This photo, released by North Korean state media on Oct. 10, shows what the North says is an SLBM launched from a reservoir. (KCNA/Yonhap)
On Monday, North Korea claimed to have fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) from a reservoir while detailing a series of drills by its tactical nuclear weapon units.
There’s little precedent, either in Korea or elsewhere, for launching an SLBM from an inland reservoir, rather than from the ocean. North Korea appears to be increasing its options for launching SLBMs to prevent South Korea’s “kill chain” — its system for responding to North Korea’s nuclear program — from detecting signs of a launch.
On Monday, the 77th anniversary of the establishment of the North’s Workers’ Party of Korea, the Korean Central News Agency reported that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had provided on-the-spot guidance at all drills carried out by North Korea’s tactical nuclear weapon units, its long-range artillery units and air force squadrons during the two weeks from Sept. 25 to Oct. 9. The KCNA also printed dozens of related photographs.
Importantly, North Korea claims that these drills included the launch of a ballistic missile carrying a mock tactical nuclear warhead from an underwater silo in a reservoir in the northwestern part of the country in the early hours of Sept. 25 and printed a photo showing an SLBM shooting up from what appears to be a reservoir.
The South Korean military estimated at the time that North Korea had fired a short-range ballistic missile from a transporter erector launcher near Taechon County, North Pyongan Province. The military had failed to detect any signs that North Korea was about to launch a missile from the reservoir and could only track its trajectory after launch, concluding that the missile had been fired from land.
The SLBM development process generally starts with a launch from a surface barge, followed by a launch from an underwater barge, and finally culminating in a launch from a submarine. South Korean military analysts have said that North Korea hasn’t reached the submarine launch phase and that its SLBM test launches (both surface and underwater) have taken place near Sinpo, South Hamgyong Province, which is the site of North Korean shipyards and submarine bases.
But the photographs released by North Korea on Monday appear to show a “cold launch” taking place from an underwater barge in an inland reservoir. A “cold launch” refers to catapulting a missile out of the water before ignition, a necessary technique for SLBM launches.
If North Korea were to launch SLBMs not only from submarines but also from various inland reservoirs during a crisis, it would become that much harder for the South Korean military to detect the launches in advance and initiate strikes of its own.
“Since South Korea has threatened to initiate the kill chain as soon as it detects signs of a North Korean missile launch, the North seems to be brainstorming ways to conceal those signs,” said Chang Young-keun, a professor at Korea Aerospace University.
In September 2021 and January 2022, North Korea fired missiles from a train at different locations as it sought to turn its railroad network into an alternate launch platform.
If North Korea fired missiles from an inland reservoir, as it did in this test, South Korea’s kill chain might prove ineffectual.
Sources say the missile launched from the reservoir may be an upgraded version of the KN-23, a short-range ballistic missile regarded as a North Korean version of the Iskander.
By Kwon Hyuk-chul, staff reporter
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