North Korea

North Korea’s submarine missile test a step forward for its nuclear strike ambitions

A North Korean ballistic missile fired from a submarine flew about 500 kilometres in the longest flight by that type of weapon - a range that can place much of South Korea within its striking distance

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 August, 2016, 7:19am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 August, 2016, 5:31pm

North Korea’s test-firing of a submarine-launched missile 500 kilometres towards Japan marks what weapons analysts call a clear step forward for its nuclear strike ambitions.

The flight distance, which was tracked Wednesday by South Korea’s military Joint Chiefs of Staff, far exceeded any previous SLBM tests, suggesting significant progress in technical prowess.

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A proven SLBM system would take North Korea’s nuclear strike threat to a new level, allowing deployment far beyond the Korean peninsula and a “second-strike” capability in the event of an attack on its military bases.

“While there are still a lot of questions about the details, this test certainly seems to have been successful,” said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California.

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China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi

“This system is still in development, but North Korea is clearly making progress.”

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency cited a military source as saying Wednesday’s launch had been made at an acute angle to limit the missile’s range.

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If fired at the optimum angle, it could cover more than 1,000km, the source said.

In Tokyo, the foreign ministers of China, Japan and South Korea criticised the launch during their annual talks that were held amid lingering frictions over territorial disputes and wartime history.

Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, who chaired the meeting with China’s Wang Yi and South Korea’s Yun Byung-se, said that North Korea’s missile launch “provocation that simply cannot be tolerated.”

Wang said the three neighbours, despite problems and difficulties among them, should work together to deal with regional threats like North Korea’s missile and nuclear ambitions.

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“China opposes North Korea’s nuclear and missile process, actions that cause tension on the Korean Peninsula,” Wang said in a joint news conference.

The three countries have quarrelled on a number of issues, and their foreign ministers’ meetings resumed only last year after a two-year hiatus because of strained Chinese-Japanese relations.

But tensions on the Korean Peninsula remain high after North Korea was hit with tough sanctions by the UN Security Council for its fourth nuclear test, which took place in January, and the launch of a rocket using banned ballistic missile technology the following month.

North Korea also fired two missiles from submarines earlier this year but South Korean defence officials believe they exploded in midair after flying fewer than 30 kilometres.

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North Korea’s missile and nuclear programmes are a source of regional security concerns. Many outside experts say the North doesn’t yet have a reliable long-range nuclear missile capable of reaching the continental US, but they acknowledge the North has been making steady progress on its weapons programmes and could one day acquire such a weapon.

Some civilian experts said they believe the North already has the technology to put warheads on shorter-range missiles that can strike South Korea and Japan.

South Korean defence officials believe North Korea has about 70 operational submarines and appears to be mainly imitating Russian designs to develop submarine-launched missiles. It is believed the North obtained several Soviet-era Golf-class ballistic missile submarines in the mid-1990s.

Wednesday’s launch comes two days after the US and South Korea began their 12-day Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercises, prompting North Korean threats of retaliation. Before the launch, North Korea warned that the joint military exercises were pushing the Korean Peninsula “to the brink of a war” and asked for an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council.

The launch also comes at a time of intensified animosities between the rival Koreas over the defection of a senior North Korean diplomat in London and a US plan to install THAAD, a sophisticated missile defence system in South Korea.

About 28,500 US troops are based in South Korea to help deter potential aggression from North Korea, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War that ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty. North Korea usually responds to the regular South Korea-US military drills with weapons tests and fiery warlike rhetoric.

The American-led UN Command in South Korea on Tuesday accused North Korea of planting land mines near a truce village inside the Demilitarised Zone that divides the two Koreas. Much of the border, one of the world’s most dangerous flashpoints, is strewn with land mines and laced with barbed wire. South Korean media said no land mines had been planted in the area of the truce village of Panmunjom until North Korea placed an unspecified number there last week.

Agence France-Presse, Associated Press