On Tuesday 19th October, North Korea fired the country’s very first Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) towards the East Sea.
The timing of this act was no coincidence, as just a day earlier talks had begun in Washington between the U.S., Japan, and South Korea’s chief nuclear negotiators. These talks were specifically focussed on how best to re-open a dialogue with North Korea, possibly through humanitarian aid and other support, with the end goal being a potentially denuclearised North Korea.
South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, has recently called for a formal and proper end to the Korean War (1950-53) which, despite having been a dormant conflict for almost 70 years, ended only with an armistice rather than a peace treaty. This move is backed by the U.S. and Japan who also believe dialogue and diplomacy to be the most effective method to resolve tensions surrounding North Korea.
South Korea obviously sees this potential peace treaty as a first step in hopefully drawing North Korea back to the table for talks with itself, the U.S. and Japan. However, as we can see with the recent SLBM launch, North Korea is attempting to send a message that it won’t be participating in these talks unless concessions are made.
North Korea has demanded that U.S.-South Korea joint exercises cease, and the U.S. remove its strategic assets from South Korea. Obviously, this is a demand the U.S., South Korea and Japan are very unlikely to agree to, yet North Korea is sticking to its guns, or more accurately, its missiles.
This most recent test launch follows a similar launch conducted by South Korea back in September, when it tested its very own SLBM, making it the seventh nation in the world to acquire this technology. North Korea responded immediately, deriding the South Korean missile as infantile.
It is this ramping back and forth dynamic between the two neighbours that has led some experts to determine that they are in fact currently embroiled in an arms race. This classification only grows in accuracy when we consider the most recent defence developments made by South Korea, testing its first domestically created space rocket, Nuri, on the 21st October. Although the test itself failed to place a dummy satellite in orbit, it still displays the rapid rate at which South Korea is developing in terms of its technology and national defence.
It comes as no surprise then that North Korea is attempting to level the playing field and showcase its strength in this department. North Korea knows it can’t legitimately compete with South Korea whilst it has the backing of the U.S., so its recent actions can be seen as attempting to separate its neighbour from its superpower ally. This theory is backed up when we examine the main use of an SLBM more closely.
Whereas Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) are primarily set to be used as first-strike weapons, SLBMs are created with primarily second-strike uses in mind. These missiles, stored and fired from submarines, designed to be able to travel anywhere covertly, give a nation the ability to return fire to another nation in the event of a nuclear attack.
It is no coincidence that North Korea has developed this kind of weapon. Having a prohibitively limited arsenal of ICBMs in comparison to the U.S., North Korea’s capacity to return fire, (albeit not to the U.S. itself, but its allies or naval bases), if the U.S. attacks is a serious threat – a threat North Korea hopes is enough to send a strong message to the U.S., hopefully deterring it from antagonistic behaviour, or involving itself too heavily with South Korea.
This could also be seen as a reply from North Korea to the U.S.’ recent unveiling of their new bunker-buster bomb in early October. A weapon of this kind is designed specifically to destroy the kind of underground facilities used by the North Korean armed forces.
As we can see, tensions are increasing on both sides, and with talks between intelligence officials from the U.S., Japan and South Korea taking place in Seoul, as well as between chief nuclear envoys in Washington, it seems the three nations are heavily invested in resolving this issue.
However, North Korea will still want to appear powerful if it ever decides to come to the table and it doesn’t seem as if its current method of showing strength is set to change. Therefore, it appears there may be more missile tests in the near future unless policy on either side shifts. If it doesn’t, the tension shall only go one way: upward.