Just as long-delayed talks with the United States were set for the end of this week, North Korea test-fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile, or SLBM, on Wednesday morning.
The missile was fired from a position off the country’s East Coast near Wonsan at 7:11am on Wednesday and flew approximately 450 kilometers at an altitude of about 910km, according to South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, as reported by Yonhap news agency.
South Korea’s presidential National Security Council convened an emergency meeting, Yonhap added.
Separately, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said two North Korean ballistic missiles had been launched and one had landed in the waters of the country’s exclusive economic zone. That zone stretches 230 miles, or 370 kilometers, from its coast.
However, Suga did not say whether the missiles were land- or submarine-launched.
It was North Korea’s 11th missile test this year. In defiance of UN resolutions, North Korea has tested a variety of short-range ballistic missiles, as well as multiple-launch rocket system projectiles.
However, it has not tested the kind of intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the US mainland, nor detonated a nuclear device, since 2017. US President Donald Trump has repeatedly referenced the latter facts as proof of the success of his diplomacy and relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
SLBMs offer North Korea greater operational flexibility than land-based missiles. Submarine cruising ranges add to the range of the missiles they carry, and are difficult to detect. The last North Korean SLBM test took place in 2016.
North Korea operates a wide range of submarines. In July North Korean state media released photographs of Kim visiting a large submarine that appeared to be under construction.
Two infiltration submarines were captured off South Korea’s east coast in 1996 and 1998. In 2010, Seoul blamed a North Korean submarine for sinking its corvette the Cheonan, with the loss of 46 seamen. North Korea denied that accusation.
Tests before talks
This week’s missile test came at a time when working-level denuclearization talks between North Korea and the United States are set to restart. It is not known whether the talks, set for the end of this week, will lay the groundwork for higher level talks or for a third summit between the two leaders, but Trump said last month that another meeting with Kim “could happen soon.”
There have been no negotiations between the two sides since a summit between Kim and Trump in Hanoi in February failed to deliver an outcome. However, the two leaders, during a brief meeting in the DMZ in June, agreed to resume working-level talks.
On Tuesday, those talks were finally announced.
North Korean Vice-Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui – who heads North Korea’s working-level talks delegation – said via state media that Pyongyang and Washington agreed to resume working-level nuclear talks this week. The two sides will have “preliminary contact” on Friday and working-level negotiations the following day, Choe said.
The US State Department confirmed the talks but offered no further details. The venue for the upcoming talks has not been released.
The resumption of talks follows the departure of hawkish US National Security Advisor John Bolton from the Trump administration last month after reported disputes with the US president.
Many pundits had speculated that the absence of Bolton – who some blame for the failure of the Hanoi summit – could kick-start new and more promising talks between Pyongyang and Washington.
Trump has repeatedly emphasized his good relations with Kim and stated his belief that Kim will “keep his word” on denuclearizing. Many experts disagree with Trump’s upbeat assessment – and Bolton was downbeat about the possibility of North Korea denuclearizing when he spoke at a think tank in Washington on Monday.
“It seems to be clear that [North Korea] has not made a strategic decision to give up its nuclear weapons,” Bolton said. “I think the strategic decision that Kim Jong Un is operating through is that he will do whatever he can to keep a deliverable nuclear weapons capability and to develop and enhance it further.”
One independent expert suggested that North Korea may be seeing a favorable confluence of circumstances in the United States, making the time ripe for talks.
“With Bolton now out of the administration and the US Congress talking impeachment [of Trump], Pyongyang likely sees an opportunity,” Leif-Eric Easley, an associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul said in an email to foreign reporters.
“North Korea may offer Trump a symbolic victory by declaring peace and expanding its testing freeze to an unverifiable production freeze in exchange for unearned sanctions relief.”
North Korea’s apparent coordination of missile tests and talks is not new. Since the 1950-53 Korean War, when the opposing forces engaged simultaneously in combat and negotiations, there has been considerable interplay between military and diplomatic maneuvers as both sides dangled carrots and brandished sticks.