North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un hailed a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) test as an “eye-opening success”, state media said Sunday, declaring Pyongyang has the ability to strike Seoul and the US whenever it pleases.
Saturday’s launch came amid growing concern that Pyongyang is preparing a fifth nuclear test.
But it was followed just hours later by a North Korean offer to impose a unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing if the United States suspends annual military drills with South Korea.
The US and Britain denounced the SLBM test as a violation of UN Security Council resolutions and called on the North to refrain from further moves that could destabilize the region.
The North’s state-run KCNA news agency said the test, personally monitored by Kim, confirmed the reliability of the country’s underwater launching system.
It also cited the young leader as saying Pyongyang was now capable of “hitting the heads of the South Korean puppet forces and the US imperialists anytime as it pleases.”
Still images broadcast on state television showed Kim on the deck of the submarine before watching the test through binoculars from shore and meeting the crew and scientists afterwards.
“This eye-opening success constitutes one more precious gift the defence scientists and technicians are presenting to the great leaders and the party,” KCNA quoted Kim as saying.
South Korea’s defence ministry said the missile, fired from a submarine in the Sea of Japan (East Sea), flew around 30 kilometers (18 miles) and that the test showed “certain technological progress” in the North’s SLBM capability.
“It is believed… that the North would be able to deploy the SLBM weapon within three to four years, or even sooner if it dedicates all its resources on the project,” ministry spokesman Moon Sang-Gyun told reporters.
Nuclear test offer
Pictures showed the missile, with “The North Star” emblazoned on it, soar out of the water and fly into the sky, leaving a massive plume of smoke above the sea surface.
State TV also showed what it claimed were underwater images of the missile being ejected from the submarine, using key “cold launch” technology.
North Korea has been pushing to acquire an SLBM capability that would take its nuclear strike threat to a new level, allowing deployment far beyond the Korean peninsula and the potential to retaliate in the event of a nuclear attack.
The isolated country has conducted a number of what it says were successful SLBM tests, but experts had previously question the claims, suggesting Pyongyang had gone little further than a “pop-up” test from a submerged platform.
The latest launch comes as the North gears up for a rare and much-hyped ruling party congress early next month — the first in 36 years — at which Kim is expected to take credit for pushing the country’s nuclear and missile weapons program to new heights.
Many analysts and senior Seoul officials have suggested the regime may carry out a fifth nuclear test as a display of defiance and strength ahead of the May party congress.
In an interview with the Associated Press in New York, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su-Yong said Pyongyang would be willing to halt further tests if Washington announced an end to annual joint military exercises with Seoul.
South Korea dismissed the proposal and warned it would seek further sanctions for the SLBM test it called an “open provocation”.
“We strongly urge the North to… stop making a ridiculous attempt to link our regular joint military drills, which are defensive in nature, with a nuclear test that is banned under UN Security Council resolution,” the foreign ministry said in a statement Sunday.
The annual drills always raise tensions on the Korean peninsula, with the North condemning them as provocative rehearsals for invasion.
The North made exactly the same offer in January last year, when it was flatly rejected by the United States.
North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test in January, followed by a rocket launch a month later that was widely seen as a disguised ballistic missile test.
The UN Security Council responded by slapping its strongest sanctions to date on Pyongyang.
Unless it is stopped, North Korea will eventually acquire intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities, the four-star general selected to lead US forces in South Korea told lawmakers Tuesday.
Speaking at his nomination hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, General Vincent Brooks warned that North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un was determined to build rockets that could one day reach as far as the United States.
“It’s very clear through the parades that they’ve done, what systems they have and some of the attempted launches that … over time, I believe we’re going to see them acquire these capabilities if they’re not stopped,” Brooks said.
Senator John McCain, who chairs the committee, asked Brooks how concerned he was about the “immaturity and unpredictability of the rotund ruler in Pyongyang.”
“I’m very concerned about the direction he’s going, and it’s evident that he’s not yet deterred from his pursuit,” Brooks responded.
“If confirmed, I intend to be a close partner with the Republic of Korea to make sure they’re ready.”
The US military has kept a huge contingent of troops in South Korea since the end of the Korean War in 1953.
The two Koreas technically remain at war, because the conflict ended in an armistice instead of a peace treaty.
Currently, about 28,500 US troops are stationed in South Korea, and the two forces have very close military ties and continually conduct joint training.
Brooks also voiced concern about North Korea’s pursuit of building submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
“While they have not been successful, this is like watching someone ride a bike and falling off of it, but eventually they could become a BMX champion,” he said.
The Pentagon is confident it has adequate missile defenses to protect against a threat from North Korea, but officials have watched with increasing alarm as Kim pushes forward with his nuclear tests and missile program.
Pyongyang last week conducted a test of what appeared to be a medium-range missile, but the rocket suffered a catastrophic failure on launch.
Washington and Seoul are discussing the deployment to South Korea of a sophisticated THAAD system — Theater High Altitude Area Defense System — to protect against ballistic missiles from the North.
McCain indicated that the committee would move forward with Brooks’s nomination.
North Korea on Monday fired five short-range missiles into the sea off its east coast — the latest in a series of launches ordered by leader Kim Jong-Un amid rising military tensions.
They came just days after the North test-fired two medium-range missiles in what the UN Security Council described as an “unacceptable” violation of UN resolutions.
Tensions have been soaring on the divided Korean peninsula since the North carried out its fourth nuclear test on January 6, followed a month later by a long-range rocket launch that was widely seen as a disguised ballistic missile test.
The Security Council responded earlier this month by imposing its toughest sanctions on North Korea to date.
In recent weeks Pyongyang has maintained a daily barrage of nuclear strike threats against both Seoul and Washington, ostensibly over continuing large-scale South Korea-US military drills that the North sees as provocative rehearsals for invasion.
An official with South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the five short-range missiles were launched from near the eastern city of Hamhung, beginning just before 3:20pm (0620 GMT), and landed in the East Sea (Sea of Japan).
Upping the ante
He said analysts were still gathering intelligence on the precise missile type.
The North had fired two short-range missiles into the East Sea on March 10, using what state media described as a new high-calibre multiple rocket launcher.
Existing UN sanctions ban North Korea from conducting any ballistic missile test, although short-range launches tend to go unpunished.
Last Friday the North upped the ante by test-firing two medium-range missiles, which were seen as far more provocative given the threat they pose to neighbours like Japan.
They were the first medium-range launches for two years and followed an order from Kim Jong-Un for his military to prepare a series of missile launches as well as an eventual nuclear warhead explosion test.
China, the isolated North’s sole major ally, urged it Monday to refrain from violating UN resolutions and called for calm in both Koreas.
At a meeting with senior aides earlier Monday, South Korean President Park Geun-Hye warned of a “very crucial time” for the Korean peninsula.
“Even after the international community adopted strong sanctions, North Korea continues to attempt reckless provocations as shown through Kim Jong-Un’s recent order,” Park said.
Seoul government officials, meanwhile, said they were fully prepared for the possibility of another North Korean underground nuclear test.
“We believe that a fifth nuclear test can take place right away,” said Unification Ministry spokesman Jeong Joon-Hee.
The Defence Ministry also reiterated its assessment that the North was ready to carry out another test as soon as the leadership gave the order.
“In this regard our military, along with intelligence authorities in South Korea and the United States, are thoroughly monitoring such movements,” said ministry spokesman Moon Sang-Gyun.
Analysts with the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University say recent satellite images show what appears to be test-tunnel maintenance activity at North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear test complex.
“It is highly likely that site is capable of supporting additional tests at any time,” one of the analysts wrote on the closely-followed website 38 North.