NORTH KOREAN SUBMARINE FORCES: CURRENT STATE AND PROSPECTS
Anastasia O. Barannikova
Admiral Nevelskoy Maritime State University, Vladivostok
Abstract: In recent years, the DPRK has demonstrated several promising weapons systems, including submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). It is also known about the country’s efforts to modernize its submarine fleet. Since the latest systems demonstrated have not been tested, it is difficult to assess the current level of the DPRK’s naval capabilities. However, given rapid progress North Korea demonstrated in previous years and strong incentive to develop its nuclear forces, making submarines a full-fledged component of nuclear dyad or triad is only a matter of time. The present article analyzes recent changes in North Korean sea-based component of nuclear forces.
Keywords: DPRK, nuclear triad, sea-based component, strategic forces, second strike capabilities
The fact that the DPRK has achieved significant progress in its nuclear and missile program is no longer in doubt. Since Kim Jong Un assumed power in the DPRK in 2012, the country has created and successfully tested nuclear charges of various yields, missiles with ranges from short to intercontinental, liquid and solid fuel engines etc.
In 2016 Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), official state media of the DPRK, reported that Kim Jong Un “underscored the need to…dynamically push forward the diversification of means for delivering nuclear warheads so as to get ready to make nuclear strikes at the enemies from anywhere on the ground, in the air, at sea and underwater”. This statement may be interpreted as signal of intentions of the North Korean leadership to acquire a nuclear triad. Given the size and resources of North Korea, it should distribute its nuclear forces properly in order to ensure their survival in a first- strike attack and achieve an assured retaliatory strike capability. Building a classical nuclear triad is considered the most reliable from a point of capability to induce a second strike. However, developing an air component may be extremely difficult and even
unfeasible for the DPRK. The efforts of developing strategic bombers will be costly and require mastering sophisticated technologies, which is a time-consuming process.
However, the DPRK may focus on the dyad or non- traditional triad. Making “nuclear strikes in the air” may not only mean attacks involving nuclear aircraft. This phrase may also indicate delivering nuclear weapons to high altitudes to produce high altitude electromagnetic pulse (HEMP). Given the efforts of North Korea to develop a space program, possession of hydrogen bomb and demand for a weapon to deter both nuclear and conventional attacks, HEMP seems the most efficient option. As for nuclear aircraft, the DPRK may master these technologies in the future, but it will likely rely on a nuclear dyad consisting of sea- and land-based components in the nearest term. It is evidenced by the focus on testing and developing of specific weapons systems. Importantly, the report of the 8th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), held in Pyongyang in January 2021, did not mention an air component of North Korean nuclear forces. Instead, it focused on development of land- and sea-based components .
The DPRK achieved significant progress in developing its land-based arsenal. Along with hundreds missiles capable to deliver warheads to targets in South Korea and Japan, the DPRK has developed and tested ballistic missiles with ranges threatening the US territory. Multiplicity of missiles and peculiarity of North Korean topography can guarantee that a part of its arsenal will survive a first-strike and provide some degree of regional second- strike capability . North Korea is also in possession of tactical systems KN-23 missiles (referred to as “Kimskanders” in media, by analogy with Russian Iskander mobile short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) systems) and KN-24 having some similarities with army tactical missile system (ATACMS), railway-borne missile systems, cruise missiles etc. The majority of these systems are capable of delivering warheads to targets in South Korea and may be dual capable. i.e., can carry either nuclear or conventional warheads. Cruise missiles and KN-23 systems having quasi-ballistic trajectory are effective against the ballistic missile defenses of the enemy.
Sea-based component may seem less diverse than the land- based one. However, North Korean leadership has clear understanding of the advantages of a developed submarine fleet and,
after having achieved success in ICBM program, has come to grips with modernization of its submarines.
The DPRK is known for operating one of the world’s largest
submarine fleets consisting of approximately 70 submarines. They include 40 Sang-O and Sang-O II-class coastal submarines, 19 Romeo-class submarines, 20 Yugo and Yono-class mini-submarines and 1 Gorae-class (Sinpo-B) ballistic missile submarine. Despite the fact that majority of this fleet is aging, North Korean submarines are still considered a serious threat by its adversaries. It has been conventional threat so far. But since Kim Jong Un assumed the power, the DPRK has focused on developing ballistic missile submarines. North Korean leadership’s statements and information released to public indicate the ambitions to acquire at least the nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines. If the country succeeds, its adversaries may well face a nuclear threat in several years.
