North Korea’s Kim inspects new submarine in first public display of nuke capabilities since 2017
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspected a “newly built submarine” that was to operate in the Sea of Japan, state-run media said Tuesday, in one of the first displays of power related to his country’s nuclear capabilities since November 2017.
Without giving a date, the official Korean Central News Agency said Kim toured the submarine site and “learned in detail about its operational and tactical data and combat weapon systems.”
“The operational capacity of a submarine is an important component in national defence of our country bounded on its east and west by sea,” Kim was quoted as saying, stressing “the need to steadily and reliably increase the national defence capability by directing big efforts to the development of the naval weapons and equipment,” including submarines.
The vessel’s “operational deployment is near at hand,” the report added.
Photos with the report showed Kim and accompanying officials standing near the vessel, dwarfed by what is likely a ballistic-missile submarine that the U.S. intelligence community refers to as a Sinpo-C-class, built to be capable of launching nuclear-tipped missiles.
In another ominous sign, accompanying Kim were Kim Jong Sik, a veteran rocket scientist, and Jang Chang Ha, the head of the country’s Munitions Industry Department, a weapons development and procurement center. The pair are two of his so-called rocket men, the top officials responsible for bringing the country’s missile program into the 21st century.
“This would mark the first Kim inspection of a North Korean military asset designed to carry and launch nuclear weapons since 2017,” Ankit Panda, a senior fellow with the Federation of American Scientists, wrote on Twitter. “He’s not disarming, folks.”
Vipin Narang, a North Korea expert and professor of international relations at MIT, called the submarine “a pretty monster prototype,” noting the “saddle with missile tubes that can carry lord only knows.”
North Korea’s last public display of its nuclear weapons program came in November 2017, when it tested a Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that experts say is capable of striking most, if not all, of the United States.
Since then, it has kept to a self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests amid denuclearization talks with the U.S.
Those talks, which had been stalled until President Donald Trump’s surprise meeting with Kim at the Demilitarized Zone dividing the two Koreas last month, appeared to hit yet another snag Monday.
“There was a little correspondence recently. We had very positive correspondence with North Korea. Again there’s no nuclear testing, there’s no missile testing, there’s no nothing,” he said, repeating his common refrain on the issue.
“I think we will, yeah, at a certain point. … When they’re ready, we’ll be ready,” Trump said.
North Korea’s Foreign Ministry hinted last week that the working-level nuclear talks could be halted if the U.S. goes ahead with its planned joint 19-2 Dong Maeng (alliance) exercise with South Korea scheduled to take place in August, suggesting that going ahead with the drills could put its nuclear and missile moratorium at risk.
Tuesday’s report of Kim’s sub visit was almost certainly related to this ongoing back and forth, experts said.
The North has in recent months ramped up activity at its Sinpo South Shipyard on the country’s east coast, according to analysts.
Last month, 38 North, a U.S.-based North Korea-monitoring website, assessed that it was continuing construction of the apparent new Sinpo-class submarine, citing commercial satellite imagery.
It is also known to have poured resources into the development of submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) in its quest for a sea-based nuclear deterrent. Such a missile complicates the U.S. and South Korean ability to preemptively destroy the country’s nuclear capabilities by threatening a second strike capability.
Narang urged caution for the moment but said the message by the North Koreans was clear.
“For now these are just pics,” Narang said. “But the fact that the KCNA release is littered with the word ‘strategic’ suggests Kim wants us to believe that is a possible” ballistic missile submarine.
Narang said this move made sense from a nuclear strategy perspective.
“ICBMs are for responsiveness and range, SLBMs are for survivability,” he said. “Like a normal nuclear state. Which is exactly what Kim wants us all to accept and recognize that North Korea is.”