02.11.2021 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Self-Defense – 2021, the Long-Awaited SLBM and Other Missile News from North Korea


In September 2021, North Korea surprised military experts by showcasing new technologies, while the fact that every single one of those techs exists even in the experimental form makes the US and their allies’ victory over Pyongyang increasingly difficult. First of all, the DPRK has developed its own cruise missile. Secondly, it is a hypersonic gliding vehicle topped on the missile Hwasong-8. Thirdly, it is a rail-mobile missile system.

All this caused transition from “quantity to quality” to some extent. On September 13, the US military in South Korea conducted a surgical strike drill named The Exercise Teak Knife simulating targeted attacks on major North Korean facilities. On September 24, during the QUAD summit leaders of the US, Australia, Japan and India urged North Korea to enter into a dialog and to comply with the UN Security Council resolutions. And on September 27, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia Siddharth Mohandas said that North Korea’s recent cruise and ballistic missile launches show the “seriousness of threat” posed to the United States and South Korea.

On September 30, DPRK test-fired a new anti-aircraft missile capable of shooting down air targets at long distances with enhanced accuracy. The new weapon seems to be an upgraded surface-to-air missile that was first showcased at a military parade to mark the 75th anniversary of Workers’ Party of Korea and is designed to counter modern threats, such as F-35A fighter jets.

On the same day, September 30, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken voiced concerns over “repeated violations of Security Council resolutions that create greater prospects for instability and insecurity (this was the first time a top US diplomat had directly commented on North Korea’s recent missile launches), while the UN Security Council at the request of its permanent members – the US, the UK and France – convened a meeting behind closed doors to discuss Pyongyang’s hypersonic missile launch. Nonetheless, due to Russian and Chinese efforts the closed session did not even translate into a condemning statement by the chairman.

Technically, Moscow and Beijing were in their own right since short-range missile launches do not constitute a violation of UN Security Council resolutions. Especially since South Korea test-fired its cruise missile and SLBM at the same time.

It is no coincidence that a few days before, on September 25, speaking at the UN General Assembly, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Russia had always welcomed direct dialogue between North and South Korea, a sentiment that the previous US administration had not always shared since it wanted to keep a tight rein on the entire process.

On October 3, Jo Chol Su, the director of the North Korean Foreign Ministry’s department of international organizations, branded the Security Council meeting a “wanton encroachment” on its sovereignty and a serious intolerable provocation.

Meanwhile, DPRK with great fanfare held Self-Defense – 2021, an exhibition showcasing arms that had been created in the last five years. A detailed report from the exhibition and photos of the displayed items were published by North Korean media on October 12, including Rodong Sinmun newspaper.

The exhibition featured an intercontinental ballistic missile Hwasong-16, submarine-launched ballistic missiles Pukkykson-1 and Pukkykson-6, a tactical guided missile, which is an upgraded version of the North Korean Iskander (KN-23), the hypersonic gliding vehicle Hwasong-8 topped on the launcher Hwasong-14 and much more.

On October 11, Kim Jong-un spoke at the exhibition saying that it clearly demonstrates “an amazing milestone in the scientific and defense development.”  Kim Jong-un’s main message, ostensibly, was the following statement: “We reinforce our defense power not against South Korea. The terrible story of using armed forced against our compatriots should never repeat on our land… Our arch-enemy is the war itself.” At the same time, Kim lambasted the US statements about its readiness for dialogue, stressing that it “often sends us a signal that it is not hostile, but there is no basis in their actions for believing that it is not hostile.”

On the same day, on October 11, speaking at the general debate in the First Committee of the UN General Assembly, DPRK Ambassador to the UN Kim Song indicated that North Korea would continue to strengthen its “self-defensive” measures of deterrence and would not back down even “an inch” when it comes to protecting its sovereignty.  The Ambassador also criticized the US-South Korean alliance saying that its activities had “grown to a dangerous level.” He cited as an example easing restrictions that had capped South Korean missile development.

On October 19, North Korea launched a ballistic missile towards the Eastern Sea from the city of Sinpo in South Hamgyong Province.  The missile travelled around 590 km at a maximum height of 60 km. According to KCNA news agency, it was a test of a new submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). What is interesting, SLBM was presumably fired from the submarine “8.24 Yongung” which had launched the first SLBM five years ago. Moreover, the launch coincided with the meeting of top nuclear South Korean, US and Japanese envoys in Washington where they discussed joint efforts to resume negotiations with Pyongyang.

