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Underwater Test-fire of Korean-style Powerful Strategic Submarine Ballistic Missile

By
13 May 2015


The announcement on Saturday, May 9, 2015 by North Korea’s official news agency KCNA that the Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un had observed a “underwater test-fire of Korean-style powerful strategic submarine ballistic missile” has caused a great deal of speculation concerning the status of that nation’s submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM) program and its associated submarine development. Much of that speculation has implicitly accepted the North Korean position that the nation has advanced SLBM capabilities and that these capabilities are a threat capable of being employed against any potential enemies.

38 North has been following this issue since October 2014 when it first identified unique activity at the Sinpo South Naval Shipyard in North Korea and the launching of what appears to be an experimental submarine (tentatively identified as a SINPO-class submarine) designed to test an SLBM. A subsequent report in January 2015 updated and expanded upon those initial reports. The analytical conclusion of these reports was that North Korea was in the initial stages of developing a seaborne ballistic missile launch capability and that under optimal conditions this was an emerging regional threat rather than an imminent threat. It does not represent an emerging intercontinental threat.

Using a combination of ongoing research, analysis of a May 10, 2015 DigitalGlobe commercial satellite image of the Sinpo South Naval Shipyard and the recent North Korean news releases, 38 North has reviewed its earlier analytical conclusions. This review concludes that:

  1. The earlier assessment that North Korea was in the initial stages of developing a seaborne ballistic missile launch capability remains valid.
  2. North Korea is expending significant resources to develop a SLBM capability.
  3. The Sinpo South Naval Shipyard is continuing to be modernized, likely in preparation for a new submarine construction program.
  4. North Korean camouflage, concealment and deception (CCD) efforts are in full effect and that there is an even chance that the recent SLBM test was conducted from a submerged launch platform rather than a submerged submarine. With regards to CCD, some of the imagery released by North Korea may have been altered.
  5. The concurrent development of a new submarine-launched ballistic missile system and an associated ballistic missile capable submarine are within the upper limits of North Korea’s industrial and technical capabilities.
  6. The earlier assessments that under optimal conditions North Korea possesses an emerging regional seaborne ballistic missile threat rather than an imminent threat and that it does not represent an emerging intercontinental threat, remain valid.

The Recent Test

KCNA announced on May 9, 2015 that the Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un had observed an “underwater test-fire of Korean-style powerful strategic submarine ballistic missile.” Subsequent statements by South Korean officials indicated that the test was more accurately an “ejection test” to evaluate stabilization systems and the process of ejecting a ballistic missile from a submerged submarine rather than a full-scale test of a new submarine-launched ballistic missile system (sometimes identified as the KN-11). These same officials indicated that the missile flew a short distance before it impacted into the sea. Preliminary information suggests that this test, as well as previous ejection tests, were very likely conducted from the general area of the SINPO-class submarine’s homeport at the Sinpo South Naval Shipyard and that the short flight trajectories were either northeast towards Kimchaek or southwest in the direction of Wonsan. The images of the test released by KCNA depict Kim Jong Un standing on a boat with a submarine in the background that one is led to believe conducted the test.

Figure 1. Kim Jong Un on what appears to be one of his many pleasure craft observing the test of a new SLBM, May 9, 2015.

(Photo: KCNA.)

(Photo: KCNA.)

Figure 2. Kim Jong Un with the SINPO-class experimental ballistic missile submarine in the background, May 9, 2015.

(Photo: KCNA.)

(Photo: KCNA.)

Figure 3. A new North Korean SLBM breaking the surface during the recent test, May 9, 2015.

(Photo: KCNA.)

(Photo: KCNA.)

The Sinpo South Shipyard

The submarine seen in the images of the recent test is the SINPO-class experimental ballistic missile submarine based at the Sinpo South Shipyard and is discussed in detail in 38 North’s previous reports.

Analysis of a May 10, 2015—one or two days after the reported test launch—commercial satellite image of the Sinpo South Shipyard shows:

  • The new test stand west of the shipyard does not appear to have been used recently.

Figure 4. Test stand at the Sinpo South Shipyard, May 10, 2015.

Note: image rotated. Image © 2015 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Note: image rotated. Image © 2015 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

  • Renovation of the main maritime construction halls continues. As does the expansion of the existing launching way.

Figure 5. Renovation of the Sinpo South Shipyard’s construction halls and launch way continue, May 10, 2015.

