North Korea tests nuclear underwater attack weapon: A potential game-changer in rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula

In a recent development, North Korea has conducted a test of its nuclear-capable underwater attack drone, raising concerns about its potential impact on the already rising tensions in the Korean Peninsula.

North Korea has allegedly conducted a test of its underwater nuclear weapons system, named “Haeil-5-23,” in protest against the joint military exercises conducted by South Korea, the United States, and Japan. The test was reportedly carried out by the defence ministry’s think tank in the waters off North Korea’s east coast.

An unnamed spokesman from North Korea’s defence ministry has accused the United States, South Korea, and Japan of intensifying military exercises and cautioned about potential “catastrophic consequences.” This statement comes in response to the three countries’ navies conducting a three-day regular drill, which included the U.S. aircraft carrier Carl Vinson. The joint exercises aim to enhance their capabilities in responding to North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats.

The North Korean spokesman, as reported by KCNA, stated that their military’s readiness to counter nuclear threats from underwater sources is being strengthened. The statement also mentioned ongoing maritime and underwater actions intended to deter what North Korea perceives as hostile military manoeuvres by the U.S. and its allies.

North Korean state television has previously broadcast atmospheric explosion tests that were observed by U.S. and South Korean authorities. However, the reported underwater weapon test has not been independently verified. In response to these developments, South Korea’s defence ministry issued a warning on Friday, urging North Korea to cease its recent series of weapons tests.

The statement from South Korea’s defence ministry emphasized the country’s military readiness and its commitment to a robust joint defence posture with the United States. It warned of “overwhelming” responses if North Korea were to engage in direct provocations. Japan’s Foreign Minister, Yoko Kamikawa, refrained from commenting on North Korea’s recent test during a news conference but expressed a commitment to ongoing efforts to curb the country’s weapons development.

The reported underwater test follows North Korea’s recent launch of a new intermediate-range, solid-fuel hypersonic missile, which drew condemnation from Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo as a serious violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. The three allies’ nuclear envoys convened in Seoul, condemning North Korea’s arms trade with Russia and its increasingly hostile rhetoric. This meeting occurred concurrently with North Korea’s foreign minister visiting Moscow and meeting with President Vladimir Putin, adding complexity to the diplomatic landscape in the region.


Increasing Tensions

The leader of Pyongyang, Kim Jong Un, has exhibited a more aggressive policy direction and rhetoric in recent months. This shift includes the termination of several agreements that were originally aimed at promoting peace. The move away from these agreements suggests a departure from diplomatic efforts and raises concerns about the potential for increased tensions in the region. The reported drone test occurred shortly after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un announced significant shifts in the country’s approach to relations with South Korea. Kim Jong Un scrapped North Korea’s longstanding goal of achieving a peaceful unification with South Korea. Additionally, he declared intentions to rewrite the country’s constitution, specifically defining South Korea as its most hostile foreign adversary.

The United States and South Korea agreed to intensify their collaboration on nuclear weapons planning. This decision followed remarks by South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol hinting at the possibility of Seoul pursuing its own nuclear weapons program. President Biden, in announcing this accord, went further by issuing a stern warning that the North Korean regime would face consequences if it were to deploy nuclear weapons.

The year 2023 has witnessed the most extensive joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea involving nuclear-capable aircraft in recent memory. Concurrently, there has been a discernible rise in nuclear rhetoric emanating from Pyongyang, with North Korea repeatedly accusing Washington and Seoul of perilously pushing the region towards nuclear conflict. North Korea’s actions have been punctuated by more than 40 missile tests in the preceding year.

Adding to the regional complexity, North Korea introduced a new law, solidifying its nuclear-armed status as “irreversible.” This legislation not only prohibits discussions on denuclearization but, alarmingly, sanctions the pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons.

This alarming exchange of threats is set against the backdrop of a broader global trend, including Russia’s explicit threats to use nuclear weapons in the context of its invasion of Ukraine. Responses from the U.S. and NATO, along with an Israeli minister’s mention of potential nuclear weapon use in Gaza, further contribute to the erosion of the decades-long nuclear taboo, normalizing the idea of nuclear weapons deployment.

This dangerous spiral is rooted in narrow and short-sighted notions of national security, where the possession and flaunting of nuclear weapons are deemed justifiable responses to both real and perceived foreign threats. To avert further escalation and potential catastrophe, North Korea, the United States, and South Korea must exercise restraint and prioritize diplomatic solutions over military posturing.

Underwater nuclear weapon system  and Haeil- 5-23

Underwater weapons, designed for engaging submarines or surface vessels, come in three main categories: guided weapons, non-guided weapons, and rocket and mortar weapons. Guided weapons are highly sophisticated and precise, commonly used for targeting both submarines and surface vessels. Non-guided weapons, encompassing mines and depth charges, operate based on proximity or depth activation, contributing to strategic underwater defence. The third category, rocket and mortar weapons, includes anti-submarine grenades and rockets, offering rapid response times and resilience against decoys. Despite challenges in the development of long-range missiles, North Korea has demonstrated progress in another potentially formidable weapon. The country recently conducted a test of its Haeil-5-23 nuclear-capable unmanned underwater attack weapon. “Haeil” (meaning tsunami), was reportedly first tested in March 2023. State media indicated that its purpose is to conduct stealthy attacks in enemy waters, targeting naval strike groups and major operational ports. The weapon in question is a nuclear-capable robotic submersible, capable of causing a “super-powerful radioactive tsunami” upon detonation.