North Korea announced a successful test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile over the weekend. Though the North was known to be working on getting this capability, the speed with which it managed to reach this stage of development has surprised observers. Reuters reports:
“While North Korea’s submarines are not especially effective, the challenge of finding even a small number of specific submarines armed with missiles would be quite a challenge,” said Jeffrey Lewis of the California-based Monterey Institute of International Studies.Like much of North Korea’s arsenal, its fleet of around 70 submarines is based mainly on ageing, Soviet-era technology.North Korea had been expected to be working on an SLBM, but the speed with which it conducted an evidently successful test launch caught many observers by surprise.A South Korean defense ministry official who declined to be identified said photographs released on Saturday by the North showing a missile launched from the sea appeared to be authentic.
Three times in recent months, the West has apparently been caught flat-footed by the speed at which the North Korean nuclear capabilities are improving. The test comes on the heels of several other troubling revelations about the hermit kingdom’s nuclear program this year. In February, Chinese and South Korean officials told the United States that North Korea could have as many as 20 nuclear warheads—more than expected. And last month, Admiral William Gortney, head of the U.S. Northern Command, said that the DPRK was capable of miniaturizing warheads for use with an intercontinental missile that could reach the United States.A South Korean official warned that the North is two to three years away from fully operationalizing the submarine breakthrough, though analysts still maintain it will take longer. Given analysts’ recent record, however, one might be forgiven for fretting a bit.