North Korea Seems to Be Closer to Missile-Launching Submarine

January 9, 2015

New York Times

North Korea has displayed its cyberattack capabilities and advances toward making nuclear warheads, the country’s adversaries say. Now, the North appears to have shown progress in fitting submarines with missile launchers.

A report posted Thursday on the website of 38north, a prominent research group that focuses on North Korea, said commercial satellite imagery of a North Korean submarine, taken less than a month ago, indicates the vessel may have one or two vertical launching tubes for either ballistic or cruise missiles.

The submarine, first seen in July, could be a test bed for underwater missile launching, which would be harder to detect than land-based launchers, the report said. It was written by Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., an arms expert and authority on North Korea’s defense capabilities.

Mr. Bermudez cautioned, as have other Western defense experts, that North Korea is not believed to have the ability to launch missiles from submarines.

“Moreover, an effort by Pyongyang to develop an operational, missile-carrying submarine would be an expensive and time-consuming endeavor with no guarantee of success,” Mr. Bermudez wrote in the report.

Nonetheless, he wrote, “North Korea’s development of a submarine-launched missile capability would eventually expand Pyongyang’s threat to South Korea, Japan and U.S. bases in East Asia, also complicating regional missile defense planning, deployment and operations.”

Reports of what appears to be the North’s quest to develop a missile-launching submarine are not new. Mr. Bermudez said last year that the North appeared to have built a ground-based test area at its Sinpo South shipyard on the east coast to research and develop single-stage, liquid-propellant missiles fired from a submarine.

A report in the South Korean press last November quoted unidentified military and government sources as saying the North had modified a Russian-built diesel-powered submarine to make it capable of firing a single-stage missile with a range of about 880 miles. But the report said the North had not yet developed the technology needed for the missiles.

Mr. Bermudez’s report on Thursday included previously unseen satellite images, dated in mid-December, that showed an opening in a North Korean submarine’s conning tower that had been obscured in images taken earlier of the same vessel.

If South Korean reports of North Korea’s submarine capabilities are accurate, Mr. Bermudez wrote, “the new imagery suggests the possibility of 1-2 small vertical missile launch tubes.”

Mr. Bermudez’s report, which coincided with the 32nd birthday of Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, was the latest in a series of indications that Mr. Kim is ramping up his country’s military capabilities despite international sanctions and ostracism.

On Tuesday, South Korea’s Defense Ministry said the North appeared to have made a “significant” advance toward perfecting a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on a long-range missile that could reach the American West Coast. The ministry also suggested the North possessed a missile that could fly that far.

Mr. Kim appears to have an affinity for submarines. The country is estimated to possess at least 48 submarines, including 10 midget vessels, according to a report last year by the news service of the United States Naval Institute, versus a fleet of 18 submarines in South Korea. All are conventionally powered.

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