Rarely a week goes by without North Korea making an announcement about military innovations. On Friday, January 19, Pyongyang claimed to have carried out “a significant test of its “Haeil-5-23” submarine nuclear weapons system under development in the East Sea of ​​Korea,” referring to an area also known under the name of the Sea of ​​Japan.

The test was carried out in response to joint naval exercises conducted earlier this week by the United States, South Korea and Japan, south of the southern South Korean island of Jeju. These maneuvers, which were themselves a response to the launch of a ballistic missile by Pyongyang on Sunday, involved nine ships from the three countries, including the American nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson.

According to a statement from the North Korean Defense Ministry, cited by the state agency KCNA, these trilateral exercises “seriously threatened the security” of the North and “constituted a cause of further destabilization of the regional situation”.

The test announced Friday – the exact date of which was not specified – allows “the underwater counter-attack system based on the nuclear weapons of our army to be further strengthened”, highlighted the spokesperson of the Defense Ministry, asserting that Pyongyang’s various maritime and submarine responses would “continue to deter hostile military maneuvers by the United States navies and its allies.”

Doubts about Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities

Recent months have seen a sharp deterioration in long-tense relations between the two Koreas, with both sides abandoning key agreements aimed at reducing tensions, strengthening border security and conducting live-fire exercises along the border. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un most recently called the South the “main enemy” and threatened Seoul with war for any violation of “even 0.001mm” of North Korean territory.

Last year, Pyongyang claimed to have conducted several tests of a so-called underwater nuclear attack drone – a different version of Haeil, which means tsunami in Korean -, claiming that this weapon could trigger “a radioactive tsunami”.

Ahn Chan-il, a defector-turned-researcher who heads the Global Institute for North Korea Studies, said it was “difficult to determine the exact capabilities” of North Korea’s alleged underwater nuclear weapons systems. “Given North Korea’s scientific level of defense and the fact that the weapon is still in the development stage, it is not yet capable of posing a significant threat,” he said at Agence France-Presse.

At the end of 2023, Kim Jong-un issued new threats of nuclear strikes against Seoul and ordered the acceleration of military preparations for a “war” that “can be launched at any time on the peninsula”. Pyongyang announced that it had fired a ballistic missile equipped with a maneuverable hypersonic warhead on Sunday, a few days after conducting live ammunition artillery exercises on its western coast, near South Korean islands whose civilian population was called to to shelter.

After two successive failures in May and June, North Korea successfully put its first military observation satellite into orbit in November, after having received, according to Seoul, Russian aid, in exchange for weapons for the war in Ukraine.