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North Korea’s Ballistic Missile Submarine Program: Full Steam Ahead

By
05 January 2016


A 38 North exclusive with analysis by Joseph S. Bermudez Jr.

Reports of a North Korean “ejection” test of the Bukkeukseong-1 (Polaris-1, KN-11) submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) on December 21, 2015, appear to be supported by new commercial satellite imagery of the Sinpo South Shipyard. This imagery also indicates that despite reports of a failed test in late November 2015 North Korea is continuing to actively pursue its SLBM development program.

Specifically:

  • Activity at the secure submarine area may be an indicator supporting reports of a test two days earlier since it is similar to the level of activity that has been previously seen at the SINPO-class submarine prior to the May 2015 test of the Bukkeukseong-1.
  • At the Sinpo South Test Stand, the structure used to support a rocket engine, missile or launch tube, usually present either immediately prior to or shortly after a test is conducted, is in place, suggesting that such a test has been conducted recently or will be conducted soon.
  • Imagery shows the SINPO-class submarine docked at the secure boat basin with netting concealing ongoing work. While the nature of the work remains unclear, it seems that although the boat may have been damaged during a recent test as some reports have speculated, it remains seaworthy.
  • The refurbishment and construction program at the Sinpo South construction halls, fabrication buildings and machine shops that will allow building new submarines much larger than the SINPO-class is nearing completion.

North Korea’s development of a SLBM and associated ballistic missile submarine has the potential to present a significant threat in the future. However, the development of an operational system will be an expensive, time-consuming endeavor with no guarantee of success.

Status of the North’s SLBM Development Program

On November 29, 2015 South Korean government sources reported that North Korea had conducted a failed test of the Bukkeukseong-1 (Polaris-1, KN-11) submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) the previous day. This test was conducted from the North’s sole SINPO-class experimental ballistic missile submarine (SSBA) in the waters of the East Sea northeast of Wonsan.[1] This follows an earlier test during May 2015 that Pyongyang claimed as a great success but was reported by South Korean intelligence sources as a simple ejection test and not a full capabilities operational test.[2]

The November test has been assessed as a failure because no missile flight was tracked on radar and debris—sometimes reported as “fragments of a safety cover”—was observed floating on the surface of the water following the test. It has also been suggested that the Bukkeukseong-1 either never left the launch tube or that it was successfully ejected but the main engine failed to fire. There has also been speculation that the submarine was damaged during the test.

While some assess this failure as a significant setback for the SLBM program, it should more accurately be viewed as a normal part of a development program that had likely been anticipated as a possibility by North Korea’s development team. Indeed, the reports of a subsequent December 21st ejection test suggests that North Korean designers, engineers and technicians have probably learned from the previous test failure and actively continuing development of the Bukkeukseong-1, launch system and submarine. Recent commercial satellite imagery provides an important glimpse of activities at the Sinpo South Shipyard, the main facility for the development of North Korea’s SLBM and associated missile.

Figure 1. Overview of the Sinpo South Shipyard.

Image © 2016 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Image © 2016 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Increased Activity at the Secure Boat Basin

Imagery shows a level and type of activity at the secure area that was seen prior to the May 2015 test of the Bukkeukseong-1, which may support recent reports of a test two days earlier. A support vessel, submersible launch barge and SINPO-class submarine are present at the secure boat basin. Personnel and equipment are observed throughout the area but concentrated near the submersible launch barge. A large construction crane is erected adjacent to the barge and work appears to be underway.

Figure 2. Close-up of secure boat basin at the Sinpo South Shipyard.

Image © 2016 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Image © 2016 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

The SINPO-class submarine is berthed immediately north of the submersible launch barge with personnel present on the dock adjacent to the boat. What appears to be elevated netting has been erected over large portions of the forward and aft decks obscuring topside activity. While it is difficult to discern, the panel/hatch on the top of the sail and over the launch tube may be removed or open. Moreover, it is also difficult to identify the purpose of this activity. One possibility is that the work is related to damage caused by the failed late November launch. However, if reports are correct of a successful test on late December, the work is more likely related to post-test maintenance.

In addition, the submarine is seen for the first time resting with a slight bow-up attitude. The reasons for this are unknown but may suggest that the bow ballast and/or fuel tanks are completely empty. Alternately, if the submarine was damaged during the November 28 test, the bow-up attitude could be related to repairs.

Also, a basic camouflage pattern consisting of large dark green or blue grey splotches has been applied to the sail during the last several months. The purpose of the camouflage is unclear. One possibility is that it is used in propaganda and to boost morale since this is an experimental submarine and unlikely to encounter foreign warships or be involved in coastal operations where camouflage might be useful.

Activity at the Test Stand

At the Sinpo South test stand, the temporary structure used to support a rocket engine, missile or launch tube, usually present either immediately prior to or shortly after a test is conducted, is in place, suggesting that such a test has been conducted recently or will be conducted soon. In addition to the reported December 21 ejection test at sea, North Korea has conducted a number of additional “pop-up” or ejection tests from the stand and submersible launch barge over the past two years that have not been reported in the media. The bermed-in test cell area immediately northwest of the test stand has been leveled since May 2015 with some minor excavation of unknown purpose noted in the center.

Figure 3. Close-up of Test Stand at the Sinpo South Shipyard.

Image © 2016 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Image © 2016 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Construction Nearing Completion Allowing the Building of Bigger Submarines

Imagery shows that a refurbishment and construction program begun in summer 2014 focused on the construction halls, fabrication buildings and machine shops appears to be in its final stages and will allow the building of much larger submarines than the current SINPO-class boats. The main bay of the refurbished main construction hall is now approximately 194-meters-long, 35-meters-wide and 28-meters-tall (the hall doors are only 20-meters tall). Work also continued on extending the launching ramp in front of the main construction hall. When completed, this will allow for maintenance and repairs of larger submarines to be conducted outside the hall without disturbing construction progress and schedules inside.

Figure 4. Close-up of Main Construction Hall and ramp.

Image © 2016 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Image © 2016 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

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[1] Some sources identify the submarine as the GORAE-class (Gorae is Korean for whale).

[2] “North Korea tested submarine-launched missile, but launch failed,” Asahi Shimbun, November 29, 2015, http://ajw.asahi.com/article/asia/korean_peninsula/AJ201511290017; Sang-hun Choe, “North Korean Missile Test Was Unsuccessful, South Says,” New York Times, November 30, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/01/world/asia/north-korean-missile-test-was-unsuccessful-south-says.html?emc=edit_tnt_20151130&nlid=817416&tntemail0=y; Bill Gertz, “North Korean Submarine Damaged in Missile Test,” Washington Free Beacon, December 8, 2015, http://freebeacon.com/national-security/north-korean-submarine-damaged-in-missile-test/; and Bill Gertz, “North Korea Conducts Successful Submarine Missile Test,” Washington Free Beacon, January 5, 2016, http://freebeacon.com/national-security/north-korea-conducts-successful-submarine-missile-test/.

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