North Korea on Tuesday fired at least one ballistic missile into the sea in what South Korea’s military described as a weapon likely designed for submarine-based launches, marking one of the most significant demonstrations of the North’s military might since President Joe Biden took office.
The launch came hours after the U.S. reaffirmed its offer to resume diplomacy on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. It underscored how the North continues to expand its military capabilities amid a pause in diplomacy.
The South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said it detected the North firing one short-range ballistic missile it presumed as an SLBM from waters near the eastern port of Sinpo, and that the South Korean and U.S. militaries were closely analyzing the launch.
The South Korean military said the launch was made at sea, but it didn’t elaborate whether it was fired from a vessel submerged underwater or another launch platform above the sea’s surface.
But Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi said his country’s initial analysis suggested that the North fired two ballistic missiles. Japan’s coast guard issued a maritime safety advisory to ships but didn’t immediately know where the alleged missiles landed.
The shipyard in Sinpo is a major defense industry hub where North Korea focuses its submarine production. In recent years, the North has also used Sinpo to develop ballistic weapons systems designed to be fired from submarines.
North Korea had last tested an SLBM in October 2019.
Analysts had expected the North to resume tests of such weapons after it rolled out at least two new SLBMs during military parades in 2020 and 2021. There have also been signs that the North is trying to build a larger submarine that would be capable of carrying and firing more than one missile at a time.
South Korean officials held a national security council meeting and expressed “deep regret” over the launch that came despite efforts to revive diplomacy. A strong South Korean response could anger North Korea, which has been accusing Seoul of hypocrisy for criticizing the North’s weapons tests while expanding its own conventional military capabilities.
Japan’s Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihiko Isozaki said Tokyo has lodged a “strong protest” to North Korea through the “usual channels,” meaning their embassies in Beijing. Japan and North Korea have no diplomatic ties.
Ending a monthslong lull in September, North Korea has been ramping up its weapons tests while making conditional peace offers to Seoul, reviving a pattern of pressuring South Korea to try to get what it wants from the United States.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is “developing submarine-launched ballistic missiles because it wants a more survivable nuclear deterrent able to blackmail its neighbors and the United States,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
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