By Tetsuro Kosaka, Nikkei senior staff writer
TOKYO — Earlier this month North Korea test-fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile from the Sea of Japan. Although experts believe Pyongyang needs more time and development before it can actually deploy such a missile, the test was a clear indication that the country has taken a step forward in expanding an arsenal it can use to attack Japan and the United States with nuclear warheads.
While U.S. President Donald Trump has not given up hope for resolving the situation through talks, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has shrewdly used the U.S. president to steadily advance his nuclear arms development program.
The Pukguksong-3 missile is believed to have been launched from a tube set up undersea in an area in the Sea of Japan near Wonsan, on North Korea’s eastern seaboard. Its warhead reached an altitude of about 910 meters and splashed down in Japan’s exclusive economic zone, about 450 km from the launch site.
The missile is believed to have been launched at a lofted trajectory, which makes the projectile difficult to shoot down. Analysts say the missile would have traveled about 2,500 km had it been put on a standard trajectory, indicating the North’s range has improved from about 2,000 km, as demonstrated in 2017 with the land-based launch of a Pukkuksong-2 missile.
The Pukguksong-3 test was a cold launch, meaning the projectile was initially propelled using pressurized gas, which was ignited midair. Submarines can only cold-launch missiles.
The new missile is also believed to be able to carry a larger warhead than past missiles. Technology brought back by North Korean scientists dispatched to Russia is thought to have been used in the missile.
Still, analysts believe it will be some time before the North acquires a submarine capable of carrying SLBMs. The subs it currently owns are small and meant for short-range missions such as spiriting agents to South Korea.
To maintain an SLBM threat, North Korea will need a strategic nuclear-powered submarine, the type deployed by the U.S. and Russia. Although Pyongyang seeks to develop one, it has yet to do so.
For practical purposes, the test was of one technology needed to build a viable strategic nuclear-powered submarine.
If it ever completes such a submarine, the North is expected to deploy it off the coast of Rajin, near the border with Russia.
If North Korea does acquire a strategic nuclear-powered sub, its sailors would have to learn a raft of new skills and a new kind of warfare. During the Cold War, Japanese and American submarine fleets constantly monitored Soviet submarines lurking in the Sea of Okhotsk. They repeatedly conducted drills designed to neutralize the Soviet subs in an actual military emergency.
The Japanese and American fleets and crews have kept such skills at a high level, even after the Cold War ended.
When a Chinese submarine was detected in an area southwest of Japan in 2004, the Maritime Self-Defense Force launched a large-scale counter-submarine operation that is believed to have thrown the Chinese crew into a state of panic. The sub fled.
A former Self-Defense Forces officer said North Korea’s efforts to deploy SLBMs “would end up a waste of time if their situation remains the same.”
Still, it would be foolhardy to breathe a sigh of relief. North Korea could employ tactics beyond anyone’s imagination. It could load a nuclear weapon on a conventionally propelled submarine, then send the vessel on a suicide mission in which it would detonate the warhead near Japanese or U.S. subs, or near a U.S. carrier strike group. In August 2015, about 50 North Korean submarines departed the country and shook off pursuit by Japan and the U.S., which were overwhelmed by the sheer number of vessels.
One factor behind North Korea’s flurry of missile tests since summer is a Trump administration change of mind.
When the North launched missiles in quick succession in 2016 and 2017, then U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis exerted utmost military pressure on the country, deploying three aircraft carriers to waters near the Korean Peninsula.
Japan, the U.K., Canada and Australia came into line with Mattis’s conviction that one can win a bloodless victory only when one braces for bloodshed. “If the U.S. had kept pressuring the North in that way for another six months or a year, the nation could have internally collapsed,” said a Japanese source familiar with national security matters.
But Trump reduced the pressure on North Korea. Accepting a proposal from South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a noted dove, he held a summit with Kim without the prospect of producing results. This chain of missteps by South Korea and the U.S. has led to the North’s expanded arsenal.
Trump continues to insist he has a personal relationship with Kim and that the U.S. has good relations with North Korea. As he does, North Korea is expanding its nuclear threat.