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N. Korea still at least two years away from SLBM deployment: U.S. expert

All Headlines 06:57 August 29, 2016

By Chang Jae-soon

WASHINGTON, Aug. 28 (Yonhap) -- Despite last week's successful test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), North Korea appears to be still at least two years away from possible deployment of the weapon, a U.S. expert said.

The North conducted the latest in a series of SLBM test-firings Wednesday, sending the missile some 500 kilometers over the East Sea, the greatest distance the communist nation has achieved since it began SLBM tests last year.

Moreover, the missile was launched at a high angle, officials said, meaning the missile could have flown further, possibly more than 1,000 km, if it had been fired at a regular angle. Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency also said the missile was fired at a high angle.

"The success of North Korea's latest submarine-launched ballistic missile test suggests the program may be progressing faster than originally expected. However, this does not mean it will be ready next week, next month or even next year," John Schilling, a top expert on North Korean rockets, said in comments carried by the website 38 North.

"Rather, the pace and method of the North's SLBM testing would suggest possible deployment in an initial operational capability by the second half of 2018 at the earliest," he said.

Schilling pointed out Russia's SLBM development process, saying the North appears to be following the model. In Russia's case, even after two years and 12 tests of varying degrees of "success" after its first successful launch from a submarine, there were still glitches to be found and fixed, he said.

"The North Koreans may skip some of these tests but rushing development almost certainly sacrifices reliability, and fielding inadequately tested or unreliable missiles could result in sunken submarines —- a high price to pay when the North has only a single ballistic missile submarine of limited capability," Schilling said.

The expert also noted that the North has only one GORAE-class submarine that could theoretically be used to field an SLBM, and cannot count on a single prototype submarine with one to two missiles to carry out wartime missions.

"Such a deployment would be more of a bluff than a game-changing threat," he said.

Moreover, the North's submarine has only been put to sea for short periods in coastal waters to verify basic seaworthiness and conduct a few launches, Schilling said. If it is meant to be an operational boat, it will need realistic testing in operational environments, such as exercises with its surface fleet, he said.

"While 38 North has reported on the North's building up of infrastructure to construct new submarines -—upgrading, modernizing and erecting new construction halls at the Sinpo South Shipyard —- so far no information is known about whether actual submarine construction has begun," Schilling said.

"A new submarine could probably be built within a two-to-three-year time frame, but the likelihood of building new models without further testing and refinement of the experimental GORAE-class seems low," he said.

jschang@yna.co.kr
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