top of page

Pyongyang ratchets up tensions by test-firing ballistic and cruise missile by Rajaram Panda

C3S Paper No. 0104/ 2015

Even when in a rare exchange of optimism South Korean President Park Geun-hye announced in early January 2015 to hold an unconditional summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un provided that Pyongyang should demonstrate its sincerity and take steps towards denuclearisation, North Korea test-fired three ship-to-ship ballistic and cruise missiles off its north-east coast on 9 May 2015, thereby escalating fresh inter-Korean tensions. According to North Korea’s official KCNA news agency, Kim Jong-un issued the order to begin the test-firing and later watched the test. Later, it claimed that the test-firing was a success.   This was the latest display of the country’s advancing military capability.

Prior to the test-firing, Pyongyang had issued warnings of “direct aimed strikes without any prior notice” against any South Korean navy patrol ship that infiltrated the disputed western sea border. It had claimed that on 9 May, 17 South Korean naval boats had intruded into its territorial waters in the past seven days and issued warning via a military communication line to South Korea’s presidential office Cheong Wa Dae. This was followed by another warning on the day it conducted the test-firings. Both the Koreas are in long-standing dispute over the maritime boundary. While Seoul sees the Northern Limit Line (NLL), which was drawn by US-led forces after the Korean War ended in 1953, as an official demarcation line, Pyongyang demands that the border be further south.

Pyongyang’s actions are surely to escalate tensions as the military in Seoul lost no time in warning that it will “sternly” retaliate against any North Korean provocations. The worry is not limited to South Korea alone. North Korea’s announcement of its success in firing a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) could prove to be a powerful nuclear threat to the US mainland as well. Pyongyang has previously test-fired long-range ballistic missiles, including inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBM), five times. There is widespread belief both in Seoul and Washington that Pyongyang is capable of striking the US mainland at will. While the ICBMs can be detected before launches by surveillance satellites, the SLBM is very hard to detect. It could trigger an overhaul in South Korea’s missile defence system as well.

The “successful” test-firing of a submarine-based ballistic missile, a technology that would offer the nuclear-armed state a survivable second-strike nuclear capability, is seen as a ‘world-level strategic weapon’, adding to Pyongyang’s already existing huge military arsenal. If Pyongyang’s claims of success of the test-firings are true, this would mark a major breakthrough for the North’s missile programme but violates UN resolutions that  prohibit Pyongyang from conducting ballistic missile tests. “Development of a submarine-launched missile capability would take the North Korean nuclear threat to a new level, allowing deployment far beyond the Korean peninsula.” Earlier this year, US analysts had analysed satellite images and had detected conning tower of a new North Korean submarine that appeared to house one or two vertical launch tubes for either ballistic or cruise missiles. This seems to be in conformity with the claims made by the KCNA that the test was carried out by a sub that dived to launch depth on the sounding of a combat alarm. The agency further claimed that “after a while, the ballistic missile soared into the sky from underwater,” adding that the weapon had been developed on the personal initiative of Kim Jong-Un. Though the report gave no detail of the size or range of the missile, and nor did it specify when the test was carried out, Kim described the test as an “eye-opening success” on a par with North Korea’s successful launch of a satellite into orbit in 2012. That time, the satellite launch was condemned by the international community as a disguised ballistic missile test and resulted in a tightening of UN sanctions.

Notwithstanding Pyongyang’s claims that it now possesses a “world-level strategic weapon capable of striking and wiping out in any waters the hostile forces infringing upon (North Korea’s) sovereignty and dignity”, and that there is no doubt that the North has been running an active ballistic-missile development programme, expert opinion is split on just how much progress it has really made. This is because of the secretive nature of the regime and accurate information, despite loud claims, is hard to be confirmed. The North has yet to conduct a test that demonstrates that it has mastered the re-entry technology required for an effective intercontinental ballistic missile. Experts on North Korea’s nuclear program also hold competing opinions on whether the North has the ability to miniaturise a nuclear device that would fit onto a delivery missile.

North Korea’s small submarine fleet is comprised of largely obsolete Soviet-era and modified Chinese vessels, but suggestions that it was experimenting with a marine-based missile system have been around for a while. According to intelligence reports obtained by South Korean Defence Ministry in September 2014 Pyongyang was understood to be developing a vertical missile launch tube for submarine use. It further said that North’s 3,000-ton Golf-class submarine could be modified to fire medium-range ballistic missiles. A month later, in October, a separate satellite image analysis by the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University identified a new missile test stand at the Sinpo South Shipyard in north-eastern North Korea. That time, the Institute said that the size and design of the stand suggested it was intended to explore the possibility of launching ballistic missiles from submarines or a surface naval vessel. Though submarines carrying ballistic missiles could provide North Korea with a survivable second-strike nuclear capability, the institute opined that Pyongyang was likely “years” from achieving the required technology.

If Pyongyang’s claims that it has successfully test-fired a missile from a submarine under the sea is to be believed, it is major advance in its military capabilities. In the past, North Korea tested the missile from platforms on land and at sea, but this appears to be the first time it launched a rocket from under water. If the missile technology could be deployed by the North Korean Navy, analysts said it could pose a threat to South Korean and US Navy vessels in the area, but that is still a big if.

The North Korean reports did not say when or where the test took place, or how far the missile flew. There was no independent confirmation of the reports. Whether true or not, this is another instance of saber-rattling by the North as it threatened to fire at South Korean naval vessels that it deemed to have entered its territorial waters. The maritime boundary issue remains disputed and unresolved since the end of the Korean War in 1953.