Note: image rotated. Image © 2015 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Note: image rotated. Image © 2015 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

  • The experimental ballistic missile submarine is berthed within the secured boat yard with its bow pointed north (i.e., the opposite direction from the previous available image). It is believed that the opening in the center of the submarine’s sail houses a single launch tube, however, details of this area remain obscured in the current image due to the angle of the sun and the look angle of the satellite.
  • Immediately forward of the submarine is a support vessel of an unknown class.

Figure 6. Secured boat yard showing the SINPO-class experimental ballistic missile submarine, a support vessel forward of its bow and the uniquely configure barge is to its stern, May 10, 2015.

Note: image rotated. Image © 2015 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Note: image rotated. Image © 2015 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Figure 7. Close-up of the SINPO-class experimental ballistic missile submarine. Details of the top of the submarine’s sail remain unclear, May 10, 2015.

Note: image rotated. Image © 2015 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Note: image rotated. Image © 2015 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

  • Alongside the submarine on the dock are two heavy equipment tractor-trailers (HETT), a heavy-lift crane and what appears to be a long shipping canister. Another HETT is located in a yard to the north of the boat yard. The shipping canister measures approximately 9.5 meters long by 1.5 meters in diameter and there is an even chance that it is for a ballistic missile.

Figure 8. Close-up of the heavy equipment tractor-trailer (HETT) just north of the secured boat yard, May 10, 2015.

Note: image rotated. Image © 2015 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Note: image rotated. Image © 2015 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Figure 9. Close-up of the uniquely configured barge showing four outer stations and a central circular structure, May 10, 2015.

Note: image rotated. Image © 2015 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Note: image rotated. Image © 2015 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

  • Located immediately astern of the experimental submarine, and moored to the same dock, is a uniquely configured barge that has been present since October 2014. The barge measures 22 meters long by 10 meters wide. The configuration consisting of four tall stanchions with a circular structure in the center. This suggests the possibility that it is a platform that could hold a ballistic missile launch canister in the vertical position for test launches. Given North Korea’s experience in constructing numerous floating dry-docks of numerous classes, it is conceivable that this barge could also be submerged for test launches.

There is little doubt that North Korea conducted a submerged ballistic missile test on about May 9, 2015. South Korean officials indicate that rather than a full test of a SLBM, it was an “ejection test” designed to evaluate stabilization systems and the process of ejecting a ballistic missile from a submerged submarine. This is a reasonable assessment given the presumed level of ballistic missile submarine and SLBM development, as well as North Korea’s technology and industrial base.

The imagery and information released by KCNA would lead an observer to conclude that this recent test was conducted from the SINPO-class experimental ballistic missile submarine based at the Sinpo South Shipyard. This, however, may be incorrect. To conduct a ballistic missile test (even an ejection test) of a new SLBM system from a new class of experimental ballistic missile submarine that was only launched eight months previously would appear to be at the uppermost limits of North Korean naval and ballistic missile design and development capabilities. It would appear to be more reasonably in line with assessed North Korean capabilities, however, that the test launch was conducted from a submerged barge—possibly the one seen at the Sinpo South Naval Shipyard.

Joseph S. Bermudez Jr. is Chief Analytics Officer for AllSource Analysis Inc.

Reader Feedback

17 Responses to “Underwater Test-fire of Korean-style Powerful Strategic Submarine Ballistic Missile”

  1. Miky says:

    Here a partial piece of the REAL video of the test:
    http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/north-korean-dictator-kim-jong-un-5822370
    Exactly as I predicted some time ago, they were going to realease it eventually.

  2. Miky says:

    Sahureka, I think to agree with another assessment that such sub is just a standard Romeo: the blurred bad quality of image can easily make it appears as slightly longer.

    Regarding the matter of the test of the missile, I don’t think honestly that the main reasons to scrap the option it was submarine-launched is “Because they should still far away to have such skill”.

    If that’s the only main big point, I don’t think it’s strong enough. Let’s remember that they ALREADY made a similar test launch from the barge some time ago.

    Finally I could stress again the whole matter of faking-videos. I am even more convinced that when they apply photo-manipulation it’s mostly to embellish the picture and/or to insert the image of Kim Jong Un closer to the launch.

    For example: the “moved” shade of the missile against water. I think it’s extremly likely that simply the photographers took the picture of the launch, then for artistic/journalistic purpose they “moved” the missile itself closer to the water, to make a more impressive or better picture of the missile itself.

    It was faked? yes.
    It means that the whole test was “fake”? no.

    Same thing for the recent video published online: it’s clearly a mix of CGI and other tests, but why they did it? Simply to create a cool video show-off for propaganda reasons.
    This doesn’t alter the fact that a test actually occurred.

