SEOUL: North Korea on Wednesday test-fired a missile from waters off its east coast just hours after agreeing to resume nuclear talks with the US.
It was the 11th test-launch of missiles and rockets this year by the reclusive east Asian state.
However, the missile was fired at sea, indicating the weapons system could have been a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), a development that would pose greater threats to regional stability, South Korean defense authorities told Arab News.
The missile was launched a day after Pyongyang announced it would return to the negotiating table with the US to discuss its nuclear disarmament plans.
“The missile is presumed to be an SLBM since it was believed to be fired at sea,” South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo told lawmakers during a parliamentary session. “We’re analyzing the details of the missile, which is seen as a variant of the Pukguksong SLBM.”
The Pukguksong is currently under development in North Korea with the first version of the SLBM tested three times in 2016. So far, the North is believed to have developed two versions with a maximum flight range of around 1,300 kilometers.
Last July, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspected a newly built submarine presumed to have three missile launch tubes that could fire SLBMs.
According to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), the latest missile was fired from off the east coast near to the city of Wonsan into the sea at 7:11 a.m. and flew around 450 kilometers at a maximum altitude of some 910 kilometers.
It is not clear whether the missile was launched from a submarine, a ship, or a platform on the water.
Along with its intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), North Korea’s SLBM program is considered one of the biggest threats to the US and its Asian allies due to its radar-evading characteristics.
“Submarine-launched missiles are hard to detect in advance before they emerge from the water,” Kim Dae-young, a weapons analyst at the Korean Research Institute for National Strategy, told Arab News. “With the SLBM, North Korea could extend the range of its nuclear arsenal.”
Experts say the latest version of the Pukguksong is expected to have a firing range of 2,000 to 3,000 kilometers, which could reach western parts of the US continent as well as Hawaii.
“The latest missile was fired at a high angle, and if it had been fired at a normal angle, it would have flown up to 2,000 kilometers,” said Kim Dong-yup, a professor at South Korean Kyungnam University’s Far East Institute.
The presidential National Security Council (NSC) expressed “strong concern” about the SLBM test that could compromise efforts to revive the denuclearization talks that have been stalled for a year.
“The NSC members expressed strong concern about the latest missile launch ahead of the resumption of nuclear talks between the US and North Korea,” Seoul’s presidential office, the Blue House, said in a statement. “We’re in close consultation with the US over the motive and background of North Korea.”
On Tuesday, North Korean First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Choe Son-hui said Pyongyang and Washington had agreed to resume working-level discussions on Saturday, according to a statement carried by North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency, with the two sides having “preliminary contact” the day before. The time and venue have yet to be disclosed.
The denuclearization talks have so far failed to yield fruit, mainly due to disagreements over sanctions on the communist state. North Korea has demanded they be lifted step by step in return for its disarmament efforts, while the US insisted sanctions remained in place until all denuclearization was completed.
“It seems that the North sends a clear message that it would keep modernizing its weapons systems, especially as long as the US keeps the sanction regime against the North,” said Prof. Kim. “I wonder if (US) President (Donald) Trump would devalue the SLBM test, too, in spite of the missile’s greater threat to the US.”
Some government sources believe the SLBM test could be a response to the deployment of F-35 stealth fighters in South Korea.
On Tuesday, the flight of F-35 jets for the South Korean Air Force were made public for the first time to mark the 71st Armed Forces Day.
The North has been sensitive about F-35 deployment in the South due to the US aircraft’s stealth features that can penetrate into enemy areas without detection.
South Korea plans to acquire 40 F-35A jets, built by Lockheed Martin, with a plan for 20 more additional orders.