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North Korea’s Belated Christmas Present

In his New Year’s address, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un announced that, along with an end to the moratorium on nuclear and long range missile testing, North Korea would soon introduce a “new strategic weapon.” This is likely either a new ballistic missile submarine, a new missile, or a new type of nuclear device. One of the main reasons that North Korea’s arsenal has been able to grow has been the lack of real diplomatic progress on denuclearization. While the mood post the Trump-Kim summit was optimistic, and the two heads of state seem to share a friendly relationship, the lack of diplomatic progress on denuclearization only benefits North Korea, and good faith talks must resume.

Image courtesy of the White House, © 2019

While North Korea’s submarines are currently not a threat to the United States as previously discussed, it is possible for them to become a threat if they are outfitted with North Korea’s “new strategic weapon.” North Korea’s easiest path to a ballistic missile submarine is to retro-fit its current stock of Soviet surplus Romeo-class diesel-electric submarines. Evidence suggests that they have already started doing so, and the “new strategic weapon” could be the commissioning of the first of these new submarines.

However, for them to be a strategic threat to the United States, they need to get close enough to deliver their sub-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM). CSIS currently lists the range of the KN-26 SLMB as 1,900 kilometers, roughly the distance between St. Paul, Minnesota, and New Orleans, Louisiana. Any North Korean ballistic missile submarine would have to get within 1,900 kilometers of its target in order to launch. This is easier said than done with diesel electric submarines, as they are range-limited by their fuel capacity and stealth impaired by the need to surface and recharge their batteries. Short of developing nuclear-powered submarines, in order for a new submarine to be a threat it would need a larger operating range, likely using air-independent propulsion or the forward deployment of submarine tenders.

Another option for North Korea’s ballistic missile submarines is the deployment of a new, longer-ranged SLBM. Broadly, a new type of missile would also be a “new strategic weapon;” a new ICBM would certainly qualify in that category. A more reliable design would certainly be a strategic threat, one that the United States and North Korea’s neighbors would take seriously. Given the SLBM test last October and recent activity at the Sinpo naval base some sort of submarine deterrent is likely. The ability to directly threaten the mainland US could convince North Korea that it can be more brazen in its backyard, operating under the assumption that the United States would not sacrifice San Francisco for Seoul. Resuming good faith talks, and building a relationship between Seoul and Washington beyond the one between President Trump and Chairman Kim, would go a long way to clearing up any misperceptions about what each side is willing to do in the event of resumed hostilities.

There is a third possibility: North Korea could be developing the components necessary for Multiple Reentry Vehicle (MRV) systems. Both Cold War superpowers introduced MRVs and the more sophisticated Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicle (MIRV) system in the 1960s. MIRVs have a wider targeting area than MRVs, and both systems dramatically increase the lethality of a single ICBM by allowing it to carry multiple warheads. Thus, with only a few ICMBs or SLBMs, North Korea could severely damage the United States and its regional allies. In resuming good faith talks, inviting these regional stakeholders to the table would be a good way to not only present a “unified front,” but could also lead to new ideas on how to break the deadlock between Washington and Pyongyang.

Whatever “new strategic weapon” North Korea deploys, it is clear that something must be done to restart talks between Pyongyang and Washington. It is imperative that talks resume, in good faith, and that both parties come prepared for compromise. In addition, bringing in other stakeholders such as South Korea and China would be a good way to ensure that the interests of the entire “neighborhood” are addressed, and could create new avenues for denuclearization. The additional pressure from regional stakeholders could also force Washington and Pyongyang to remain at the table, while limited, immediate opening of trade could provide an economic incentive for Pyongyang to stay and halt their nuclear activities. Time ticking by only benefits North Korea, giving the regime time to build up their nuclear arsenal.

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John Ashley

John Ashley was the 2017 YPFP Nuclear Security Fellow; he holds a Master of International Policy degree from the University of Georgia, where his studies concentrated in CBRN nonproliferation, export controls, and international security. John also holds a B.A. in History from the University of Georgia, and wrote his thesis on the Great War in Africa. His career goal is to work on the committee staff for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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