North Korea launched a missile suspected to be a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) from the northeastern sea of Wonsan to the East Sea on Wednesday. The missile traveled approximately 450 kilometers at an altitude of 910 kilometers. This incident took place mere 13 hours later after Pyongyang’s announcement that the U.S. and North Korea will have a preliminary meeting on Friday and working-level talks on Saturday. South Korean presidential office Cheong Wa Dae held a National Security Council meeting, and reported that they suspect North Korea conducted an SLBM test and that a Pukguksong-series SLBM seemed to have been launched at a high angle.
North Korea test-launched the Pukguksong-1 SLBM three years ago in August 2016, which was followed by the test launch and deployment of the Pukguksong-2, an improved ground SLBM, in May 2017. SLBMs can be launched without being noticed from a submarine that is hard to be detected, which makes them a “game-changer” in the arms race among Northeast Asian countries. North Korea also revealed that it built a new submarine on which three to four SLBMs can be mounted.
Despite North Korea’s launching of short-range missiles on 10 occasions since the fallout of the Hanoi summit, U.S. President Donald Trump tolerated such provocations saying they are “just small missiles.” The most recent SLBM provocation by North Korea after unilaterally announcing the date of working-level talks is to prewarn that not only short-range missiles but also SLBMs are also non-negotiable as the latter are not mid- to long-range missiles, such as intercontinental ballistic missiles whose abandonment was pledged with the U.S. in advance.
North Korea also launched short-range missiles last month on the day following its announcement that it is willing to talk with the U.S. Since then, President Trump dismissed then National Security Advisor John Bolton and sent a series of friendly messages. In response, North Korea is demanding a “new approach” and removing items – from short-range missiles to SLBMs – on the list of weapons to be abandoned subject to negotiations with the U.S. Such tactic of North Korea was also behind its demand for the guarantee to maintain its political system while opposing the ROK-U.S. joint military exercises and South Korea’s strengthening military power.
North Korea is making more clear its intention to first obtain compensations of the declaration of the end of the war and the easing of sanctions in return for nuclear freeze and then engage in step-by-step negotiations regarding nuclear materials and nuclear warheads. The country also staged an armed protest to signal that missiles are the means of self-defense and therefore should not be negotiable. Of course, the U.S. will not easily allow SLBMs, which are on a different level than short-range missiles. However, given the recent development of North Korea leading the dynamics, it’s becoming ever more concerning that the current situation will eventually lead to poor negotiations and a far-less-than-ideal agreement.