North Korea is a lot closer to being able to accurately target the U.S. with nuclear missiles than most people think, but the rogue state is likely at least two or three years away from being able to accurately target North America with land-based ICBMs or submarine-based missiles. Nuclear analysts note, however, that few details are available about the actual state of North Korea’s nuclear and delivery system programs.
According to South Korean military experts, North Korea recently took a major step in its nuclear weapons program by test-launching a ballistic missile from a submarine. That said, the repressive regime is still at least two or three years away from developing a missile system or submarine system which could really threaten the continental United States.
South Korea said the new submarine missile test was “very serious and concerning”, and urged Pyongyang to stop damaging regional security by developing submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
North Korea’s nuclear capabilities
North Korea has conducted several underground tests of nuclear devices, and it is estimated that the country may possess as many as a couple of dozen of nuclear bombs. It is an open secret that the isolated nation is working to develop a nuclear device small enough to be used in a ballistic missile, but experts say that is a difficult engineering task that will take some time.
Moreover, although some North Korean submarines are theoretically capable of coming within range of the U.S. mainland, they cannot carry a missile to reach the U.S., although the missile-equipped submarines could very likely target Japan.
Note that the the U.S. and Japan have both reserved the right to conduct pre-emptive strikes on missile sites in the event of a suspected nuclear attack. Military experts note that launching missiles from submarines makes it much easier to hide them.
Statements from military analysts
South Korean analysts say that North Korea is really limited by their older, smaller submarines. “They need to build a new, bigger submarine,” pointed out Yang Uk, a senior research fellow at the Korea Defense and Security Forum and a policy adviser to the South Korean navy.
“While North Korea’s submarines are not especially effective, the challenge of finding even a small number of specific submarines armed with missiles would be quite a challenge,” commented Jeffrey Lewis of the California-based Monterey Institute of International Studies.
More on North Korean submarine-launched missile test
Several media sources are reporting that a South Korean defense ministry official who wishes to remain anonymous said that photographs released over the weekend by Pyongyang showing a missile launched from the sea were apparently authentic.
The same official also noted that North Korea could be capable of building a fully-operational submarine equipped with nuclear ballistic missiles within two or three years. This is a much shorter time frame than most analysts have projected for the rogue state to develop the requisite technology.
Keep in mind that a submarine launched missile can launch against a target on an arched trajectory, it must be ejected from the sub and travel to the surface. According to experts, while that is a big step, it is only the first major technical hurdle to be overcome in successfully launching an SLBM. The South Korean source also highlighted that the North Korean sea-launched missile only traveled only about 150 meters before crashing back into the ocean.
Yang also pointed out that the sub launch system was years away from deployment because North Korean submarines did not yet have the equipment to manage the radar and tracking systems needed to guide a ballistic missile to its target.
Lewis estimated the North Korean missile involved in the test has a range of roughly 2,400 km (1,500 miles), which means the sub would have to be at sea for 60 to 90 days.
Military analysts say North Korea’s fleet of close to 70 submarines is mainly aging, Soviet-era technology, and will be difficult to upgrade sufficiently for reliable SLBM delivery.
Global intelligence agencies were aware that North Korea has been working on an SLBM system, but the speed with which the country managed a successful initial test launch is certainly worrisome.