North Korea's "new vessels" may be relatively advanced, but they pale in comparison with the US naval assets that they face. So why is Pyongyang lavishing millions on these submarines? Julian Ryall reports.
North Korea is pushing ahead with the construction of its first domestically developed ballistic missile submarine, even though the vessel is expected to be vastly technologically inferior to its rivals in the region and should be relatively easy to track and – should a imminent threat be perceived – neutralize, analysts believe.
Despite that huge drawback, the millions that are being invested in the project make perfect geo-political sense to the regime of Kim Jong Un, they add.
Progress on the North Korean project has been detected by images from commercial satellites that have been analyzed by experts at the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University and published on the 38 North website. In the most recently available images of the Sinpo South Shipyard, taken earlier this month, the analysts point to sections of what appear to be the pressure hull of a submarine alongside construction halls at the yard, which has undergone extensive modernization work in the last 18 months, including the addition of a fabrication plant and a roof to a construction hall alongside a slipway.
New class of submarine
The analysts suggest the new vessel will be the first 3,000-ton Sinpo-C class ballistic missile submarine, which is designed to sortie into the Pacific Ocean and remain undetected but able to launch its nuclear-tipped missiles when ordered to do so. Satellite images provide further evidence about the project, including what appears to be a launch canister that may be awaiting fitting into the submarine or may be used for tests.
North Korea has conducted a number of test launches of missiles from either its existing missile-capable boats – which are converted Soviet-era Golf-II vessels that were ostensibly purchased for scrap but have since been reconditioned and returned to service – or from a submersible barge.
It is not clear where North Korea has obtained its ability to create a new class of submarine designed to launch ballistic missiles, but given that the United States has been operating submarines since the American Civil War and other nations in the region, notably Japan and South Korea, have developed state-of-the-art capabilities for their underwater fleets, it is unlikely that the North Korean vessel will pose a huge threat.
"It is difficult to fully comprehend what North Korea is trying to do in the long-term, in large part because no-one is talking to them at the moment," said Garren Mulloy, an associate professor of international relations at Japan's Daito Bunka University.
"We can surmise that they want to be regarded as a great power and to get preferential treatment from the international community, but in the shorter term, they appear to be trying to show that they have the capability to be a significant military power and, potentially, a threat to other countries," he told DW.
Multiple, overlapping capabilities
To do that, the regime has learnt that it needs to develop multiple and overlapping missile capabilities, Mulloy said. These include fixed launch sites for intercontinental ballistic missiles, mobile launch units for weapons that are harder to track and now submarine-launched variants that are similarly difficult to monitor.
"And if they go ahead and build three or four of this new class of submarines, then that immediately injects a new element of uncertainty because it makes it more difficult for the US, for South Korea and Japan to constantly monitor all the possible sources of missiles," he added.
"To any sane person, this is a monumental waste of money when the economic conditions in North Korea are so bad, but having a nuclear deterrent makes sense to the regime there because they believe it guarantees their survival."
"They have invested virtually everything they have into their missile and nuclear programs, to the detriment of their economic progress or the betterment of their people, so this is their one big gamble," Mulloy said. "And if it does not pay off, then there is a good possibility that the sustainability of the entire North Korean regime will be called into question in the coming years."
Given the advanced technologies that the US and its allies are able to deploy in waters close to the Korean Peninsula, a submarine fleet is a major gamble, agrees Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at the Japan campus of Temple University.
"The US has spent decades making submarines that are so quiet that they cannot be tracked, and I have no doubt that whatever the North Koreans are able to put in the water will not be as advanced or as quiet," he said.
"But that doesn't really matter to Pyongyang," he pointed out. "What they are trying to do is to get the other countries around them to come to the negotiating table," he said.
In full view of satellites
"They are leaving components for a new class of submarine on a dock when they know full well that satellites are going to be passing overhead and photographing everything and anything that is there," Kingston said. "That tells me that they are leaving them out there because they want them to be seen. They want to ratchet up the tensions and the pressure to force the US and the other countries to sit down and talk."
"Given the technological disadvantage that they are at, I really think they are a long way from developing a credible submarine-based ballistic missile capability that poses a threat to others," he added.
Mulloy concurs, but adds that it is possible that the North does not plan to order its submarines to go out into the Pacific and approach the west coast of the United States.
"They cannot match the technology of the US, but it is possible that they intend to submerge these missile boats within their 12-mile territorial zone to make them harder to detect but remain within range of South Korea and Japan and US military facilities in both those countries," he said.
"The Sea of Japan is relatively shallow and therefore tracking submarines is somewhat easier, but if they are submerged then they will be harder to follow and it will tie up US and other nations' assets to monitor them," he added.