A missile was launched from a submarine by the North Korean Navy a few days ago, targeting Japan. The launch of the ballistic missile took place on Wednesday, August 24, just before 6.00 a.m. (local time). According to South Korean sources, the missile was launched from the Northern coast of the country and reached Japan’s Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ), after flying over 300 nautical miles.
On the contrary, according to some US sources, the submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) is supposed to be a KN-11. The KN-11, Polaris-1 or Nodong-1 – but said missile has also other names – is a weapon system still being studied in Pyongyang, derived from the Soviet R-27 Zyb and from other recent Russian projects called R-29 and R-29RM.
They are astro-inertial-guided missiles, a system which has been designed for launching missiles from moving submarines and correcting the direction with continued stellar observation, as is the case with the missiles housed in the North American TRIDENT class submarines and in the new generations of Russian SLBMs.
Between late October 2014 and August 2016 North Korea has carried out 11 tests with the KN-11, including the latest one of August 24, with some SLBMs launched from fixed offshore platforms (on January 23, 2015) or from undersea rocks (on May 9, 2015) and from submarines – though with an accident (on December 21, 2015).
On April 23, 2016 the KN-11 SBLM fell shortly after having been fired, 30 kilometers away from the launching point. The same problem occurred with the test of July 9, 2016.
Conversely, in this August test, the ballistic missile flew about 500 kilometres and it is worth noting that the test took place on the day when the Chinese, Japanese and South Korean Ministers for Foreign Affairs met in Tokyo.
Two days before said launch, however, the US-South Korean joint military exercise called Ulchi-Freedom Guardian had started on South Korea’s territory.
This was the largest computerized command and control exercise in the world, aimed to defend Seoul from a North Korean attack.
Moreover, North Korea always defines the six-monthly joint US-South Korean exercises Foal Eagle and Key Resolve, held every February-April, as real attempts to invade the country.
Foal Eagle consists in a series of military manoeuvres on the ground, still to be considered as the largest in the world and it mostly regards the creation of backward security areas to curb and contain an invasion from North Korea.
The areas are protected by a series of missile positions for facing a North Korean first strike.
However, over and above the technological and operational data, it is even more important to study the strategic significance of North Korea’s current technological and military success.
In so doing the country led by Kim Jong Un establishes a credible naval and submarine second strike nuclear force both against South Korea and especially against the US bases in the Pacific and the Japanese ones, which are expected to logistically support any nuclear and missile attack against North Korea.
At doctrinal and operational levels, for Kim Jong Un nuclear weapons and missile arsenals are the last, and perhaps the only, guarantee for the survival of his regime.
For North Korea, its nuclear weapons are “inherently usable”, in a strategic doctrine which reminds us of the Warsaw Pact doctrine, when General Shaposhnikov defined nuclear missiles “a weapon as any other one”.
Nevertheless, the many recent North Korean statements – some of which even excessive such as the project to bomb New York – along with the huge amount of specific exercises can be the sign of an escalation for de-escalation nuclear doctrine, like the one which was adopted by the USSR (and the Russian Federation) in the framework of the NATO’ Yugoslav wars in 1999.
In other words, the idea for Russia at that time and currently for North Korea is to have the possibility of launching a small-scale, limited first strike in specific and defined areas, with a view to countering an enemy showing clear conventional superiority, which cannot be opposed on the ground.
Hence, in a future clash, North Korea may plan to saturate the battlefield with conventional missiles, while some of them, targeted to the ballistic defensive networks, would be equipped with nuclear warheads.
A doctrine discounting the fact that South Korea has a limited ability to respond to a ballistic saturation operation so conceived, which would also require North-American PATRIOT batteries and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems, always supplied by the United States.
Hence the United States would be involved directly in a conflict which would make both Russia and China react. It is a fully rational North Korean strategic calculation, considering the military resources available.
In essence, since the North Korean doctrine makes a nuclear strike possible in the presence of the US-South Korean combined and significant threat, the solution can only be the design of a joint reduction of the nuclear arsenals of all the parties concerned.
And, at the same time, the management of a new round of negotiations in the framework of the Six Party Talks between South Korea, North Korea, the United States, Japan, China and the Russian Federation.
It is worth recalling that the negotiations ceased on April 14, 2009, as a result of a North Korean unilateral decision.
In this new context, we should discuss not only the issue of nuclear weapons, which was the only topic discussed in the old talks, but also the issue of a plan to support North Korea’s Free Economic Zones and of a related plan to reduce the nuclear positions of all the countries concerned.
A plan always verifiable by the international organizations responsible for dealing with the problem.