Read The Diplomat, Know The Asia-Pacific
North Korea said it tested a new “unmanned underwater nuclear attack craft” as the South Korea-U.S. drills drew to a close.
This photo, provided by the North Korean government, shows what it says is an underwater blast of test warhead loaded to an unmanned underwater nuclear attack craft “Haeil” during an exercise around Hongwon Bay in waters off North Korea’s eastern coast, Mar. 23, 2023. The content of this image is as provided and cannot be independently verified.
A day after the end of the South Korea-U.S. joint military drills, North Korean state media reported that the country tested a “new underwater attack weapon system” from March 21 to March 23.
“After organizing and guiding a combined tactical drill simulating a nuclear counterattack, the WPK Central Military Commission commanded drills from March 21 to 23, which served as a demonstration of another military attack capability, in order to alert the enemy to an actual nuclear crisis and verify the reliability of the nuclear force for self-defense,” Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), one of the North’s main state-controlled media, reported on Friday.
KCNA said that North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un guided the test of the “unmanned underwater nuclear attack craft ‘Haeil’” held from March 21 to March 23.
“The underwater nuclear attack drone, which was deployed for a drill off the coast of Riwon County of South Hamgyong Province on Tuesday, reached the target point in the waters off Hongwon Bay set as a mock enemy port with its test warhead detonating underwater on Thursday afternoon after cruising… at an underwater depth of 80 to 150 meters in the East Sea of Korea for 59 hours and 12 minutes,” KCNA said.
Get briefed on the story of the week, and developing stories to watch across the Asia-Pacific.
“The mission of the underwater nuclear strategic weapon is to stealthily infiltrate into operational waters and make a super-scale radioactive tsunami through underwater explosion to destroy naval striker groups and major operational ports of the enemy.”
Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
On Wednesday, North Korea fired four cruise missiles toward its east coast from the Hamhung area around 10:15 a.m. KST. According to KCNA, the North launched drills to let “strategic cruise missile units get familiar with the procedures and processes for carrying out the tactical nuclear attack missions.”
“Two ‘Hwasal-1’-type strategic cruise missiles and two ‘Hwasal-2’-type strategic cruise missiles, launched in Jakdo-dong, Hungnam District, Hamhung City, South Hamgyong Province, accurately hit the target set in the East Sea of Korea after flying on their programmed 1,500 km- and 1,800 km-long oval and pattern-8 orbits for 7,557 to 7,567 seconds and 9,118 to 9 129,seconds respectively,” KCNA said. The tests reportedly evaluated the missiles’ minimum-altitude flight and capability for “ever-changing-altitude control and evasion flight.” KCNA also reported that the drill “verified once again the operational reliability of nuclear explosion control devices and detonators.”
On March 12, North Korea test-fired the so-called strategic cruise missiles from a submarine. However, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) questioned the details on the performance of the cruise missiles released by the North’s state media, raising the possibility of Pyongyang exaggerating the performance and type of the missiles. Since South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol took office in May 2022, Seoul has taken a stance of suspecting the performance of the North’s tested missiles as reported by the North’s state media. Pyongyang has publicly belittled South Korean experts’ analyses downplaying its missile tests.
As South Korea and the United States wrapped up their 11-day joint military drills on Thursday, the missile launches carried out on Wednesday appear to be part of North Korea’s efforts to show off the developments of its missile programs so as to confront the strengthened South Korea-U.S. alliance.
Kim “expressed his will to make the U.S. imperialists and the South Korean puppet regime plunge into despair for their choice through the high-profile demonstration of the powerful war deterrence,” KCNA said, warning that Washington and Seoul “are bound to lose more than they get and face a greater threat due to the strengthening of the military alliance and the expansion of war drills in the region.” Kim also warned South Korea and the United States to halt the “reckless anti-DPRK war drills.” (DPRK is an acronym of the North’s official name: Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.)
The scale of the tit-for-tat measures between the South Korea-U.S. alliance and North Korea has steadily increased due to the North’s longstanding dedication to developing new, advanced, and more powerful nuclear weapons. North Korea’s main strategy on missile development is to force the United States to eventually engage in arms control talks, so that North Korea can be recognized as a nuclear power. As Kim’s summits in Singapore and Hanoi failed to draw then-U.S. President Donald Trump to lift the devastating economic sanctions against North Korea, Pyongyang seems to have reached the conclusion that the United States has no interest in peace overtures but will stick to its “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization” (CVID) approach – which is interpreted by Pyongyang as a policy aiming for the collapse of the Kim regime.
On Wednesday, Jo Chol Su, director general of the Department of International Organizations of the North’s Foreign Ministry, harshly criticized the consistent movements led by the United State to denuclearize North Korea.
“The pressure on the DPRK to dismantle its nukes precisely means a declaration of war,” Jo said. “Any force should keep in mind that if it tries to apply CVID to the DPRK, it will be dealt with resolutely in accordance with the DPRK’s law on nuclear force policy.”
After the historic first North Korea-U.S. summit in Singapore in June 2018, Trump and Kim agreed to make commitments to establish new North Korea-U.S. relations. Kim also agreed to work toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula – which the United States interprets as the CVID of North Korea, but in Pyongyang’s mind would also involve an end to the U.S. “nuclear umbrella” over South Korea. The nuclear talks stalled after Trump rejected Kim’s offer to dismantle nuclear facilities at the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center in exchange for the U.S. lifting most of the economic sanctions on North Korea.
In order to bring Pyongyang back to the negotiating table, the current Biden administration has constantly said that it harbors no hostile intent toward Pyongyang. However, as Washington prioritizes handling Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the strategic competition with China over North Korea’s nuclear development, the security instability will likely persist in the Korean Peninsula, with North Korea developing new nuclear weapons and strengthened trilateral military cooperation between South Korea, the U.S., and Japan.
Mitch Shin was an assistant editor at The Diplomat.
Read The Diplomat, Know The Asia-Pacific