  3. Tim says:

    I agree with the consensus opinion here that nK took a submersible barge out and tested the canister ejection capabilities. That in itself is cause for concern as it ups the ante on the north’s missile capabilities somewhat. However, the fact that there is no video of this event suggests that nK is not ready for the world to see the test in real time.

    Tim

  4. sahureka says:

    Probably Mr. Mia would indicate submarine present in the Pip’a-got dry dock
    http://i.imgur.com/5JKB5lu.jpg

    the comparison here is the satellite Juliett class stored at Peenemunde
    http://i.imgur.com/YmYKHxk.png?1
    and certainly they look alike, and this seems to be larger than a SS Romeo

  5. Miky says:

    Once again I am amazed by the apparent ingenuity(or voluntary?) of Markus Schiller and Robert Schmucker with their recent article.
    That is obviously took by the media and turned into “ok, it’s all fake.”

    It is perfectly possible that the North Korean media embellished the picture, but this doesn’t negated they still made an ejection test, or that still we can’t say for sure that the submarine did the launch or that it could do it in less time than expected.

    Downplaying everything in the way they did it’s a bit unprofessional, if I could say…

    But as I said previously, before making a full asessment of this test, we should see a video. And considering the increased amount of video shown by KCNA (with delayed times), there are good possibilities we will see one in the next weeks-month.

  6. Toshi Hino says:

    I was looking for new satellite images after their SLBM pop-up test.
    Thank you very much updates latest satellite images and your professional analysis.

    Just my thoughts;
    It is very interesting that there are lots activities the submarine side pier but none at test barge area.
    This indicating “something” done by the submarine more than test barge.
    This submarine is a new design and probably their largest one however this is a old-style conventional diesel-electric powered Submarine they familiar.
    Since first time this sub was seen in July 2014 may more than enough time to be operation ready conditions.
    Their approach is different thanks keep watching this.

    Is it OK to use your Satellite Images on my Blog?

  7. Miky says:

    The analys is very interesting, however I expect (as many other here probably) to see soon (1 month?) a north korean video of the latest military activities of Kim Jong Un
    It is some time they made these long videos, and usually the filled it with videos from previous visits and tests and exercises.
    Maybe we could see there brief pieces of the actual video of this launch.

    (I may add that personally I don’t think it’s too much impossible they’ve actually launched the missile from the submarine itself: it’s NOT the first time they’ve forged ahead. Let’s not forget, that even if larger, this “SINPO” submarine, should still have a degree of technologies not exactly advanced = time to make the submarine operable enough, could be less long than expected)

  8. nicky says:

    sequence of events is absolutely impressive:
    1) pop-up test from a ground test stand – success;
    2) pop-up test from a submersible test stand – success:
    3) test firing from a test submarine – success.

    all that follow well established soviet sub missile test pattern (but without necessary failures). even more impressive if we add timing of event: too good-too fast.

    it would be good to add base lay-out and chronology.

    respect,
    nn

  9. Joseph S. Bermudez Jr. says:

    Mia,

    The submarines you reference in your images are at the Pip’a-got and Namp’o Naval Bases and are ROMEO (Type 033) Class SS. I just looked at the latest available DigitalGlobe images from April 26, 2015 and May 13 2015, respectively. These have a GSD (Ground Sampling Distance – “resolution”) of 50 cm and 40 cm respectively. The visible portion of the Pip’a-got submarine measures ~75 meters (+/- 1 meter) and a portion is still below water. The Namp’o submarine measures ~75.5 meters (+/- 1 meter). This and their general design features indicates that that they are both ROMEOs (76.6 meters). ROMEOs have been stationed at Pip’a-got for many years and occasionally are bright to Namp’o for maintenance and repair work.

    It is sometimes difficult to get very accurate measurements using Google Earth imagery and it is completely understandable that you measured 83 meters.

    Best regards,
    Joe

    P.S. – The smaller submarine adjacent to the two ROMEOs at Pip’a-got is a SANGO.

