Strengthening sea-based nuclear deterrence

North Korea moving toward assured second strike capability

Strengthening sea-based nuclear deterrence

In October, North Korea confirmed it had successfully test fired a missile from a platform at sea called the Pukguksong-3. The ballistic missile is capable of being fired from a submarine. States that aspire to possess nuclear weapons as a tool for coercive diplomacy and deterrence and as a weapon to protect them from nuclear blackmail, strive to develop nuclear weapons capability that is survivable so as to be able to launch an assured retaliation. Pyongyang  is also moving toward developing survivable nuclear forces, of which submarine launched ballistic missiles are a crucial component. 

It is difficult to detect missiles fired from submarines as they remain under water. This also gives North Korea the leverage of being able to fire nuclear capable missiles away from its territory, providing the missile systems with greater reach capability. The missile is solid fueled and so easier to launch and less hazardous, perfectly suited for a submarine launch. It provides Pyongyang greater scope for destruction by improving the operational readiness of the missile system and a greater chance of operating during crisis situations should deterrence fail.

Amid these developments, it is noteworthy to mention North Korea’s submarines are diesel powered and not nuclear propelled. This means they are more susceptible to enemy detection than nuclear powered ones. There is also concern over whether the submarines would be capable of carrying the nuclear propelled submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and whether they would be capable of carrying out patrols for longer distances. According to a New York Times Report, even the new submarine “will not be enough to make the round trip across the Pacific without surfacing and exposing itself to detection.”

In future, North Korea could likely venture into developing SSBNs for launching its nuclear capable SLBMs. There is already a belief that the Gorae class of submarine is nuclear powered. In due course, Pyongyang may decide to venture into air independent propulsion system submarines that have greater options of survivability than diesel powered ones. Nevertheless, its venture into sea-based nuclear deterrence gives it greater leverage in the Sea of Japan and also the capability to strike Hawaii in due course with further development. 

North Korea test fires missile systems to express its angst and disappointment, and also as a tool for coercive diplomacy. This test occurred just days before the nuclear negotiation talks with the US were to resume. The previous efforts did not yield any positive results and Pyongyang wanted to make sure its demands were well heard by Washington, and taken seriously. North Korea wants the US to sign a peace treaty and end the armistice that existed since the Korean War. The US wants to discuss the nuclear impasse first and then progress to other policies. Pyongyang also expects concessions in return for any steps towards denuclearization - possibly the removal of sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).

Previously, North Korea also threatened to abandon any negotiation talks if there were no credible concessions and flexibility shown by the US. Such tests before the negotiations are surely a way to coerce the US to normalize its relations with North Korea. In October, Pyongyang also threatened to defreeze its commitment to not test nuclear weapons and long range missiles that it undertook in 2017. Since then, it has test fired only short range missile systems. 

This threat came from North Korea just days after it tested its SLBM capability. The test followed a US Minuteman III test which Pyongyang believes was conducted to exert pressure on it ahead of the negotiations. 

North Korea is fixed on the year-end deadline it issued to the US to show flexibility toward it. In the future, Pyongyang will continue to take aggressive steps to ensure the US shows it more flexibility. Missile testing, especially long-range, is one way to do so.

Debalina Ghoshal is a Non Resident Fellow, Council on International Policy Asia Pacific, EastWest Institute.


Debalina Ghoshal is an independent consultant specializing in nuclear, missile and missile defense-related issues.

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