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5 Reasons Trump Should Be Way More Concerned About North Korea's Submarine Missile Launch

Successfully launching a missile from a sub takes North Korea a step closer to a solid-fuel ICBM that can strike the United States.

by David Gilbert
04 October 2019, 1:14pm

North Korea warned the world on Friday that its latest missile test was “a powerful blow” to its enemies, calling the weapon a “time bomb” and the "most fearful dagger.”

Wednesday’s missile test of the Pukguksong-3 rocket, the 11th test North Korea has conducted since May, marks a significant escalation in the country’s effort to develop its nuclear arsenal as it brings them one step closer to having a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting the U.S.

"The Pukguksong is not just a demonstration of our conventional weapon but a powerful statement to [North] Korean people and a grave statement to violent reactionaries bent on turning the flow of history around,” an editorial in the Rodong Sinmun, North Korea’s official newspaper said.

Experts say the new test is “a bold move” and “troubling” as it puts Japan and South Korea in immediate danger. And yet, as the Trump administration becomes ever more engulfed in the impeachment scandal, it has all but ignored the test, and instead, it is pressing ahead with plans to restart denuclearization negotiations this weekend.

“The administration has been willing to brush aside Kim’s weapons testing this year, despite the tests constituting violations of UN Security Council resolutions,” Ankit Panda, a North Korea analyst and author of the upcoming book “Kim Jong Un and the Bomb,” told VICE News. “For Kim, the perception quickly became that testing is cost-free because the U.S. president is disinterested and distracted. It’s a troubling development.”

READ: North Korea nuke talks are restarting this week. Experts are not hopeful of a breakthrough

U.S. and North Korean officials arrived in the Swedish capital Stockholm on Thursday ahead of an expected preliminary meeting on Friday before full working-level talks on Saturday.

What makes this week’s missile test important?

On Wednesday, hours after the country had announced it was restarting negotiations with the U.S. over denuclearization, North Korea test-fired a new rocket.

The ballistic missile is designed to be launched from a submarine, but on Wednesday it was likely launched from a submersible barge according to 38 North, a website that analyses North Korea’s missile activity.

The rocket was launched off the coast of Wonsan, on North Korea’s eastern coast. The two-stage, solid-fuel missile flew on a lofted trajectory, reaching a peak altitude of 590 miles and landing about 280 miles from the launch point. If the Pukguksong-3 had used a standard trajectory, it would have overflown Japan and covered about 1,200 miles.

While this was the latest in a series of missile tests by North Korea, all of which have been dismissed by the White House, Wednesday’s test marked a serious uptick in Pyongyang’s weapon program development.

Here’s why:

  • The Pukguksong-3 is the longest-range solid-fuel missile North Korea has tested to date. Solid fuel missiles, unlike liquid fuel rockets, can be launched much faster, helping avoid detection
  • The test shows North Korea took a major step toward being able to launch a nuke from a submarine and it already has one submarine capable of launching such a missile.
  • Unlike the short-range land-based missiles tests by North Korea so far this year, the Pukguksong-3 was a medium-range missile capable of hitting all of Japan and South Korea if launched from the Sea of Japan.
  • The development of a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) would make it more difficult for missile defense systems as they don't know where the missile will be launched from
  • The test puts North Korea another step closer to a solid-fuel ICBM capable of hitting the U.S.

“North Korea's missile program continues to impress,” Joshua Pollack, an expert on nuclear weapons at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies, told VICE News. “It's hard to be sure what the size of this latest weapon is since there aren't very many good points of comparison in the photographs. But if it's much larger in diameter than its predecessors, then it would suggest that North Korea is well on its way to a solid-propellant ICBM.”

READ: North Korea said it wants to restart nuclear talks. Then it tested two more missiles.

What has the U.S. said?

In response to the launch, the State Department issued a brief statement, saying it was a provocation but urged the North to “remain engaged in substantive and sustained negotiations.”

Despite walking away from the negotiating table during a high profile summit with Kim in Hanoi in February, Donald Trump has continued to dismiss missile tests as unimportant.

With his attention on impeachment, Trump has yet to comment on the latest missile launch or the restarted negotiations.

“Kim is pushing the envelope again, at a time when Trump is distracted or consumed with the impeachment,” Steve Tsang, director of London’s SOAS China Institute, told VICE News. “Kim may expect the U.S. to ignore the gravity of the test as Trump is otherwise preoccupied.”

READ: North Korea is building its own bitcoin

But in the current political climate, there appears to be little appetite to censure Pyongyang for its on-going breaches of UN sanctions.

“In the past, an SLBM test would have certainly caused a big reaction from the international community and talk of further sanctions,” Jenny Town, a research analyst at the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan think tank, said. “But in the current political environment, it’s unclear what kind of reaction will follow. It does not appear that this test will derail or even delay the next round of U.S.-DPRK working-level talks.”

There is no indication that this weekend’s talks will be canceled and the continued tests, which are in violation of UN Security Council sanctions, could give the officials from Pyongyang an upper hand as they seek greater concessions from their Washington counterparts.

“The message [North Korea is sending] is that if Washington refuses to give concessions in the form of removal of UN sanctions, North Korea's capabilities will continue to improve and mature,” Baohui Zhang, director of the Centre for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, told VICE News.

Cover: In this Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019, file photo provided by the North Korean government, an underwater-launched missile lifts off in the waters off North Korea's eastern coastal town of Wonsan. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP, File)