On October 21, DPRK Foreign Ministry explained that SLBM launch was not aimed at the US, so there is no need for Washington to “worry about it.”  The test-firing was “part of the normal activities for carrying out the medium- and long-term plan for the development of defense science”, while the US and South Korea are not DPRK’s “arch-enemies”, although the US and the UN Security Council backlash against “the legitimate right to self-defense is unreasonable.”

The US reaction to this flurry of events was mixed. On the one hand, it pointed out that North Korean missile programs spell danger for the US and its allies while on the other it reiterated its willingness to “meet with DPRK without preconditions and engage in serious and sustained diplomacy.” The State Department, Department of Defense and White House have made similar statements.

An emergency meeting of National Security Council Standing Committee chaired by Suh Hoon, the head of National Security Office in the presidential administration, was held in Seoul. Its participants voiced concerns over the fact that North Korea continued to launch missiles while leading world powers are holding consultations on stabilizing the situation on the Korean peninsula. The meeting participants stressed that ensuring stability on the Korean Peninsula is now more important than ever and urged Pyongyang to enter the dialogue as soon as possible.   Meanwhile, Seoul tried to downplay the threat posed by the new missile. On October 21, during a parliamentary audit South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook said that the new SLBM test-fired by the North may be at the early stage of development. Echoing this sentiment Park Jong-seung, the president of the Defense Development Agency, said that in terms of missile development the North may be at least five years behind the South.

What is more important to the author is that although Suh and other officials used the word “threat”, “North Korean provocations” were touted in the conservative media, but not in the official narrative. Neither Suh Wook, nor Chung Eui-yong, South Korean Foreign Minister, used this phrase.

At the UN, Deputy UN spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General Farhan Haq expressed concerns over the situation urging the DPRK leadership to renew its efforts for denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. Nonetheless, the closed-door session that took place on October 20 failed to achieve any results. The US ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said that North Korea’s launch of a SLBM is not only a violation of UN Security Council resolutions, but also poses a threat to the international security. A number of member states, including the US and the UK, condemned Pyongyang’s violation of UN resolutions, but China and Russia urged interested countries to exert restraint.

Rafael Grossi, Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), also highlighted the need for a diplomatic process to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. He said that compared with 2009, this program has taken a step forward and this is a big challenge since “the effort, the verification and safeguards effort that we will confront will be huge”.  “Nuclear reactors have been restarted, plutonium separation is ongoing, and uranium enrichment is probably really ongoing again and other facilities in country are giving signs of being active,” said Grossi, refusing to give an assessment of the North Korean nuclear potential. In 2009, North Korea expelled all IAEA inspectors when it withdrew from the multilateral denuclearization agreement.

As for China, it called for concerned countries to exert restraint, Wang Wenbin, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson, told at a regular press briefing, adding that the situation on the Korean Peninsula stands at a critical period. Cheong Seong-chang, Director of the Center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute, expects more missile tests in the coming months “in order to complete the development of new weapons and openly demonstrate their military potential to the international community and their people.” At the same time, in early 2022, when China is set to host the Winter Olympics, tests will be unlikely – the allies will agree on that.

Overall, the conservative Korea Times editorial casually said that SLBM test-firing “dashes hopes for dialogue”: “Pyongyang should not repeat its demand for the withdrawal of the US’s “hostile policy” toward the Kim Jong-un regime, while justifying its military provocation as self-defense. We urge North Korea to stop such military activities and return to dialogue immediately. The US, for its part, should get tougher with the North for its provocative acts, but offer more incentives to entice Pyongyang to take the path toward denuclearization and peace.”

Even a more conservative outlet Korea Herald stressed that this has been the North’s eighth missile launch this year, and its fifth since September. “All of the missiles are hard to intercept, and they target South Korea.” Meanwhile, Moon’s administration “tries hard to turn a blind eye to the North’s threats in a bid to implore dialogue” and is “absorbed in the push for a declaration of the end of the Korean War as if that were the holy grail.” According to the editors, Pyongyang intends to drive a wedge between South Korea and the US — and, further, to cause division in the South since it has never given up on the objective of “communizing” its neighbor. “The South Korean government must grasp North Korea’s intentions correctly and take precautions to deter its threats.”

The author has a feeling that North Korea pursued several objectives: on the one hand, it wanted to subtly showcase its new tech but, at the same time, acting in a less aggressive fashion than before. On the other hand, it watched closely for South Korean reaction, and if Seoul holds back some of its rhetoric of a specific sort, some steps forward can be expected. From yet another perspective, the South is also actively engaged in arms race on the peninsula… But this is a matter for another article.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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