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North Korea Is Slowly Learning How to Launch a Ballistic Missile From a Submarine

The failed test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile on Saturday will likely be used as a learning experience as North Korea continues to develop the technology.
Imagen vía Rodong Sinmun/EPA

It's been more than six months since North Korea claimed to have successfully launched a ballistic missile from a submarine, an achievement that was announced with a typically bombastic state media report touting leader Kim Jong-un's new ability to "wipe out" enemies from the sea. There was reportedly another missile test on Saturday, but there's been no mention of it yet from the country's propaganda machine — and for good reason: It was a failure.


The test occurred at around 2pm local time on Saturday in the Sea of Japan near the eastern port city of Wonsan, according to the Wall Street Journal, which cited a closed-door briefing given to South Korean lawmakers by the country's National Intelligence Service.

South Korean media first reported the failed test of the submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), quoting an unnamed government official as saying that debris from the missile was found on the ocean surface. "The North appears to have failed the launch," the official said, according to Yonhap.

Related: North Korea Has Nukes and Missiles — But Does That Mean It Has Nuclear Missiles?

Speculation about a possible missile test had been rampant since early November, when North Korea declared that a large "no-sail zone" would remain in effect off the coast of Wonsan until December 7. Satellite imagery of a military shipyard near Wonsan had indicated that preparations for another SLBM launch were underway, and state media reported on Friday that Kim recently visited a shoe factory in the city.

Previously, on May 9, North Korea claimed that Kim was on hand to witness the "underwater test-fire of Korean-style powerful strategic submarine ballistic missile." State media released images of the leader grinning on a boat with the top of a submarine visible in the background, and of him pointing at what appeared to be a missile erupting from the sea. Experts quickly concluded that the images were doctored, and that the missile was likely fired from a "submerged launch platform" underneath the water rather than a submarine.


North Korean state media said Kim Jong-un watched a ballistic missile being fired from underwater on May 9, 2015. (Photo via KCNA/EPA)

According to 38 North, a website devoted to analysis of North Korea, officials from South Korea said the launch in May was an "ejection test" designed to study the system that could eventually be used on a submarine. The test missile reportedly flew a few hundred yards before landing in the ocean.

Joe Bermudez, a contributor at 38 North who has analyzed satellite imagery of the shipyard where the SLBM is being developed, said the test on Saturday was not a surprise and will likely be repeated in the not-too-distant future.

"This is absolutely expected to happen," said Bermudez, who is also the chief analytics officer at AllSource Analysis, a company that specializes in imagery-based intelligence. "If they want to make a successful weapons system, they have to keep trying. One would expect during the next year, if they're really pushing, to see a number of additional tests."

Related: North Korea Claims to Have Launched a Ballistic Missile From a Submarine

Bermudez said many questions about the failed test launch remain unanswered.

"If it was unsuccessful, how unsuccessful was it?" he asked. "Was it so unsuccessful that they lost the submarine? Was it moderately unsuccessful and they damaged the sub? Or did [the missile] leave the sub but fail right after? We don't know at this point."

North Korea has long been capable of launching ballistic missiles from land, but the added ability to fire from underwater would make defending against possible attacks much more difficult for South Korea, Japan, and the US, which has a number of military facilities in the region. There have also been reports that North Korea is attempting to "miniaturize" a nuclear warhead to fit on a ballistic missile.


Bermudez estimated that North Korea is still five to 10 years away from figuring out how to actually fire a SLBM, and said that the next step after Saturday's unsuccessful launch will be to "identify what went wrong and try to mitigate it going forward."

"It takes years to develop an operating SLBM system and the submarine to carry it," he said. "This is not something that happens overnight."

Watch On the Line: Keegan Hamilton Discusses North Korea

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Follow Keegan Hamilton on Twitter: @keegan_hamilton