(ATTN: ADDS more comments in paras 7-11, photo)
By Oh Seok-min
SEOUL, Sept. 16 (Yonhap) -- North Korea could test-fire a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) around the founding anniversary of the Worker' Party next month, Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) Chairman nominee Won In-choul said Wednesday.
The remark indicates changes in the military's assessment of what is going on in the North because Defense Minister nominee Gen. Suh Wook said Monday that chances for an SLBM launch anytime soon are slim given the short time left until the anniversary that falls on Oct. 10.
There has been speculation that the North could test-fire an SLBM or undertake other weapons provocations on the occasion of the anniversary, which could be a new strategic weapon that leader Kim Jong-un pledged to show off in his New Year's Day message.
"Currently, recovery work from damage by recent typhoons is under way at the Sinpo shipyard. Once completed, (North Korea) could launch an SLBM by using catapulting devices following preparations for a short period of time," Won said in his written answers to questions from lawmakers for his National Assembly confirmation hearing slated for Monday.
North Korea is at the stage of developing and testing a new SLBM, though the regime has not reached the level of mass production or deployment, the nominee said, adding South Korea is closely monitoring related movements.
According to the U.S. monitoring website 38 North, commercial satellite imagery of the North's Sinpo shipyard showed that a submersible test barge was gone, which may signal an impending SLBM test, though no other indicators of launch preparations were observed.
Asked about North Korea's intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), Won said that those missiles could be capable of reaching the U.S. mainland but that the North's atmospheric reentry technology has yet to be verified.
The technology is deemed critical, as it allows a warhead to withstand extremely high temperatures during reentry into the Earth's atmosphere.
Pyongyang has three kinds of intercontinental ballistic missiles -- Hwasong-13, Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15 -- all of which are believed to be capable of reaching most of the continental United States, according to U.S. Forces Korea.
The North last carried out an ICBM test in 2017. After denuclearization negotiations with the U.S. reached an impasse in 2019, the North resumed weapons tests, but they involved only short-range ballistic missiles or rockets.
"North Korea is believed to have been developing short-range ballistic missiles into diverse platforms," Won said. "We are capable of detecting those new ballistic missiles, and such detection capabilities will be enhanced further when early warning radar systems are put into operation."
In an answer to a question about the chances of South Korea hosting U.S. strategic missiles, such as mid-range ballistic missiles, Won said "no official discussions regarding the issue have been made, we have not reviewed the matter and we have no such plans as far as I know."
Won, who currently serves as the Air Force Chief of Staff, was nominated as a new JCS chairman last month to replace Gen. Park Han-ki.
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