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South Korea Says North Missile Launch a Serious Concern

FILE - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (L) stands on the conning tower of a submarine during his inspection of the Korean People's Army (KPA) Naval Unit 167 in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang.
FILE - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (L) stands on the conning tower of a submarine during his inspection of the Korean People's Army (KPA) Naval Unit 167 in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang.

South Korean officials Monday outlined their worries about North Korea’s first test missile launch from a submarine. Although the test does not immediately change the military status quo on the Korean peninsula, it shows Pyongyang is working on a difficult-to-detect missile system that could become capable of threatening countries around the world.

South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok confirmed that North Korea did test-fire an underwater ballistic missile on May 8. He called the test a serious and great concern and urged Pyongyang to immediately stop further development of this weapon. But the defense ministry spokesman also said the test indicates North Korea is years away from deploying this enhanced capability.

He said the ministry’s view is that North Korea’s test-fire this time shows it is in the early stage of development of a submarine launched ballistic missile program. According to the cases of advanced countries, he said, it takes about four to five years after the underwater test to complete the development of the system.

Still, the fact that Pyongyang is on a trajectory to develop a submarine based missile system means it could develop the capability to strike anywhere in the world, including the mainland of the United States.

This new capability would make less effective South Korea’s current Kill Chain missile system, intended to target and destroy North Korean missile launch sites.

The increased North Korean threat could trigger a new arms race on the Korean peninsula. It could also be used to justify the deployment of the United States anti-ballistic missile system called THAAD. Seoul had been reluctant to accept THAAD in part because China opposes its deployment.

South Korea’s defense ministry spokesman said his country is confident it can “strongly respond” to a missile attack from a North Korean submarine.

But defense analyst Shin In-kyun, with the Korea Defense Network, said Seoul needs to prevent such an attack, especially if Pyongyang moves to arm a ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead.

North Korea has not demonstrated it can miniaturize a nuclear warhead, but U.S. military authorizes recently said they believe North Korea has the ability to fit a nuclear weapon on a KN-08 long range missile.

Shin In-kyun said the U.S., South Korea other allies need to develop the capability to contain this threat at its source.

He argued the allies need to be capable of launching a preemptive attack by deploying U.S. nuclear submarines, which could hide in front of North Korea’s submarine port on Mayoung Island and strike the North’s submarines when there is a sign of attack.

The submarine missile test occurred days after U.S. and South Korean envoys met to discuss the possibility of opening “exploratory talks” with the North. By using the term “exploratory,” and not “formal negotiations,” Seoul and Washington may have been considering a compromise to meet Pyongyang’s demand for unconditional talks and drop at least temporarily the U.S. demand that North Korea first takes concrete steps halt its nuclear program.

With the missile test, analyst Shin In-kyun said Pyongyang is sending a message that it is not ready to offer any compromises of its own. In addition to Pyongyang's insistence on resuming six-party talks without pre-conditions, North Korea also wants the right to test-fire missiles.

The U.S. State Department has called on North Korea to refrain from raising regional tensions and said launches using ballistic missile technology are a "clear violation" of U.N. Security Council resolutions. North Korea is under U.N. sanctions banning it from developing or using ballistic missile technology.

North Korea's official news agency KCNA reported that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said the launching was "an eye-opening success."

Last week, North Korea threatened to attack South Korean naval ships that intrude into the North's territorial waters in the Yellow Sea.

At the end of the Korean War in 1953 the U.S.-led United Nations Command unilaterally designated the sea border off the west coast of the Korean Peninsula, known as the Northern Limit Line. This border area has been the scene of several deadly naval clashes between the two Koreas over the years.

VOA Seoul Producer Youmi Kim contributed to this report.