Northeast AsiaPartnerships

Japan, South Korea, U.S. hold anti-submarine drills in wake of North Korean threats


The Japanese, South Korean and United States navies practiced anti-submarine drills in early April 2023 to boost coordination against increasing North Korean missile threats, the Republic of Korea (ROK) military said.

The two-day exercise came as North Korea’s recent unveiling of a battlefield nuclear warhead increased concerns that the country might conduct its first nuclear test since 2017.

The maritime exercises in international waters off South Korea’s southern island of Jeju involved the nuclear-powered USS Nimitz aircraft carrier and naval destroyers from the three allied nations, South Korea’s Defense Ministry said in a statement. (Pictured: Crews move about the flight deck of the USS Nimitz, off the coast of Busan, South Korea, in late March 2023.)

The intention was to improve the countries’ abilities to respond to underwater threats posed by North Korea’s advancing submarine-launched ballistic missiles and other assets, the statement said. South Korean defense officials said the three countries practiced detecting and tracking unmanned South Korean and U.S. underwater vehicles posing as enemy submarines and other assets.

Submarine-launched missiles are serious security threats because they are hard to spot in advance. North Korea has tested sophisticated underwater-launched ballistic missiles and pushed to build bigger submarines, including a nuclear-powered one.

North Korea performed a barrage of missile tests in March 2023 in response to earlier South Korea-U.S. bilateral military drills. The weapons tested included a nuclear-capable underwater drone and a submarine-launched cruise missile, which suggest North Korea is trying to diversify underwater weapons systems.

Photographs in North Korean state media showed leader Kim Jong Un standing near about 10 red-tipped warheads called “Hwasan [Volcano]-31” with different serial numbers. A nearby poster listed eight kinds of short-range weapons that can carry the “Hwasan-31” warhead. Previous tests of the weapons show they can strike targets in South Korea, including U.S. military bases.

Some observers say the warhead’s unveiling may be a prelude to a nuclear test as North Korea’s last two tests in 2016 and 2017 followed the disclosures of other warheads. A nuclear test would be North Korea’s seventh detonation and the first since September 2017.

38 North, a North Korea-focused website, reported on April 1, 2023, that recent commercial satellite imagery of the North’s main Yongbyon nuclear complex indicated a high level of activity, such as the continued operation of its 5-megawatt reactor and new construction around the uranium enrichment plant area.

Foreign experts debate whether North Korea has functioning nuclear-armed missiles. But South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-Sup recently told lawmakers that the North’s technology to build miniaturized warheads to be mounted on advanced short-range missiles had made considerable progress.

North Korea could carry out new missile tests to protest the South Korea-U.S.-Japan drills because it views such training as a security threat.

In remarks carried in the Defense Ministry statement, Rear Adm. Kim Inho, chief of the South Korean forces involved in the trilateral drills, said “We’ll decisively respond to and neutralize any type of provocation by North Korea.”


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