SEOUL — North Korea has unveiled a “tactical nuclear attack submarine” to the world, the latest addition both to Pyongyang’s weapons of mass destruction arsenal and its navy.
Images circulated Friday by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s regime showed the black submarine being rolled out of a covered building — a national banner draped over its bulbous bow — before the vessel was launched into the sea beside a pier.
State-controlled media reported that the proceedings took place Wednesday and were overseen by dapper-looking Kim wearing a tan suit and straw hat. North Korean naval brass were also on hand, watching from a nearby viewing stand.
The arrival of the vessel is not a major surprise. It is known to have been years in the making, and its rollout in recent days came roughly a week after Mr. Kim publicly called for naval upgrades.
“The submarine-launching ceremony heralded the beginning of a new chapter for bolstering up the naval force,” state media reported on Friday.
Arming the vessels with nuclear weapons is “an urgent task of the times” Mr. Kim said, calling naval development the “top priority” for North Korea’s national defense.
Despite the rollout, Mr. Kim’s navy is still one of the weakest in the Indo-Pacific, a theater prowled by some of the world’s most powerful fleets: American, Chinese, Indian, Japanese and Russian.
But analysts say North Korean sailors are tactically astute. And, surface fleet upgrades are granting the Kim regime increased potential to unleash littoral provocations against South Korea. They could also, feasibly, enable North Korea to join regional naval drills with Russia and/or China.
There is widespread anticipation in the region that Mr. Kim will visit Russian President Vladimir Putin – possibly in Vladivostok, Russia, as early as next week — with joint naval drills on the table.
The new submarine, which is purported to be nuclear armed not nuclear powered, represents a fresh play for North Korea. It adds potential range, survivability and stealth capabilities to Pyongyang’s nuclear force.
Experts say the public rollout represents a mirror response to recent U.S. moves in South Korea, but also generates risks and vulnerabilities.
Thar she blows
The submarine shown in state media reports on Friday appears to be a reworked diesel-electric powered Romeo-class Russian submarine — a model dating back to the 1950s.
The vessel’s sail has apparently been extended as a missile launch bay, featuring ten launch tubes of two different sizes.
Images of a similar — or the same — vessel were previously released in 2019.
Military technology analyst Tyler Rogoway described the vessel as “Frankensub,” writing for the website The Drive that the different tubes atop the submarine are likely configured for different missiles – ballistic and cruise.
The vessel offers Pyongyang a potentially survivable counter strike platform. Moreover, its patrol range naturally extends the mounted missiles’ threat range. Potential targets include U.S. bases in Guam, Japan and South Korea.
The submarine is not North Korea’s first undersea nuclear weapon. In March, Pyongyang claimed the successful test of an underwater nuclear drone, possibly modeled on Russia’s “Poseidon.”
But capability questions hover.
Pyongyang has released footage of undersea missile launches, but the projectiles’ reliabilities and capabilities are unknown.
While the Kim regime claims tactical nuclear capabilities, none of the six underground atomic detonation tests the regime has carried out since 2006 have been of tactical devices.
The technology required for tactical nukes is generally considered more difficult to master than high-yield, strategic nuclear devices.
Military sources told South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency on Friday that the new North Korean vessel is probably not yet operational.
When it is, it could prove a risky ride for its crew.
Prior to Friday’s developments, a retired U.S. official with close knowledge of Korea told Washington Times that any such vessel, once identified, would necessarily become a prime target in U.S. gunsights.
The retired official suggested countermeasures might include dedicated satellite coverage and the deployment of hunter killer submarines on shadowing missions.
Mr. Rogoway offered a similar analysis.
“These submarines will be very noisy by modern standards and will be tracked from the second they leave North Korean piers,” he wrote for The Drive.
But the vessel still poses challenges for defense planners. “Persistent patrols could also tie up significant South Korean, U.S., and Japanese anti-submarine resources,” wrote Mr. Rogoway.
Expanding threat portfolio
North Korea’s sailors should not be underestimated. In 1968, North Korean marines captured the American spy ship USS Pueblo, which today remains a trophy of the Kim regime in Pyongyang. It is the only U.S. Navy vessel in enemy hands.
In the 1990s and 2000s, North Korea vessels caused damage, casualties and losses to superior South Korean patrol boats near the flashpoint sea border between North and South in the Yellow Sea.
In the same area in 2010, a North Korean mini-submarine sank a South Korean corvette, killing 46 sailors.
Analysts say the such operations were conducted so swiftly and de-escalated that allied forces struggled to respond effectively.
North Korea’s new submarine, meanwhile, adds a second prong to Kim’s Weapons of Mass Destruction force, making up for weaknesses in aerial assets.
“The ‘nuclear triad’ is intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and strategic bombers, but North Korea does not have strategic bombers,” said Moon Chung-in, an expert in Seoul who has advised previous South Korean administrations on North Korea policy.
Noting that Washington possesses some 3000 nuclear warheads, of which around 900 are submarine-launched, Mr. Moon called the rollout of the North’s new vessel “very logical.”
“North Korea thinks in symmetric terms — like threats from under the sea – so its response would be naval,” he said.
Mr. Moon cited the high-profile deployment of a nuclear-capable U.S. ballistic missile submarine to South Korea in July, part of the expanded “extended deterrence” agreed to during an April bilateral summit between President Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol in Washington D.C.
A U.S. nuclear attack submarine also appeared at a South Korean naval base for replenishment in July.
The U.S. moves hung in the backdrop of North Korea’s rollout this week.
In his speech, covered by state media in Pyongyang, Mr. Kim said nuclear attack submarines have been “considered a symbol of invasion against our republic for decades.”
“Now,” the North Korean leader said, such vessels “symbolizes our power.”