On the 2nd of October, reports began flooding in from monitoring agencies in South Korea of a potential missile test from the eastern side of the peninsula. Initial reports suggested a launch from Kangwon Province (South-east DPRK). However, these reports were later superseded by a much more significant development; the missile launched from the East Sea. The confused reporting was soon confirmed by KCNA and the new ‘Pukguksong-3 Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM)’ made its media debut.
The launch was significant for two reasons; firstly, the design was clearly nuclear-capable. This would make it the first test of such a weapon since the Hwasong-15 test launch on November 28 2017. Secondly, the altitude reached during the test (910km) suggests the new SLBM has an operational range of around 1900km, the most powerful rocket tested by the north since the moratorium on testing began. The range is increased further when you consider the ability to move these missiles on-board submarines below the surface making them harder to detect than land-based missile systems.
The Pukguksong-3 may have captured the world’s attention, although, it is not the first SLBM Pyongyang has tested.
The first missile designed for submarine-launch was the Pukguksong-1. Initial testing began near Sinpo, a noted Korean People’s Army naval base. Early tests in 2014/15 seemed to be tests of the ejection system which would initially force the missile from beneath the water before igniting the main booster.
After a series of tests throughout 2015 and 2016, with mixed results, the Pukguksong-1 performed a successful proof-of-concept flight on August 24 2016. It launched from a submarine near Sinpo and flew 500km. South Korean military sources soon after confirmed the rocket had launched on a lofted trajectory, increasing range estimates to potentially as far as 1000km.
The test site, Sinpo, is notable for being the suspected build-site for a new class of North Korea submarine dubbed by onlookers ‘Sinpo-C class’. The naval base at Sinpo is also a significant centre for the DPRK’s submarine fleet, many of which are docked at nearby Mayang-do base.
Tensions were high during 2017 between the DPRK and the international community leading to an increased number of missile tests. Two of these tests were of new-type Pukguksong missiles, later revealed to be land-based variants of the original SLBM. The two tests (11 February & 21 May respectively) were successful. Both tests launched to altitudes of around 550km and flew a distance of about 500km landing off the east coast.
The existence of the Pukguksong-3 was first revealed in 2017 when, during a visit to the Chemical Materials Institute by the Marshall Kim Jong Un, a poster showing technical information about the missile was seen in the background of some of the published photos. The design does appear to have changed significantly since that initial design. The cone nose (similar to the Pukguksong 1 & 2) has been replaced with a blunter nose cone. This shift mirrors the nose cone development on the Hwasong missiles. The Hwa. 14 had a sharper nose cone whilst the Hwa. 15 appeared to have a much blunter nose, likely as a way to limit the stress on the payload fairing during re-entry into the atmosphere. A flatter nose-cone will deflect heat more efficiently increasing the likelihood of successful re-entry. The test saw the missile land in Japan’s exclusive economic zone in the East Sea, an example of the range of such a missile even when flying on an extremely lofted trajectory.
The 3rd generation Pukguksong may likely have been designed to operate from the new Sinpo-C submarine currently under development. A few weeks prior to the test, Kim Jong Un paid a visit to the submarine construction site where photos of the vehicle showed numerous holes on the top side designed to allow air to escape during a missile launch. This at least proves the new submarine is designed to operate as a missile platform.
Pyongyang is clearly demonstrating to Washington, Seoul, Tokyo and the rest of the world, that they remain a potent threat to regional stability. The launch also took place immediately in advance of the first working-level talks between the DPRK and US since the spontaneous Panmunjom summit earlier this year. Pyongyang has been searching for a way to increase its hand in these negotiations and revealing this huge technological leap forward in missile technology right on the eve of the talks will not have been an accident.
After the one-day talks collapsed, Pyongyang reminded Washington that should the US side fail to change “their attitude” in negotiations, the DPRK may be forced to find a “new way” forward. This test underlines something which North Korea has been keen to express for many months now: The moratorium on testing is totally voluntary and they will not hesitate to return to a more aggressive posture if Washington fails to make the necessary concessions in the nuclear talks. The launches which have taken place since the Moon-Trump-Kim summit at the JSA are also a powerful reminder that time is running out for the United States and the pressure is still very much ‘on’.