North Korea said on Monday that it had fired two strategic cruise missiles from a submarine, its first such missile test, as South Korea and the United States were about to begin a major joint military exercise.
The missiles were launched at dawn on Sunday and flew for more than two hours, covering a distance of 932 miles, according to the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency. The report said they were fired from the 8.24 Yongung, the only submarine capable of launching missiles that North Korea is known to possess. South Korea’s military confirmed that the test had taken place.
The North Korean report indicated that the missiles were capable of carrying nuclear warheads, calling the launch part of a test of the North’s “nuclear deterrent.” North Korea has said that it is developing nuclear-capable missiles of various ranges and types, but some outside analysts are skeptical that it has warheads light enough to be mounted on cruise or small ballistic missiles.
The launch, North Korea’s sixth missile test this year, marked the first time the North had tested cruise missiles from a submarine. The country last launched a short-range ballistic missile from a submarine on May 7 off its east coast.
The North announced the launch as South Korea and the United States were beginning an 11-day joint military exercise on Monday. Code-named Freedom Shield, the drill, one of the biggest the two allies have planned for this year, will involve large numbers of troops, including a simulated storming of a beach.
Seoul and Washington have expanded their joint military exercises this year, citing a growing threat from the North, which launched a record number of missiles last year. North Korea has long characterized the allies’ drills as rehearsals for an invasion.
The North appears to have stepped up its weapons tests as Freedom Shield drew closer. On Thursday, North Korea launched six short-range ballistic missiles off its west coast, testing what the country called its ability to strike military airfields in the South. North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, watched the test with his daughter, according to North Korean state media.
At a meeting of the North’s Central Military Commission over the weekend, Mr. Kim said “the war provocations of the U.S. and South Korea are reaching the red line” and called for “important practical steps,” according to state media.
In its report Monday on the submarine missile test, North Korea said it was responding to the allies’ drills by testing “different” ways of launching nuclear warheads. Submarine-launched nuclear missiles are among an array of new weapons that Mr. Kim has ordered his government to develop.
The North’s submarine-launched missile program, by potentially extending the range of the country’s nuclear arsenal, is believed to pose a particularly acute threat to the United States and its allies. The deployment of submarine-launched missiles is also harder to detect in advance.
North Korea has been launching ballistic missiles since 2016 from the 8.24 Yongung. That submarine has a single launch tube, but the North has been developing a new missile-capable submarine with greater capabilities, according to the South Korean military.