For more than a decade, North Korea's boss, Kim Jong-un, has devoted a large part of the country's resources to developing a strategic response capability. The instruments that he has decided to use are missiles.
The spasmodic search for ballistic and nuclear deterrent tools (and related expenses) has, however, led to a land military tool that sees a redundant conventional and very unsophisticated army, with a poor ability to maneuver, especially if targeted by enemy air raids. In essence, it is a immobile colossus and particularly vulnerable to operations from the sea, like those amphibians. To limit this criticality and leave as many funds as possible for missile development, Pyongyang has therefore chosen to adopt a strategy aimed at preventing naval operations in its waters (Anti-Access/Area Denial A2/AD). But such a strategy, if not supported by suitable naval means, can be applied up to a distance of a few hundred kilometers from the coasts and, moreover, it certainly cannot be adopted against large and well-defended naval and air groups nor does it allow for the maintenance of a significant naval presence to protect the disputed areas.
The surface fleet
The choices made and the resources available, therefore, have determined the current configuration of the North Korean Navy, which has 46.000 soldiers, 700 units and a dozen helicopters. The number of units, however, must not suggest a powerful high seas Navy, since they are rather small units, essentially unable to ensure a significant and lasting presence on the high seas.
These include 6 “Nongo” class units (200 t), 12 “Huangfeng” (205 t) and 12 Komar (70 t). The former were designed and built by North Korea, while the latter are built under Chinese license and the "Komar" are originally from the USSR. They have common characteristics, which can be summarized in high speed (35-48 knots), low profile to minimize radar echoes and anti-ship missile armament. In their action they make use of the collaboration of the obsolete torpedo boats of Soviet origin "Shershen" and "P6" class, also equipped with light artillery.
They are all light units that find their prevalent use near the coast, where the numerous islets allow them to attack and flee, hiding from enemy sensors, being in any case forced to operate at such a distance that protection by the coastal artillery positions can be ensured , or anti-ship coastal missile batteries, equipped with the Soviet P-15 “Termit” (NATO code SS-N-2 “Styx”) or the Chinese equivalent HY-1/2 “Shang YO”/”Hai Ying” (name NATO "Silkworm") or land-based aviation. It is, therefore, one surface fleet essentially coastal in nature, whose survivability in a high-intensity offshore conflict is minimal, especially when exposed to air attack. Furthermore, the previously recalled missiles represent a moderate level threat, given that they are equipped with a radar head obsolete in terms of electronic countermeasures. Their flight profile also does not include evasive maneuvers.
Larger units are also available, such as 5 “Sariwon” class mine warfare units (650 t), of Soviet origin, and two “Najin” class corvettes (1.500 t), dating back to the 70s and modernized in 2010 and in 2014.
Only recently the surface fleet has received two relatively modern ships ("Tuman"/"Nampo" class corvettes) of 1.500 t, while for another two "Amnok" class (hull derived from the Russian "Krivak III" class) there is no news about the completion of the outfitting or the start of operational life. The armament consists essentially of cannons with twin 230 mm AK-30 turrets, a system dating back to the Soviet era, given that the North Korean military industry cannot afford the simultaneous production and use of different weapon systems. The anti-submarine armament (RBU-1200) is also a design that dates back to the Soviet era.
The units carry KN-09 anti-ship missiles, locally built but very similar to the Russian KH-35. Other sources also indicate the equipment of unspecified surface-to-air missiles. These ships are also used to provide assistance to fast missile units (protection against enemy light ships, detection and localization of enemy targets, etc…). The largest units are based on the east coast, facing Japan and in close proximity to the contested fishing grounds.
The North Korean Navy does not appear to have any effective amphibious capabilities. On the other hand, if the blanket is short, either the head or the feet remain uncovered. Having decided to base its strategy (and resources) above all on missile deterrence, it was foreseeable that some other military instruments would remain in the second and third line.
In this context, in order to make its capacity more credible (and hidden), in parallel with the experiments of missiles with an ever greater range and war load, it has developed an underwater fleet which today represents its main strength, numerically among the top four in the world, along with the United States, China and Russia.
