North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits the Paektusan Hero Youth Power Station No. 3 in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on April 23, 2016.

North Korea tests submarine-launched ballistic missile: Is that unusual?

North Korea reportedly launched a ballistic missile from a submarine Saturday. How should the international community respond?

In the latest development of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, it appears that the hermit kingdom fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) Saturday off its east coast.

While the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said the missile only remained airborne for 30 kilometers (18.6 miles), according to the Yonhap News Agency, they also said they were “keeping close tabs on the North Korean military while maintaining [their] readiness posture.”

A series of missile- and nuclear-weapons tests in recent months by North Korea indicates its desire for enhanced military capabilities, perhaps serving to alienate its most important ally - neighboring China - but also leading some to suggest that the West needs to start paying greater attention to the potential threat.

“North Korea's latest provocation... reaffirms the Kim regime's resolve to escalate tension and diversify its threat capabilities,” says Sung-Yoon Lee, Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Studies at The Fletcher School of International Affairs, just outside Boston, in an email interview with The Christian Science Monitor.

The first attempt by Pyongyang to launch a ballistic missile from a submarine is believed to have taken place last year, with subsequent efforts all ending in failure, reports Reuters. But if they did succeed, it could magnify the regime’s threat to potential adversaries, such as Japan and the United States, putting Guam and Hawaii at risk, and maybe even the US mainland.

North Korea carried out a nuclear test on Jan. 6, a long-range missile test on Feb. 7, and a medium-range missile test - using a mobile launcher - on April 15. There are concerns that another nuclear test, or other provocations, could be in the pipeline, in preparation for a Communist Party congress to take place early May, the first of its kind since 1980.

“North Korea has displayed an impressive clip of activity in the past year,” says Tom Karako, senior fellow of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in an email interview with the Monitor.

As well as the missile launches and nuclear detonations, Dr. Karako cites satellite orbits and re-entries, and solid rocket engine tests, saying that “North Korea’s missile development seems to be outpacing our deployment of regional missile defenses.”

The major form of missile defense currently under consideration by the United States and South Korea is THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense), described by the US Department of Defense as a “land-based element capable of shooting down a ballistic missile both inside and just outside the atmosphere.”

But a missile defense system is just one element of the arsenal that should be employed to counter North Korea’s activities, say observers, and there is no guarantee that THAAD itself will even be deployed, such is China’s mistrust of its purpose, concerned that the system could just as easily be used to thwart its own capabilities.

“It's time to stop patronizing Pyongyang and take its growing lethal threat seriously,” Dr. Lee tells the Monitor. “This means exploiting Pyongyang's systemic vulnerabilities: the regime's preponderant dependence on illicit streams of revenue and international financial transactions and extreme human rights violations.”

Specifically, says Lee, this means squeezing the regime financially and “saturating” the North Korean people with information.

With respect to the last, Lee is far from alone: a bill has been referred to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs that would grant the US government authority to pursue far greater distribution of “information receiving devices” and generally do its utmost to allow “North Koreans easier access to outside information.”

“Today, substantial numbers of North Koreans are willing and able to access outside media despite harsh punishments if detected by the authorities,” writes Yonho Kim in Foreign Policy. “But without access to the internet, how can North Koreans get access to digital content?”

Among other suggested resolutions, Mr. Kim proposes the use of drones, as “a high-tech alternative to traditional smuggling tactics,” posing “no risk to those smuggling digital media into the country.”

Perhaps the explosion of drone technology can touch even the lives of those confined to what is generally agreed to be the world’s most secretive nation.

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