North Korea has unveiled a new submarine-launched missile. Image: Facebook

In another bombastic display of military might, North Korea unveiled a new submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) during a military parade on April 25, the Korean People’s Army’s (KPA) 90th founding anniversary.

The new SLBM is slightly larger than the Pukguksung-5, which was first revealed in a military parade in January. Analysts believe that the new missile has additional combustion components for a longer range, an enlarged warhead section to carry multiple independent re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) and is theoretically capable of hitting the US mainland.

The new missile is likely intended to be launched from North Korea’s new 3000-ton submarines currently under construction at Sinpo shipyard.

After displaying an array of missiles and other weapons during the parade, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un delivered a speech on the country’s new nuclear doctrine, which envisions lowering the threshold for nuclear weapons use. However, the leader did not identify his regime’s core interests and stated that North Korea intends to expand the scope of nuclear weapons use.

The speech highlights the evolution of North Korea’s nuclear doctrine. North Korea’s nuclear weapons under Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il were primarily meant to deter an invasion from the US and its allies. This meant preserving the status quo by preventing a pre-emptive attack through assured retaliation and preventing a renewed Korean War using the threat of nuclear escalation.

However, Kim Jong Un has expanded the role of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal not only as a deterrent against invasion, but also to increase its international stature, preserve its freedom of action against South Korea, and maintain its strategic independence.

Unlike his predecessors, Kim Jong Un has taken a revisionist approach to North Korea’s nuclear doctrine, which aims to break the status quo on the Korean Peninsula and in the larger Asia-Pacific region.

Under a revisionist nuclear doctrine, North Korea may seek to gain recognition as a full-fledged nuclear power capable of threatening the US. That threat would break the strategic logic of America’s extended deterrence, which is the cornerstone concept of the US alliance network in the Pacific.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watches the launch of a Hwasong-12 missile in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on September 16, 2017. Photo: KCNA via Reuters
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watches the launch of a missile in this undated photo released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency. Photo: KCNA

North Korea may also use the threat of nuclear escalation to provide strategic cover for low-intensity operations against South Korea without risking retaliation from the US. Such operations were seen in 2002 at the Battle of Yeongpeong and in the 2010 sinking of the ROKS Cheonan.

In both cases, South Korea’s retaliation was limited and the US did not intervene on behalf of its ally.

Nuclear weapons also help North Korea to maintain its strategic independence. While China is North Korea’s longstanding ally since the Korean War, in recent years it has grown critical of the Kim regime and has supported UN sanctions aimed at curbing North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

North Korea may thus now think that the strategic independence its nuclear arsenal provides is far more valuable than whatever protection China can give. 

North Korea’s new nuclear flex comes amid shifting political winds south of the border. New hardline South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol has already vowed to develop a “super-gap” between the North and South’s military capabilities and strengthen South Korea’s alliance with the US.

South Korea’s Commission on Presidential Transition condemned North Korea’s recent missile display, saying in a statement that “it has been proved through the military parade that North Korea has been actually immersing itself in developing means to threaten peace, not only on the Korean Peninsula, but also in Northeast Asia and the world, while insisting on peace and dialogue outwardly for the past five years.”

The SLBM missile display is the latest of North Korea’s provocative gestures following a spate of missile tests in previous months. These successive missile tests have forced Yoon to reconsider the redeployment of strategic US assets such as aircraft carriers, submarines and bombers in South Korea.

North Korea may be seeking to improve the survivability of its nuclear arsenal by opting for a submarine-based delivery system given its lack of strategic depth and in sight of its adversaries’ capabilities. The Korean Peninsula is relatively small, which negates many of the advantages of a land-based nuclear arsenal.

That means North Korea has very limited strategic depth to hide its land-based nuclear weapons from attack, as US and South Korean warplanes can easily overfly the entirety of the peninsula in short order. Both the US and South Korea have recently fielded weapons that could take out North Korea’s underground land-based nuclear arsenal, such as bunker-blasting cruise missiles and smart bombs.

South Korean troops loading a J-DAM guided bomb onto an F-15K jet fighter during a military exercise to mark the first anniversary of North Korea’s deadly shelling attack on a border island that left four South Koreans dead. Photo: AFP / Republic Of Korea Air Force

Submarines may be considered the ultimate in second-strike nuclear capability, as they are extremely difficult to locate and hit once submerged A submarine nuclear weapon launch is practically unstoppable given their stealth capabilities and lack of effective defenses against ballistic missile threats.

Still, it is not clear whether North Korea has mastered the technologies and procedures necessary to maintain a submarine-based nuclear deterrent.

While North Korea can be expected to pursue launch tests from time to time to play up the deterrent value of its nuclear arsenal, it is not clear whether it has mastered the procedures to complete a successful launch cycle, nor the technologies and resources necessary to maintain a nuclear deterrent at sea.

North Korea might thus be playing on the strategic ambiguity of its submarine nuclear deterrent as a so-called threat-in-being, given its possibly limited launch systems resources and technical know-how. 

While North Korea’s real capabilities to maintain a submarine-based nuclear deterrent may be questionable, their symbolic and political value is not for a regime obsessed with its survival. North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and massive military send a message to international audiences that the Kim dynasty is firmly in charge and acts as an indicator of regime stability.

The country’s military serves to intimidate any kind of dissent or criticism against the Kim regime, given the scale of its organization and reputation for brutality against dissenters and defectors.

North Korea’s frequent military parades, with its latest weapons on public display, also feed into the national narrative in which national self-sufficiency, anti-Western sentiment and wartime victimization of the North Korean people against US imperialism are key themes.

Nuclear weapons are a tangible element of these themes that are pervasively present in North Korea’s nationalistic and bellicose propaganda, which remain embedded in almost all spheres of public life.