North Korea’s new submarine-launched missile prompts Japan to re-examine acquiring strike capability

A “new type” of submarine-launched ballistic missile launched by North Korea has highlighted its growing “military muscle,” the nuclear-armed country said Wednesday, in a move that has generated talk in Tokyo of Japan acquiring the capability to strike enemy bases.

The North’s official Korean Central News Agency said in a dispatch that the new weapon “will greatly contribute to putting the defense technology of the country on a high level and to enhancing the underwater operational capability of our navy.”

In an apparent sign that the North hopes to regularize these kinds of tests, leader Kim Jong Un did not oversee the launch, instead delegating the duties to a lower-level official, KCNA said.

The nuclear-armed country fired the submarine-launched ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan on Tuesday as campaigning for Japan’s Oct. 31 Lower House election kicked off and nuclear envoys from Washington, Tokyo and Seoul met in the United States.

The new weapon appeared to be a mini-SLBM that was unveiled at an unusual defense exhibition in Pyongyang last week. In a speech at that event, Kim hinted that more tests were planned as the North continues “steadily developing” what he has repeatedly called a “powerful defense capability.”

Pictures released by the North showed a smaller SLBM, which the country said was fired from the same submarine from which it tested its first submarine-launched missile in 2016. The test included “advanced control guidance technologies,” state media said, adding it included “flank mobility” and “gliding skip mobility” capabilities.

Some observers had expected the latest test to involve a new submarine shown off in 2019 that is believed capable of launching multiple SLBMs. That submarine could potentially give the North a second-strike capability in the event of an attack on the country.

However, the use of the same submarine that tested its first SLBM five years ago appears to indicate that the country may still be struggling with the technology.

Still, the smaller SLBM could suggest that the North is moving closer to fielding an operational ballistic missile submarine, since the new weapon would allow for more missiles to be deployed on the vessel.

“Though a smaller North Korea SLBM design could enable more missiles per boat, it could also enable smaller less challenging (ballistic missile submarine) designs, including easier integration/conversion on pre-existing submarines,” Joseph Dempsey, a defense researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, wrote on Twitter.

A combination of pictures shows a new submarine-launched ballistic missile during a test in this undated photo released Wednesday. | KCNA / VIA REUTERS

The launch was the North’s eighth known missile test this year, coming after the country tested a number of advanced new weapons last month.

On Tuesday, the U.S. State Department condemned the latest test, calling it a “violation of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions,” while the White House reiterated its stance that Washington remains open to meet unconditionally with the North Koreans.

“These launches also underscore the urgent need for dialogue and diplomacy,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told a daily briefing. “Our offer remains to meet anywhere, anytime without preconditions.”

Kim, however, has condemned the U.S. offer of dialogue as a “petty trick.”

While the South Korean military said Tuesday that the North had tested a single SLBM, Japan said that same day that it had detected two launches.

Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi said Tuesday that the first missile had fallen outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone, an area 200 nautical miles (370 km) from its shores, and that it was still analyzing the second. He said the first missile had traveled about 600 km, hitting a maximum altitude of 50 km.

The reason behind the discrepancy in the number of launches is unclear.

In recent weeks, North Korea has tested a range of increasingly powerful new weapons systems. These have included a long-range cruise missile believed to be capable of delivering a nuclear bomb to Japan, as well as a train-launched weapon and what the North said was a hypersonic gliding vehicle. All are believed to represent progress in Pyongyang’s quest to defeat missile defenses.

The new SLBM — and the spate of weapons tests last month — have triggered concern in Tokyo, with top officials, including Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, openly suggesting the possibility of Japan acquiring the capability to attack enemy bases.

“North Korea’s remarkable nuclear and missile technology development is something we cannot overlook,” Kishida said Tuesday. “Amid this situation, I’ve already given instructions to revise our country’s National Security Strategy, including considering the option of acquiring the so-called capability to strike enemy bases.”

The remarks by the Japanese leader, which some observers say would have been unimaginable a decade ago, highlights the fraught security environment Japan currently faces.

“Pyongyang’s recent test of an SLBM, as well as last month’s long-range cruise missile, which could target most of Japan, are resurrecting advocacy for Tokyo to develop strike capabilities,” said Bruce Klingner, a retired CIA North Korea analyst now at the Heritage Foundation think tank. “The issue had largely been quiescent during Prime Minister (Yoshihide) Suga’s tenure, but was raised by several LDP candidates, including Kishida, during the leadership campaign.”

Klingner said that, despite Kishida’s reputation as a dove on security issues when he served as former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s top diplomat, North Korea’s continuing expansion and improvements to its nuclear and missile arsenals was forcing the new leader to seriously consider a strong response.

“Some may suspect Kishida, known for being a dove to Abe’s hawk, was only playing to conservative voters,” he said. “However, Kishida must now incorporate and represent all of his party’s views, including push for stronger security posture against the growing regional security threats.”

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