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North Korea Should Worry: South Korea Is Working on Ballistic Missile Submarines

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)

South Korea’s development of a homegrown submarine-launched ballistic missile capability appears to have taken a major step forward. South Korea is reported to have recently conducted a submarine-launched ballistic missile test, which media in South Korea described as a success.

The test appears to have involved the same modified Hyunmoo-2B short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) that was used in a reportedly successful ground-based ejection test earlier this year. South Korea will likely turn to its new class of submarines, the KSS-3, as its platform of choice to make use of the new SLBM. KSS-3-class vessels are equipped with six vertical launch tubes.

The recent SLBM test appears to have made use of a submersible test barge – a common tactic in the early stages of SLBM development – and it is likely that a test of the missile involving a submarine will follow at some point in the future.

South Korea’s efforts to develop an SLBM capability come amid ongoing efforts by North Korea to develop its own SLBM capability. In recent months, North Korea has unveiled new variants of its Pukguksong-series of SLBM, and the DPRK is reportedly constructing a new ballistic missile submarine that may be nearing completion.

The continued development of South Korea’s SLBM capabilities also comes in the aftermath of the summit meeting in late May between U.S. President Joe Biden and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, which saw the lifting of all range and payload restrictions on South Korean missiles. Those restrictions, put in place in 1979, limited South Korean missiles to a range of 180 km and a payload capacity of 500 kg.

Those restrictions have been gradually lifted over the years in response to the growing threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, and have been lifted enough to allow for South Korea’s development of missile weaponry capable of ranging the entire Korean Peninsula.

As a result, South Korea has developed an impressive array of cruise missile systems, including the Haeseong family of missiles – which includes both ship-based and submarine-launched supersonic land-attack cruise missiles as well as an anti-ship variant – along with its Hyunmoo-3 series of missiles, which includes ground-based, road-mobile land-attack cruise missiles along with a further very capable surface ship- and submarine-launched cruise missile.

South Korea has also worked to develop its ballistic missile capabilities within the confines of the missile restrictions in the form of its Hyunmoo-2 series of solid-fueled short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs), and the Hyunmoo-2A, 2B, and 2C variants possess 300, 500, and 800 km, respectively. South Korea is also in the process of developing the Hyunmoo-4 ballistic missile system, which will be capable of carrying larger payloads than the missiles of the Hyunmoo-2 series of ballistic missiles out to a range of 800 km.

Its arsenal of ballistic and cruise missiles form an important part of the South Korean military’s plans for handling threats emanating from the North, giving it a precision strike option for quickly and preemptively targeting the DPRK’s own missile or artillery systems before they can launch an attack, or for striking critical regime and military targets in the event of a larger North Korean attack.

The lifting of the restrictions on South Korea’s missile capabilities, however, now means that the country is free to develop missiles capable of ranging far beyond the Korean Peninsula. This could eventually lead to the development of longer-range classes of ballistic missiles such as medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles, but could also lead South Korea to develop longer-ranged SLBMs.

The development of longer-range ballistic missiles – including SLBMs – will likely raise at least as many eyebrows in China as it does in North Korea. Given that South Korean missiles are already capable of striking the entirety of the Korean Peninsula, the lifting of the missile restrictions is likely more reflective of U.S. competition with China than a concern with North Korea.

At such a point that South Korea fully develops its SLBM capabilities, it will join an exclusive club of countries in possession of such a capability. It will, however, be unique in its position as an operator of SLBMs that are not capable of being used as delivery mechanisms for nuclear weapons.

Image: North Korea firing a submarine-launched ballistic missile. Image via KCNA/North Korean state media. 

Written By

Eli Fuhrman is an Assistant Researcher in Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest and a recent graduate of Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, where he focusedd on East Asian security issues and U.S. foreign and defense policy in the region.