Is North Korea preparing to inaugurate a new round of weapons testing with a submarine-launched ballistic missile? And if so, will it be timed to the U.S. presidential election calendar in a not-so-subtle attempt to poke President Donald Trump in the eye as he fights for his political life?
If you happened to glance at the latest satellite imagery report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), you might come to the conclusion that some earth-shattering, ground-breaking SBLM test from Pyongyang is only a matter of time. Using a September 4 image of the North’s Sino South Shipyard as its source, CSIS’s Beyond Parallel Program concluded that some activity at the site suggests that an SLBM launch is a possibility.
The authors of the report, Joseph Bermudez and Victor Cha, write that “[a] satellite image of the Sinpo South Shipyard...shows some activity within the secure boat basin that is suggestive, but not conclusive, of preparations for an upcoming test of a Pukguksong-3 [SLBM] from the submersible test stand barge based here." They go on to say that a test, if carried out, "would support escalating speculation that North Korea has been making advances in both ballistic missile and SLBM development during the past year..”
Clarifying further, Cha, who served as President George W. Bush’s Asia director on the National Security Council, told NBC's Andrea Mitchell that it "looks like they [the North Koreans] are certainly preparing to do an SLBM test for the first time.” A "sea-launched missile test,” Cha said, "would definitely cross all of President Trump’s red lines because it would involve a major ballistic missile.”
Sounds ominous, doesn’t it? Well, according to the weapons analysts and retired senior U.S. intelligence officials I spoke to, the CSIS report is more bark than bite. Indeed, the latest images tell us little other than the fact that some portions of the U.S. analyst community are often prone to over-reading and/or sensationalizing North Korea’s ballistic missile development.
Markus Garlauskas and Bruce Perry are two of the most authoritative North Korea analysts as well as former members of the U.S. intelligence community. The former served as the U.S. National Intelligence Officer for North Korea between 2014 to 2020; the latter was the Senior Intelligence Officer for the Northeast Asia Division at U.S. Indo-Pacific Command between 2005 to 2019. Both told me that the CSIS report dramatizes, if not inflates, events. In their professional judgement, the reality is far more mundane—and frankly boring.
The two have since retired, emphasizing their views don't represent the U.S. intelligence community or the U.S. government.
“North Korea already tested a new model of a submarine-launched ballistic missile last year,” the two told me in an email exchange, so the notion that an SLBM launch would be some new development is inaccurate.
The same general sentiment was expressed by Vann Van Diepen, a former Acting Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation and a former senior weapons of mass destruction analyst in the U.S. intelligence community. In contrast to Cha’s assertion that Pyongyang could be preparing for its first-ever SLBM test, Van Diepen told me the North already executed an SLBM test in May 2015. The career weapons analyst also expressed the fact that a future test of the Pukguksong-3 ballistic missile wouldn’t exactly be unprecedented either. The Kim dynasty test-launched the Pukguksong-3, a two-stage, solid-fueled ballistic missile with a maximum range of 1,900-2,000 kilometers, last year. If the CSIS report did uncover anything, it was merely a confirmation of what Washington has long believed: North Korea continues to refine its ballistic missile capability, diplomacy or no diplomacy.
How seriously should U.S. officials take the pictures from the Sino shipyard? Are we looking at a potential “major new development for the North” as the NBC News story implies?
Garlauskas and Perry told me to hold my horses. "[A]dding an outdated ballistic missile sub with limited capabilities to North Korea’s force would really not change the strategic equation significantly,” the two pros said, "particularly not in comparison to its cost to the North Korean regime.” Van Diepen had a similar assessment: a Pukguksong-3 missile fired from a submarine “would not “vastly expand KJU’s arsenal” as the CSIS report claims.
None of this, of course, is to suggest that North Korea’s ballistic missile program isn't maturing. Garlauskas and Perry commented that if Washington wants to worry about something, it can start with the Kim dynasty’s land-based, mobile ballistic missile systems, which are more advanced and time-tested than Pyongyang’s largely primitive SLBM program. There is also no denying that submarine-launched ballistic missiles would provide the North Koreans with an additional weapon in its arsenal if a conflict with the United States or South Korea broke out.
Fortunately, the U.S. doesn’t need to concern itself too much with this hypothetical scenario. North Korea’s risk calculus on the Korean Peninsula hasn’t changed. In his first decade since inheriting power from his father, Kim Jong-un has revealed himself to the world as a shrewd, canny operator who not only has a knack for busting apart the U.N. sanctions regime but is also aware of his country’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Like his father and grandfather, Kim wants to sit atop the throne until he dies from old age or health complications. Needless to say, provoking a war with a superpower would shred those plans as violently as Kim has shredded his internal enemies.
Daniel R. DePetris is a columnist for the Washington Examiner and the contributor to the National Interest.
Image: What appears to be a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) flies in an undisclosed location in this undated picture released by North Korea's Central News Agency (KCNA) on October 2, 2019.
Note: This piece has been updated since posting.