N. Korea’s longer-range SLBMs seem in final stage of development: experts

SEOUL-- What North Korea fired from waters off its east coast on Wednesday appears to be a newer, longer-range version of its submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) that could pose greater threats to global security, experts said.

According to South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), the missile, believed to be a type of the North's Pukguksong SLBM, was fired from waters off the east coast near Wonsan in an easterly direction at around 7:11 a.m. It flew around 450 kilometers at a maximum altitude of about 910 km, it added.

It is North Korea's 11th weapons test so far this year, but it is the first test firing of the submarine-based projectile, which is classified as a medium-range missile. During the previous 10 rounds of tests, Pyongyang fired only shot-range ones.

"Today's test could be North Korea's declaration of its development of the new SLBM, or Pukguksong-3, which is the upgraded version of the Pukguksong-1 missile," said Moon Keun-sik, an expert at the Korea Defense and Security Forum.

In August 2016, North Korea successfully test-fired a Pukguksong-1 ballistic missile, codenamed KN-11, from a 2,000-ton Sinpo-class submarine off the east coast, which flew around 500 km at the maximum altitude of around 500 to 600 km.

The communist country then showed off the Pukguksong-2 missile, also known as KN-15, in 2017, which is not an SLBM but a ground-based one.

"So far, we've confirmed that North Korea developed the two Pukguksong-type missiles, and their flight ranges reach around 1,300 km," Defense Minister Jeong kyeong-doo said during a parliamentary audit on Wednesday.

North Korea is known to have been improving the solid-fueled SLBM. In August 2017, the North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) released photos showing the design of what was presumably the Pukguksong-3 missile.

"What makes the SLBM formidable is that it is quite difficult to detect those launched from under water," said Shin Jong-woo, a senior analyst at the Korea Defense and Security Forum in Seoul.

"The Pukguksong-3 missile would also be designed to be launched from canisters, which makes it easier to transport and more difficult to detect in advance," he noted.

Along with nuclear-capable bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), the SLBM completes the strategic nuclear arsenal.

SLBMs, in general, have a lower accuracy rate than ICBMs, and can carry smaller nuclear warheads. But SLBMs could be employed effectively to launch a sudden nuclear retaliation attack against soft targets if North Korea faces a "first strike" from enemy forces.

"The latest longer-range version, if confirmed, indicates the North's technical improvements in its capacity to deliver nuclear materials, and would give the North considerably greater strategic leverage," Shin added.

It is not immediately known from which platform the missile was fired, though experts said it could be launched from a barge or newly built submarine.

In July, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un inspected the new submarine, calling for the development of naval armed forces to boost the country's military capabilities, according to the North's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). The communist country was known to have built a new submarine at its naval base in Sinpo on its east coast.

Intelligence authorities in South Korea said at the time that the newly constructed submarine is ready to be deployed "soon" and seems to be capable of carrying three SLBMs.

Currently, North Korea is believed to have 70 subs, including some 20 1,800-ton Romeo class ones. But most of them were known to be outdated and unfit for operations beyond coastal waters.

The newly developed one is believed to be slightly larger than a 2,500-ton one, though North Korea has claimed that it is constructing a 3,000-ton submarine.

Source: Yonhap News Agency

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