fuel Pukguksong missile flew about 500km on a lofted trajectory. That test was considered a success. There has been no known test since then to suggest that the North has made progress in developing an SLBM of intermediate or long ranges.
Those previous launches were conducted near the port city of Sinpo, about 110km from Wonsan and home to many of the North's fleet of submarines, believed to be one of the world's largest.
Despite the size of the fleet, most of the vessels are believed to be small or vintage Soviet-era models and only one is believed to be an experimental submarine capable of carrying a ballistic missile.
The antiquated, meagre air force is not regarded as a threat in a region that contains the technologically advanced warplanes of the US, Japan and South Korea.
"It (the launch) creates new complications, and while allied anti-submarine warfare capabilities are robust, the prospect of nuclear weapons flushed out to sea during a crisis could raise the stakes considerably," said Mr Ankit Panda, a weapons expert at the Federation of American Scientists.
SLBMs are considered key to delivering a second-strike capability that can be used to retaliate against a nuclear attack.
To be assured of the capability, the submarine must have not only the ability to launch a nuclear ballistic missile but also the endurance to sail within range of the enemy.
Military analysts are sceptical that the North's submarine programme has reached the level of technical sophistication to achieve a second-strike capability.
RECENT MISSILE TESTS
North Korea has conducted nine launches since its leader Kim Jong Un met US President Donald Trump at the Demilitarised Zone inter-Korea border on June 30 and pledged to resume nuclear talks.
All but the one on Wednesday have been short-range missiles and rockets that would be a fast and effective way to attack South Korea and US forces stationed there.
Before Mr Kim entered an unofficial moratorium on missile and nuclear tests to engage in dialogue with Mr Trump, the North test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in November 2017.
If launched on a standard trajectory, that missile would have had a range of up to 13,000km, putting the mainland United States within strike distance.
But experts doubt that the North has mastered the technology to build a nuclear warhead small enough to be mounted on a missile that can withstand re-entry to the atmosphere, and to guide it with precision to hit the target.
Pyongyang's state news agency confirmed the successful launch yesterday, adding that the Pukguksong-3 was "fired in vertical mode" in the waters off Wonsan.
The test "had no adverse impact on the security of neighbouring countries", KCNA said, though Japan said a part of the missile landed in waters within its exclusive economic zone. The launch came hours after the North announced it would resume nuclear talks with the US tomorrow, potentially ending a months-long deadlock that followed a vow by Mr Kim and Mr Trump to make progress.
The concessions that the US has so far offered North Korea publicly have fallen far short of Pyongyang's expectations. In particular, Washington has given no indication of any willingness to accede to Pyongyang's main demand for an easing of punishing sanctions.