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International relations

South Korea becomes 8th country to fire ballistic missile from sub

Move threatens to escalate arms race with Pyongyang

South Korea's Dosan Ahn Chang-ho, a 3,000-ton class submarine used to test-fire a sub-launched ballistic missile. (Photo provided by the South Korean navy)   © Yonhap/Kyodo

SEOUL -- The South Korean military conducted its first successful underwater test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile, it was revealed Tuesday, setting the stage for an intensified missile development race with North Korea.

The new Dosan Ahn Chang-ho submarine that went into service last month conducted the test last Wednesday, according to a report by South Korea's Yonhap News Agency that cited confidential sources.

This makes South Korea the eighth country to possess such capabilities, joining peers such as the U.S., China, Russia, the U.K., France and India. North Korea was the seventh nation.

The military conducted what is called a "cold launch," in which a missile is fired underwater using high-pressure gas. The solid fuel in the projectile is then ignited midair. Defense officials have determined that the development of the technology has been essentially completed, according to news reports.

It is believed the test launch used a modified version of the Hyunmoo-2B ballistic missile, which has a range of 500 km. The weapon will transition to mass production and deployment after undergoing a flight test in the near future, reports said.

The South Korean defense ministry has refused to confirm the reports, citing national security reasons.

South Korea's first 3,000-ton class submarine, the Dosan Ahn Chang-ho is equipped with six launch tubes for ballistic missiles. The vessel will enter full military deployment next year.

Seoul has been playing catchup to Pyongyang's SLBM development for the past few years. President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Joe Biden agreed in May to terminate guidelines that set the maximum range of South Korea's missiles at 800 km.

The lifting of this restriction has given a boost to Seoul's missile development, allowing the military to possess weapons capable of striking not just Pyongyang, but Tokyo and Beijing as well. This also opens the door to an industry encompassing ballistic missiles and space exploration.

It is hard to overstate the strategic significance of possessing SLBMs, whose underwater launches are difficult to detect. The South Korean defense ministry's medium-term plan through 2026 outlines an objective to upgrade deterrence capabilities through subs.

The Moon administration has increased the defense budget by an average of 6.5% each year and plans to devote resources toward enhancing the naval forces. Moon called for the construction of nuclear-powered submarines during his presidential campaign in 2017 and his administration is negotiating with Washington for authorization to do so.

North Korea has been actively developing SLBMs since 2015, with leader Kim Jong Un reportedly approving military deployment of the Pukguksong 2 missile two years later. In October 2019, the regime conducted an underwater test launch of the Pukguksong 3, which has an estimated range of 2,000 km.

During a military parade in January, North Korea unveiled the Pukguksong 5, which is capable of carrying a bigger payload. Military officials in both the U.S. and South Korea are on alert for a potential test firing.

North Korea has one 1,500-ton class submarine capable of firing ballistic missiles. Observers say that the hermit nation is busy building two more subs that can be loaded with SLBMs, including a 3,000-ton class vessel. Kim mentioned during a party congress in January that the regime is developing a nuclear-powered submarine.

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