The North Korea observation organization 38 North has concluded that work continues unabated at the Hermit Kingdom’s primary submarine construction facility on what is very likely a ballistic missile submarine.
Simultaneously, the group reports Kim Jong-un’s regime appears to be continuing its research into developing submarine-launched ballistic missiles to complement the Sinpo-C class of submarines now under development. The submarine is believed to be equipped with a diesel-electric propulsion system with a top submerged speed of roughly 10 knots (about 12 mph).
This type of submarine launched what was believed to be a Pukkuksong-1 ballistic missile during a joint U.S.-South Korean naval exercise in August of 2016.
38 North published satellite imagery from Nov. 5 along with its analysis that North Korea has undertaken an “aggressive construction schedule” at its submarine building facility, which has undergone extensive upgrades. The assessment also states:
A probable launch canister support, or launch canister, appears to be present within the service tower at the missile test stand suggesting the ongoing ejection testing of submarine launch ballistic missiles (SLBM). Such testing could support the continued development of SLBMs, a new ballistic missile submarine or a combination of both.
Both the SINPO-class submarine and submersible missile test stand barge remain berthed at the same locations as observed since last August and appear capable of putting to sea at any time of Pyongyang’s choosing; however, there are no activities suggesting a forthcoming at-sea or submerged test of a Pukguksong-1/KN-11, a potential Pukguksong-3, or other SLBM.
38 North also notes that activity seen in the images strongly hints that North Korea is building an entirely new ballistic missile submarine. They show an aging Romeo-class submarine that appears to be stripped of its pressure hull plating, while new, larger, pressure hull sections are appearing at the construction site.
The organization has no way of knowing how quiet the new submarine class might be, but current North Korean subs in service are notoriously noisy. That would now appear to be the key hurdle for the Hermit Kingdom to clear before it can claim to have a credible second arm of a nuclear triad.