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(LEAD) N. Korea unlikely to test-fire SLBM around October anniv.: defense minister nominee

Defense 16:33 September 14, 2020

(ATTN: UPDATES with more comments in last 5 paras)
By Oh Seok-min

SEOUL, Sept. 14 (Yonhap) -- North Korea has not shown signs of preparations to fire a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) anytime soon and chances of an SLBM launch on the occasion of October's founding anniversary of the Workers' Party appear low, defense minister nominee Gen. Suh Wook said Monday.

Suh made the comment in written answers to questions from lawmakers for his National Assembly confirmation hearing slated for Wednesday amid speculation that the North could test-fire an SLBM around the party's 75th anniversary on Oct. 10.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said in a New Year's message that he would show off a new strategic weapon. Experts have said that it would be either a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) or an SLBM or a submarine capable of firing SLBMs.

This photo released by North Korea's state media shows a missile being launched from waters off its east coast on Oct. 2, 2019. The North's Korean Central News Agency on Oct. 3 said that it successfully test-fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile from waters off its eastern coast town of Wonsan the previous day. (For Use Only in the Republic of Korea. No Redistribution) (Yonhap)

"As of now, no signs indicating imminent firings of an SLBM have been detected," Suh said in an answer to questions by lawmakers.

In consideration of the preparation period left until the anniversary, the nominee said he sees "slim chances" that the communist country would take a provocative action with the SLBM around the time.

Earlier this month, the U.S.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) said that a satellite image may indicate preparations for an SLBM test, pointing to the presence of vessels at North Korea's Sinpo shipyard on the east coast, including one that resembles those previously used to tow the test stand barge out to sea.

"Rather than preparations for an SLBM launch, the move is presumed to be part of recovery work from damage by recent typhoons," Suh said.

North Korea is believed to have been on course to develop a new SLBM, though it is yet to reach the level of mass production or deployment, according to the nominee.

But Pyongyang "continues to push for beefing up capabilities of its submarines capable of carrying SLBMs," the nominee noted.

South Korean intelligence authorities have said they have been closely monitoring the North's activities regarding preparations for the launching of a new submarine, believed to be a 3,000-ton one, which is capable of carrying three SLBMs. The new submarine has been under construction at its naval base in Sinpo.

Suh, who currently serves as the Army Chief of Staff, was nominated as a new defense ministry last month to replace Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo.

President Moon Jae-in (L) poses for a photo with Army Chief of Staff Gen. Suh Wook at the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul, in this file photo dated April 15, 2019. Moon nominated Suh as new defense minister on Aug. 28, 2020. (Yonhap)

Touching on the power hierarchy inside the North Korean regime, the defense minister nominee also said that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is maintaining his complete grip on power, refuting a previous contradictory assessment by the intelligence chief.

"Kim Jong-un is not currently doing the kind of governing under which (he) delegates authority to close aides," he said in a written response to questions by Rep. Han Ki-ho of the People Power Party.

"Chairman Kim is completely controlling the (ruling) party, the government and the military and there's no problems in his grip on the regime," according to Suh.

But in comparison with the past, more responsibilities and roles have been shifted to some officials to a certain extent under the current governance system, he added.

The remarks contradict an assessment by Park Jie-won, the director of the National Intelligence Service, last month. Park said in a parliamentary session that Kim delegated part of his power to close aides, including younger sister Kim Yo-jong, in order to reduce stress and shift culpability in the event of a policy failure.


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