  10. Mia says:

    Dear Mr. Bermudez,

    I use Google Earth and have noticed a larger submarine approximately 83 meters in length at a dry dock in Nam’po (Nampho). It appears to be larger than the Romeo class, which are circled in green. The comparison here is the satellite Juliett class stored at Peenemunde, Germany. Obviously larger than the new Sinpo class, what class is this? It seems shorter than the Golf II. Please share your thoughts. Further information is here,

    http://i.imgur.com/yMZdQjm.png?1

    http://i.imgur.com/YmYKHxk.png?1

  11. nicky says:

    2: Joseph S. Bermudez Jr.
    Thank you for your response (some simply block posting in such cases).
    a) sand sell section is important because nobody so far even noticed that it was specifically organized for the first pop-up test on the ground. it played a role of a soft (sand) cushion and made sure any pieces of the falling rocket are easy to recover. you need to understand that a pop-up test is designed in such a way that the first stage falls within meters immediately after take-off and there is no talk at all about “catastrophic failure”. on the contrary, it’s a clear indication of the full success of the first pop-up test. which enabled to switch test firing to sea without delay.
    b) test platform looks much like soviet psd-7 for ssn-8 tests
    d) take a look at:

    http://www.globezoom.info/wbb2/thread.php?postid=203175#post203175

    and you will find the location of the underwater test (all much like in france or crimea).

    respectfully yours,
    nn

  12. Joseph S. Bermudez Jr. says:

    Nicky,

    Thank you for taking the time to comment. In reference to your three comments,

    a) The pyramidal test cell adjacent to the test stand shows no significant differences from previous images dating back to late-2014. The current consensus is that the activity at this test cell is more indicative of excavation rather than damage caused by a catastrophic missile failure.

    We do not use Google Earth in our analysis. Rather, we have an extensive collection of both DigitalGlobe and Airbus Defense and Space imagery for analysis of this and other North Korea locations. Much of this imagery is not available in Google Earth.

    b) I do not dispute your comment on old Soviet equipment, however, my comment concerning the barge is that it is unique when comparing it to what is available within North Korea.

    c) I’m not sure if the imagery does different launches, however, I agree that there is a strong possibility of the images made public having been manipulated by North Korea.

    Once again, thank you for your comments.

    Joe

  13. Joseph S. Bermudez Jr. says:

    XuTianran,

    Thank you for your comments. They are always appreciated. I agree that the angle of the missile is greater than I would have expected. My current think on this matter is that this caused by one of several leading possibilities: a problem with the guidance, some unknown test parameter, angle that the photograph was taken or a manipulated image. I should point out that SLBMs tend to angle away from the launch platform as a means of protecting it should a catastrophic accident occur immediately after breaking the surface of the water.

    Best regards,
    Joe Bermudez

  14. XuTianran says:

    Dear Mr. Bermudez,

    In the West and East, many claim the KN-11 is indeed a north korean version of R27 SLBM. The two do look similiar but, as you said,the canister size suggested otherwise.

    Another interesting thing: the missile was ejected first from under water then started its engine. And the angle it came out from water is quite steep, not vertical.

    No Russian liquid-fuel SLBMs are launched this way. Liquid fuel missile’s structure is weak and it would possibly not handle a steep-angle ejection. Liquid SLBM normally starts the engine from under water inside the tube and comes out from water more or less vertically. The manner of ejection and ignition of KN-11 would suggest a solid missile. Maybe the North made the body out of steel instead of aluminum alloy to enhance structure, but it would seriously damage performance.

    However, the flame on KCNA’s photos suggested that liquid fuel is more likely. But KCTV’s footage of the test showed a smoke trail that is probably from a solid missile. As you say, these photos are likey altered to confuse the outside world. More information is definitely needed to determine the nature of the missile.

  15. nicky says:

    analysis lacks description of significant visible details.
    a) sand yard adjacent to the pop-up firing yard bears visible surface damage (play with History Layer on GE) from the falling missile with traces of excavation;
    b) the barge next to the sub can hardly be called unique since it follows well known design of an old soviet submersible missile test platform used for many years in Crimea (similarity suggests it might have been bought some years ago in Ukraine rather than built anew)
    c) available photography clearly shows two different underwater missile tests and photoshoping skills of Kim’s entourage.

  16. Joao Corte-Real says:

    I concur with the assessment that the launch was likely conducted off the submerged platform. Do we, at this point, think that the SINPO class is capable of operating a liquid fueled missile, or is it designed to launch a shorter range, solid fueled anti-surface missile? In other words, is the SINPO class the eventual replacement for the Romeos? It seems the operation of liquid fueled missiles would require a sub of larger displacement.

  17. keve says:

    Would be nice if US had military exchange with NoKor, so there are a more direct sourced information then a frozen in time pictures to determine what is going on. Words like “may, possibly, believed” are used too often to determine the NoKor military reality. If a student had to submit a report based on pictures alone, not sure if that would be considered detailed enough. This is the sad part of US/NoKor that leads to misjudgments. Another often used term “sooner than expected” by US Intelligence Agency for NoKor military capability has no accountability at the expense of US security and safety of US citizens.

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Credit for photo of young North Korean girl: T.M. All rights reserved, used with permission.