North Korea crossed a major threshold with its weapons program this past week when it test-fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile, military experts say.
The test came just days before this weekend’s resumption of working-level nuclear talks with the United States, with negotiators hoping to break a months-long stalemate. Those talks, however, fell apart the same day they started.
The weapons development by Pyongyang also comes at an inopportune time for President Trump, who is consumed by domestic political woes stemming from the House impeachment inquiry into his dealings with Ukraine.
Here are five things to know about North Korea’s latest missile test.
Test showcased a new missile
North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency described the test as a successful launch of its new Pukguksong-3 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM).
It wasn’t the first time North Korea has tested an SLBM, but it was a milestone for Pyongyang: It’s the longest-range solid fuel missile to get a trial run by North Korea.
It’s also North Korea’s first SLBM launch in three years.
U.S. Joint Staff spokesman Col. Patrick Ryder told reporters that the Pentagon assessed the missile to be short- to medium-range. He also said it was fired from a sea-based platform rather than a submarine.
South Korea said the missile climbed to 570 miles and flew a distance of 280 miles.
The lofted trajectory meant it flew higher than normal. If flown on a standard trajectory, experts said, the missile would have a range of about 1,200 miles, putting it squarely in the medium-range category.
Missile presents new dangers, but not anytime soon
A working SLBM, which is more mobile and more difficult to detect before launching, would pose a bigger threat than North Korea’s arsenal of land-based missiles.
The farther North Korea’s submarines can travel, the farther from its shores the SLBM can strike. An SLBM is also considered a key military asset when striking back after a nuclear attack.
At the same time, North Korea’s submarine fleet isn’t known for its range. The country’s 1990s-built subs are based on the Soviet Romeo-class subs and are thought to have a range of almost 4,400 miles, potentially putting Hawaii within striking distance. But the diesel-fueled subs are noisy and easy to detect.
Missile expert Michael Ellemen said that North Korea is likely years away from having operational SLBMs.
“The Pukguksong-3 represents another step forward in North Korea’s pursuit of a sea-based deterrent force,” he wrote for 38 North, a site that focuses on Pyongyang. “North Korea will also need to build at least three, if not four or five submarines to ensure a constant at-sea presence for the second leg of its strategic arsenal, making operationalization of its SLBMs at least a half-dozen years, or possibly longer, away.”
Test came right before talks
The test was widely seen as a way to send a signal to the United States ahead of the first working-level nuclear negotiations in months.
Nuclear talks stalled in February after Trump walked away from the Hanoi summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The two sides had reached an impasse over how much each was willing to give.
Trump and Kim met again in June at the demilitarized zone on the Korean peninsula and agreed to renew working-level talks. But nothing came to fruition until this past week.
Pyongyang, followed by Washington, announced Tuesday that working-level talks would resume within a week. A day later, North Korea launched the SLBM.
On his way to Sweden for this weekend’s talks, the head of North Korea’s delegation expressed optimism.
“As the U.S. side sent a new signal, I bear high expectations and optimism, and I am also optimistic about the results,” Kim Myong Gil told reporters at the airport in Beijing, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.
But the negotiations on Saturday were short-lived. North Korea’s chief nuclear negotiator told reporters that his delegation decided to break off the talks after the U.S. brought “nothing to the negotiating table,” according to Reuters.
In a statement Saturday afternoon, the State Department said those comments “do not reflect the content or the spirit of today’s 8 1/2 hour discussion.”
US wasn’t the only intended audience
While the test provided leverage for North Korea going into the talks, the U.S. was not the only country to receive Pyongyang’s message.
The missile landed within Japan’s exclusive economic zone, reminding Tokyo that they are in North Korea’s range.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono spoke on the phone after the test and “agreed that the North Korea tests are unnecessarily provocative and do not set the stage for diplomacy,” Ryder told reporters.
The test also came a day after South Korea had a weapons showcase of its own that many expected would infuriate the North.
On Tuesday, South Korea publicly displayed its U.S.-made F-35 fighter jets for the first time during an Armed Forces Day ceremony.
Pyongyang has previously protested South Korea’s purchase of the advanced fighters as an “extremely dangerous action” and threatened to “completely destroy” the aircraft.
Missile test adds to headaches for Trump
Trump has been brushing off North Korea’s missile tests for months, instead talking up his personal connection with Kim and calling the tests “very standard.”
But those tests, about a dozen since May, had consisted only of short-range missiles, making the most recent test the most serious since U.S.-North Korea talks began last year.
Asked Thursday if the latest one went too far for him, Trump said, “we’ll see,” but added that the talks would go on as planned.
The advancement in North Korea’s weapons program adds to an already-full plate of global issues weighing on Trump at a time when he is most concerned about what’s happening at home.
House Democrats have launched an impeachment inquiry into him related to his desire for Ukraine to investigate leading Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden.
The North Koreans could be looking to take advantage of the U.S. domestic drama. CNN, citing an unnamed source, reported Thursday that the North Koreans “sense an opportunity” right now and perceive Trump as “politically vulnerable” and “starving for a win.”
On Friday, Trump dismissed the idea that the impeachment probe has any negative effect on his foreign policy.
“We have a lot of countries in a very good position right now, despite the witch hunt, which hurts our country and it hurts America,” he said. “But Iran wants to do something. North Korea wants to do something. And China would like to do something.”