Experts in Seoul say the North’s military demonstrations and hostile rhetoric are attempts at wresting concessions from the United States and South Korea, whose officials have recently talked about the possibility of holding preliminary talks with the North to test its commitment to denuclearization.
For the second straight day, North Korea said it would fire without warning at South Korean naval vessels that it claims have been violating its territorial waters off the west coast of the Korean Peninsula. South Korea’s presidential Blue House held an emergency national security council meeting to review the threat and discuss possible countermeasures.
“By raising tensions, North Korea is trying to ensure that it will be able to drive whatever future talks with the U.S. and South Korea,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor from the Seoul-based University of North Korean Studies.
South Korean officials previously had said that North Korea was developing technologies for launching ballistic missiles from underwater, although past tests were believed to have been conducted on platforms built on land or at sea and not from submarines.
Security experts say that North Korea acquiring the ability to launch missiles from submarines would be an alarming development because missiles fired from submerged vessels are harder to detect before launch than land-based ones. North Korea already has a considerable arsenal of land-based ballistic missiles and is also believed to be advancing in efforts to miniaturize nuclear warheads to mount on such missiles, according to South Korean officials.
The North’s official Korean Central News Agency, or KCNA, said North Korean leader Kim Jong Un personally ordered the submarine test launching and watched as the missile soared into the sky from underwater, CBS Radio News’ Don Kirk reports from Seoul.
Kim called the missile a “world-level strategic weapon” and an “eye-opening success,” according to KCNA. The report did not reveal the timing or location of the launch.
Kim declared that North Korea now has a weapon capable of “striking and wiping out in any waters the hostile forces infringing upon the sovereignty and dignity of (North Korea).”
The North’s state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper published photos of a projectile rising from the sea’s surface and Kim smiling from a distance at what looked like a floating submarine.
The test might have taken place near the eastern coastal city of Sinpo, where satellite imagery in recent months, analyzed by a U.S. research institute, appeared to have shown North Korea building missile-testing facilities and equipping a submarine with launch capabilities. In a separate report Saturday, KCNA said Kim visited a fisheries facility in Sinpo to offer “field guidance.”
In Washington, the U.S. State Department said it was aware of the reports about the firing of the submarine missile and noted that launches using ballistic missile technology are “a clear violation” of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions.
The U.S. urged North Korea “to refrain from actions that further raise tensions in the region and focus instead on taking concrete steps toward fulfilling its international commitments and obligations.”
South Korea’s defense ministry had no immediate comment on the North’s claim of a successful test.
Ministry officials have previously said that North Korea has about 70 submarines and appears to be mainly imitating Russian designs in its efforts to develop a system for submarine-launched missiles. The North is believed to have obtained several of the Soviet Navy’s retired Golf-class ballistic missile submarines in the mid-1990s.
Uk Yang, a Seoul-based security expert and an adviser to the South Korean military, said it is unlikely that North Korea possesses a submarine large enough to carry and fire multiple missiles. However, it’s hard to deny that Pyongyang is making progress on dangerous weapons technology, he said.
The website 38 North, operated by the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said in January that such capability posed a potential new threat to South Korea, Japan and U.S. bases in East Asia, although experts say North Korea’s submarines tend to be old and would be vulnerable to attack.
Meanwhile, a South Korean Joint Chief of Staff official said the North fired three anti-ship cruise missiles into the sea within a span of one hour early Saturday evening from an area near the eastern port city of Wonsan. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing office rules, identified the missiles as KN-01 missiles, which the North also test-fired in February in an event personally attended by North Korean leader Kim.
There had been expectations that Kim would attend the Victory Day celebration in Russia on Saturday for his international debut, but North Korea sent to Moscow the head of its rubber-stamp parliament instead.