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former IAEA Director-General

North Korea Tests Sea-Based Missiles
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January/February 2016

By Elizabeth Philipp

North Korea conducted two tests of a sea-based missile late last year, apparently with mixed results.

The most recent ejection test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), on Dec. 21, was successful, according to analysts. In an analysis of satellite imagery for 38 North, an online publication of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, Joseph Bermudez said reports of the Dec. 21 test at the Sinpo Shipyard were supported by imagery of the site.

Ejection tests are designed to evaluate the missile’s stabilization systems and the process of underwater launch. North Korea first conducted a successful ejection test from a submerged barge last May. (See ACT, June 2015).

The Dec. 21 ejection test came less than a month after a failed Nov. 28 launch test from North Korea’s experimental SINPO-class submarine. Despite the failure of the launch test, some experts suggested it may be a more focused research and development effort by Pyongyang to hone and eventually deploy a sea-based nuclear-armed missile. The subsequent ejection test in December appears to substantiate this suggestion.

South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency first reported on the Nov. 28 launch that day, citing a South Korean official who described the test as unsuccessful because the missile “failed to soar from the waters.” Additionally, “no missile flight was tracked on radar” nor was missile debris “observed floating on the surface of the water following the test,” according to Bermudez, who is chief analytics officer for AllSource Analysis.

Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at Rand Corp., told Arms Control Today in a Dec. 17 email that the development of new technologies is sometimes a process of “two steps forward, one step back,” in which “something that worked in an earlier test fails in a later test.” Testing the SLBM would help North Korea “identify flaws that need fixing,” he said.

Missile components are increasingly difficult for Pyongyang to procure due to UN Security Council resolutions, Bennett said. Resolutions have included demands for North Korea to cease its nuclear weapons program, including ballistic missile development.

The SLBM tests coincided with the run-up to North Korea’s Jan. 6 test of a nuclear device (see page 36). Pyongyang’s state-run Korean Central News Agency on Dec. 10 reported North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s announcement that his country was “ready to detonate self-reliant A-bomb and H-bomb.” The assertion of a hydrogen bomb, or H-bomb, design is new for North Korea.

North Korea said the Jan. 6 test involved a hydrogen bomb, but experts are skeptical of the true test type. North Korea is believed to be able to deliver a nuclear weapon via its medium-range Nodong missile. (See ACT, June 2014). 

Posted: January 14, 2016