First (and the only available by the moment) Gorae submarine was launched by the DPRK in 2014. This submarine class has all chances to become the part of North Korean naval strategic forces, if serious improvements are made though. The currently available submarine operates on diesel-electric engine and can carry just one SLBM. Due to these limited operational capabilities experts view the submarine as a test platform rather than an operational system .
In 2019, the KCNA released photos of Kim Jong Un inspecting construction of “newly built submarines”. Weapons experts suggested that it was modified Romeo class submarine (referred to as Sinpo-C) or its larger successor  modified to launch 2–3 ballistic missiles. Since new 3,000-ton submarine has not yet been operated or involved in testing no one can say whether its construction has been finished or not. Experts point that addition of the missile silos comes at a cost of the aft batteries and thus deteriorate underwater endurance.
Basing on the information obtained by commercial satellites in March some media reported that new ballistic missile submarine was near completion and launched would be launched soon. However this information has not been confirmed so far. The recent tests again involved Gorae-class (Sinpo-B).
The Congress report of January stated that “modernization of medium-sized submarine was set correctly and it was remodelled experimentally” and “the design of new nuclear-powered submarine was researched and was in the stage of final examination” . Until recently the DPRK was known to develop only diesel-electric submarines. The DPRK was also reported to possess the technologies of air-independent propulsion (AIP). Particularly, some sources point that new Sinpo-C submarine may have an AIP system . Two years ago, various media [8; 11] reported on the failed deal on the transfer of North Korean AIP technologies to Taiwan. The latter was able to confirm that the DPRK was in possession of these technologies but decided not to acquire them because of international sanctions. If the DPRK really has AIP systems, it can improve underwater endurance of its submarines and keep them underwater for up to 20-30 days.
It should not be ruled out that North Korea would be able to build nuclear-powered submarine, however, it would depend on success in mastering miniaturization of nuclear power plant. There has been no information about “new nuclear-powered submarine” so far so it is impossible to say for sure whether its construction began or not.
Along with miniaturization of nuclear power plant the DPRK should solve the problem with noiselessness. If submarines are deployed and operated in the adjacent areas this problem can be easily solved by the right choice of deployment location. For example, if the DPRK deploys its submarines in the shallow water of the Yellow Sea, they have high chances to be undetected even by the advanced anti-submarine warfare systems . However, in this case North Korean submarines can reach only territories of ROK and Japan and US bases there, i.e. will have to limit its operations to regional deterrence. However, in order to reach continental part of the US the submarine would have to sail further into the Pacific Ocean – a big challenge for noisy, not stealthy enough and thus more vulnerable North Korean submarines. New North Korean submarine is probably based on the Soviet Romeo-class submarine and the most probable adversary of the DPRK – US – has huge experience in detecting, tracking and combating submarines of such kind . Making submarines advanced enough to sail closer to the most probable enemy having advanced anti-submarine defense for
inducing nuclear strike will require costly and time-consuming efforts. It makes more sense for the DPRK to focus on increasing the range of its SLBMs.
The DPRK has already achieved certain progress in SLBM
program for a relatively short term. It has promising Pukguksong series SLBMs. In 2015 and 2016, the DPRK conducted a series of a two-stage, medium-range Pukguksong-1 SLBM. The missile had liquid fuel engine in its first tests, and its solid fuel modification was launched during the latest tests. In 2016 it was test launched from Gorae submarine. Its range was estimated at 1000 – 1250 km. Three years later North Korea successfully tested Pukguksong-3, with range no less than 1900-2100 km and larger solid-fuel engine. New Pukguksong-4 SLBM was demonstrated during the military parade celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea in October 2020. Finally, the DPRK demonstrated new Pukguksong-5 SLBMs (labeled as Pukguksong-5A by some experts) during the parade to mark the end of the 8th Congress of the WPK held in January 2021.
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