Pyongyang’s claims still remain to be verified. For example, Daniel Pinkston, the Korea analyst at the International Crisis Group and a non-proliferation expert, doubts the launch reported on 9 May was actually from a submarine. He remarked thus: “I think they probably launched it from some kind of submerged platform, possibly towed by a submarine. I think it would be too risky to do the first launch from a submarine”. His reasoning is based on the fact that North Korea has a limited fleet of aging subs. Even if launch was a significant step for North Korea, one is not sure if the system was operational yet. Other security experts opine that a North Korean capability to launch missiles from submarines would be an alarming development as missiles fired from submerged vessels are harder to detect before launch than land-based ones. South Korean officials believe that North Korea was developing technologies for launching ballistic missiles from underwater. The past tests were, however, believed to have been conducted on platforms built on land or above water and not from submarines. South Korea seems to be convinced that the North is already in possession of a considerable arsenal of land-based ballistic missiles and is also believed to be advancing in efforts to miniaturize nuclear warheads to mount on them.

Understandably, South Korea and the US are concerned that North Korea was developing a ballistic missile that could be launched underwater. They are also concerned that North Korea might be making incremental progress on miniaturizing a nuclear weapon so that it could be attached to a missile, although there has been no evidence that it has mastered this difficult step. If true, the development could be a part of North Korea’s efforts to expand the country’s nuclear-weapons capacity. The US however fears that “the submarine can get the platform to launch the missile within range of the continental United States, Alaska, or Hawaii”.  Once operational, this immediately brings key nodes in the US within range of what would likely be a nuclear armed missile. According to the website 38 North, operated by the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, such capability posed a potential new threat to South Korea, Japan and U.S. bases in East Asia, although North Korea’s submarines tend to be old and would be vulnerable to attack.

According to Rodong Sinmum newspaper, the test took place in the eastern coastal city of Sinpo, where satellite imagery had shown North Korea building missile-testing facilities and equipping a submarine with launch capabilities. The paper also reported that Kim was physically present at the site to offer “field guidance”. Opinions still remain divided. For example, though Uk Yang, a Seoul-based security expert and adviser to the South Korean military, is of the view that it was unlikely that the North currently possesses a submarine large enough to carry and fire multiple missiles, it is hard to deny, according to him, that North Korea is making progress on a dangerous weapons technology.

Despite North’s flexing of military muscle and nuclear weapons program to ‘deter’ potential invasion from the US and South Korea, diplomatic efforts are not abandoned with the hope that Pyongyang should one day realises the folly of its huge investment on the military and nuclear program and come to the negotiating table. Amidst North’s saber-rattling, Seoul dispatched a senior envoy to Washington and Beijing involved in long-stalled aid-for-disarmament negotiations to consider their diplomatic options. The joint annual US-South Korea military drills raise tensions in the Korean peninsula. Pyongyang sees the joint military drills as the preparation for invasion of the North and therefore pursues its military build-up and nuclear program as the only means of deterrence and to protect its territory and sovereignty.  Such a policy approach by Pyongyang and its intent on retaining its nuclear weapons renders the efforts of the US and South Korea to draw the North to the negotiating table as will-o-the-wisp.

Even as President Barack Obama continues to pursue his mission of getting rid of nuclear weapons to make the world nuclear-free, his continuous efforts to reach out to Pyongyang remain relevant. He has broken ice with several other long-standing adversaries, like Iran, Cuba and Myanmar. Myanmar is already integrated into the world with a flurry of world leaders visiting the country and engaging economically and diplomatically.  Restoring ties with Cuba has been Obama’s latest diplomatic coup. Obama joined with other world powers in negotiating a framework agreement to prevent Tehran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Will North Korea be the next before Obama demits office? If Obama does indeed succeed in resolving North Korea’s nuclear issue, he would have proved the world as the true winner of the Novel Peace Prize.

That seems to be unlikely to happen, however. This is because Pyongyang remains undeterred and despite international sanctions intended to prevent it from obtaining sensitive technology and starve it of funds, US-based experts now forecast that it could increase its nuclear arsenal from at least 10 weapons today to between 20 and 100 weapons by 2020. Though the US is open to consider for a more flexible format for ‘serious dialogue”, it is unlikely that Pyongyang would change course as its sense of insecurity would propel it not to give up possession of nuclear weapons as a deterrence tool.

The exchange of ‘war of words’ between the two Koreas continues to remain unchecked, rendering little hope for resolution on the nuclear issue. Even when Pyongyang goes bellicose with every simple opportunity to reduce Seoul to a “sea of fire”, Seoul vows to respond “mercilessly” to any further North Korean provocation. South Korea’s Defence Minister Han Min-Koo conveyed to Pyongyang in no uncertain terms that South’s military would not sit idly by the face of North Korean aggression. Han told the Yonhap news agency: “We will mercilessly retaliate to break their cycle of provocation. Retaliation against provocation is an order from the people”. Against such provocative and bellicose utterances from either side, a minor skirmish cannot be ruled out. Seoul is unlikely to remain a mute spectator, as was the case in the two events of March and November 2011 when the North sank Cheonan and then shelled an island killing 50 people. Any new adventurism on the part of Pyongyang is likely to be met with ‘excessive’ response from the South. Will in such a case it would escalate into a nuclear scale? One hopes it would not but if the young North Korean leader loses his sense of balance and turns his response into a nuclear scale, the North would have vanished as a country as the US would not lose a minute to respond appropriately and might not be deterred to use the most deadly weapons in its possession. The argument of some that possession of nuclear weapons has made the world safer than without it would have become weaker than the fear of the deadly arsenal falling into the hands of terrorists. Seen either way, danger of its possible use does not go away. That makes the efforts to denuclearise the Korean peninsula more compelling.


(Dr. Rajaram Panda, former Senior Fellow, IDSA, New Delhi, is now a New-Delhi-based Independent Researcher on Northeast Asia’s security and strategic issues. E-mail ID:  )

1 view0 comments


bottom of page