Seoul says North Korea tested missile designed for submarine launch

TV screen showing a missile launch
People in Seoul watch a news program reporting on a suspected North Korean missile launch.
(Lee Jin-man / Associated Press)

North Korea on Tuesday fired at least one ballistic missile into the sea in what the South Korean military described as a weapon likely designed for submarine-based launches, marking possibly the most significant demonstration of the North’s military might since President 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.

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement that it detected the North firing one short-range ballistic missile believed to be a submarine-launched ballistic missile, or SLBM, from waters near the eastern port of Sinpo. The statement said 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 say whether it was fired from a submerged vessel or a launch platform above the sea’s surface.

Japan’s military said its initial analysis suggested that the North fired two ballistic missiles. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said officials were examining whether they were submarine-launched.

After the launch, Kishida interrupted a campaign trip ahead of Japanese parliamentary elections later this month and returned to Tokyo. He ordered his government to start revising the country’s national security strategy to adapt to North Korea’s growing threats.

North Korea says it has test-fired a new antiaircraft missile, the fourth weapons launch in recent weeks that experts say is part of a strategy to win relief from sanctions.

Oct. 1, 2021

“We cannot overlook North Korea’s recent development in missile technology and its impact on the security of Japan and in the region,” he said.

Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi said one of the North Korean missiles reached a maximum altitude of 30 miles and flew on “an irregular trajectory” while traveling as far as 360 miles. He said the missile didn’t breach Japan’s exclusive economic zone set outside its territorial waters.


South Korean officials held a national security council meeting and expressed “deep regret” over the launch, which 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.

The apparent site of the missile firing — a 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 last tested an SLBM in October 2019.

Analysts say the ratcheting up of military might between North and South Korea raises the possibility of misunderstandings that could spiral to dangerous consequences.

Sept. 17, 2021

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 multiple missiles.

Japanese Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihiko Isozaki said Tokyo had lodged a “strong protest” to North Korea through the “usual channels,” meaning the two countries’ embassies in Beijing. Japan and North Korea have no diplomatic ties.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the tensions on the Korean Peninsula were at a “critical stage” and called for a renewed commitment to a diplomatic resolution.

Ending a months-long 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 lobby the U.S.

North Korea’s new missiles tests renew concerns that the country is building its capacity to deliver strikes on U.S. allies South Korea and Japan.

Sept. 13, 2021

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is “developing submarine-launched ballistic missiles because he wants a more survivable nuclear deterrent able to blackmail his neighbors and the United States,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

Easley added that North Korea “cannot politically afford appearing to fall behind in a regional arms race” with its southern neighbor.

“North Korea’s SLBM is probably far from being operationally deployed with a nuclear warhead,” he added.

North Korea has been pushing hard for years to acquire an ability to fire nuclear-armed missiles from submarines, the next key piece in Kim Jong Un’s nuclear arsenal, which includes a broad range of road mobile missiles and intercontinental ballistic missiles with potential range to reach the U.S. homeland.

Still, experts say it would take years, resources and major technological improvements for the heavily sanctioned nation to build a fleet of at least several submarines that could travel quietly in seas and reliably execute strikes.

Within days, Biden’s special envoy for North Korea, Sung Kim, is scheduled to meet with U.S. allies in Seoul over the prospects of reviving talks with North Korea.

Nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang have stalled for more than two years because of disagreements over the lifting of U.S.-led sanctions and North Korea’s denuclearization steps.

But while North Korea is apparently trying to use South Korea’s desire for inter-Korean engagement to extract concessions from Washington, analysts say Seoul has little wiggle room as the Biden administration is intent on keeping sanctions in place until the North makes concrete steps toward denuclearization.

President Trump charted a whipsaw course in relations with North Korea, going from alarming nuclear tests and brash threats to friendly summits with Kim Jong Un. President-elect Biden has not ruled out meeting with Kim but has signaled he’d revert to a more patient, measured approach.

Nov. 13, 2020

“The U.S. continues to reach out to Pyongyang to restart dialogue. Our intent remains the same. We harbor no hostile intent toward [North Korea], and we are open to meeting without preconditions,” Sung Kim told reporters Monday.

Last week, Kim reviewed powerful missiles designed to launch nuclear strikes on the U.S. mainland during a military exhibition and vowed to build an “invincible” military to cope with what he called persistent U.S. hostility. Earlier, Kim dismissed U.S. offers for resuming talks without preconditions as a “cunning” attempt to conceal its hostile policy toward the North.

The country has tested various weapons over the last month, including a new cruise missile that could potentially carry nuclear warheads and a developmental hypersonic missile.

The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said North Korea’s latest launch did not pose an immediate threat to U.S. personnel or territory, or that of its allies.