North Korea fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) on Tuesday from waters east of Sinpo into the East Sea, the South Korean military said. A launch of SLBM by North Korea is the first in two years since it fired Pukuksong-3 in October 2019. Seoul held a meeting of the Standing Committee of the National Security Council and expressed deep regret over the launch.
An SLBM is called “game changer” because it is capable of launching a nuclear attack without being caught by the radar. It is one leg of nuclear triad along with strategic bomber and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). That is why the latest launch of SLBM is a threatening signal that is different from its previous provocations. It is also true that North Korea pledged to stop nuclear tests and launches of ICBM during the U.S.-North Korea summit in 2019, which acted as a safety valve that prevented the situation from further deteriorating on the Korean Peninsula. But the North fast approached the “red line” with the latest SLBM launch.
Above all, it is even more worrying that Tuesday’s provocation came amid efforts from South Korea, the U.S. and Japan to bring the North back to the negotiating table. Top nuclear envoys of South Korea and the U.S met in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday and intelligence chiefs of South Korea, the U.S. and Japan met in Seoul on the same day. The U.S. made specific proposals for dialogue to North Korea and is even showing a more flexible stance with regard to end-of-war declaration. North Korea, however, threw a wet blanket over their efforts.
It is difficult to determine whether such armed demonstration is a stepping stone to a bigger provocation or a typical strategy to up the ante before resuming dialogue. Establishing a firm principle is a must in order to properly respond to such unpredictable actions by North Korea. Seoul, however, proposed end-of-war declaration and provision of COVID-19 vaccines to soften the North’s tough stance, and just expressed “deep regret” over the latest SLBM launch instead of calling it “provocation.” The use of the term “provocation” disappeared after Kim Yo Jong took issue with President Moon Jae-in’s mention of “North Korea’s provocation.” If Seoul continues to be swayed by Pyongyang, the threshold for dialogue will only increase and Pyongyang will only become more arrogant.