Say what you will about Kim Jong Un but he certainly has a flare for the dramatic. As US and ROK forces begin their annual Ulchi-Freedom Guardian military exercises on the southern half of the Korean peninsula and the Japanese, Chinese, and South Korean foreign ministers begin meetings in Tokyo, North Korea chooses today to test fire a sub-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). A KN-11 missile was launched from the waters off the nation’s east coast by a North Korean submarine. It flew east for roughly 500 miles before coming down in the Sea of Japan. South Korean officials were quick to call the action an ‘armed protest’ and the label is an accurate one. North Korea is prohibited by the UN from using any ballistic missile or nuclear technology. The UN ban has not deterred North Korea from conducting a series of test firings in recent months or moving forward with preparations for yet another test of a nuclear device. Unofficial US and Japanese intelligence estimates suggest a nuclear test will take place sometime within the next 30 days.
The test was North Korea’s most successful SLBM to date and raises concerns among US, Japanese and South Korean allies. Although North Korea’s submarines are obsolete and noisy by modern day standards, in the event of a conflict, SLBM capable subs would pose a real danger to civilian and military targets in South Korea and Japan. This test lends additional justification to the South Korean-US agreement to deploy the THAAD system to the peninsula.
With Ulchi-Freedom Guardian underway additional North Korean missile tests and saber-rattling should be expected. Although Kim Jong Un’s regime has proven to be unpredictable and irrational, it responds to US and ROK military exercises in a very uniform manner.