The underwater fleet
The history of the North Korean submarine fleet began in the second half of the 50s, with the transfer of four Soviet submarines "Project 613" (NATO designation Whiskey) of 1.350 t, now scrapped for many years.
In 1965 Tito's Yugoslavia ceded to Pyongyang the plans for the construction of a submerged 90 t pocket submarine, which allowed the Yukdaeso-ri shipyard to start the construction of about twenty "Yugo" type boats, then reinforced and subsequently replaced by submarines like “Yono” (or “Yeono” - in the photo the identical class Ghadir Iranians) of 190 t, built in an unknown number. Of the latter various sources indicate between five and ten boats still in service.
In the years 1973-74 it was the turn of China, which sold four "Type 033" boats, the Chinese version of the Soviet "Project 633" (NATO denomination Romeo) from 1.859 t. In the following years, the North Koreans built another 21 similar boats in the shipyards of Sinpo and Mayang-do, putting one boat into the water every 13 months on average. The North Korean version of the boat features stronger steel than that used by the Soviets. Incidentally, the Pyongyang Underwater Command is also located in Mayang-do. Currently 20 of those boats would still be in service.
In the early 90s, North Korea launched a program to acquire missile submarines, with the aim of acquiring a credible response capability (second strike). In 1994, therefore, he bought some Russian submarines "Type 629" (NATO classification Golf) decommissioned from the Pacific Fleet. These boats, however, do not appear to have ever been used in real operations. If "exhumed" they could form the 3.000 t "team" so desired by Pyongyang, capable of embarking 4-6 ballistic missiles.
In 1996 the production of the Romeo North Koreans and begins construction of the 370t “Sang-O” at a rate of 4-6 vessels per year until 2003. After a seven-year hiatus, the North Koreans resume vessel construction in 2010, with the “Sang -O II” of 400 t. Depending on the sources, at the moment they would turn out in service 30-40 “Sang-O” and 2-6 “Sang-O II”.
On 23 July 2019, a boat is officially presented Romeo mod (opening photo), which is given the name of "Sinpo-C", a version six meters longer than the previous one. The boat would appear to be the only carrier capable of launching submerged missiles, even if the launch depth would be quite limited (less than 20 m), and would therefore expose the boat to the risk of being discovered by the adversary. This vessel would be joined by a prototype ballistic missile submarine with conventional propulsion, the "Gorae"/"Sinpo" class, of national production.
To date, the North Korean submarine fleet is deployed in an A2/AD interdiction role, with a slightly larger range than surface units.
Although it mainly includes outdated boats and not capable of launching ballistic missiles, North Korea is one of the countries most equipped with pocket boats, in relation to the overall size of the fleet. Despite the large number of vessels formally in service, however, it seems that only 20-25 are actually operational. Even the level of maintenance of boats capable of navigating raises some concerns.
The Naval Missile Program
In the meantime, the naval ballistic missile program continued, with the first launch test from a naval platform taking place in December 2014. On 24 August 2016, the missile was then launched from an underwater platform from the waters off the port of Sinpo "Pukguksong-1", a two-stage solid fuel ballistic missile, whose range has been theorized to be around 1.500 km. Then follows the launch of the "Pukguksong-3" on 2 October 2019 (theoretical radius about 1.900 km), again from an immersed platform.
During the parade on October 10, 2020, while "Pukguksong-4" missiles parade on some trucks, Kim Yong-un formalizes his intention to continue in the naval missile program “…for deterrence…”. A declaration followed by the intention to increase the North Korean nuclear arsenal, in response to the "...hostile policy...” of Washington (January 9, 2021). On January 14, 2021, the "Pukguksong-5" is then presented, a missile that has a larger diameter than the previous version. From the analysis of the dimensions, it would appear that the "Pukguksong-4" would be comparable to the American one Poseidon (embarked on “Lafayette” class submarines in the 60s) both in size and range (4.650 km). It is then hypothesized that the "Pukguksong-5" would have performances similar to the Trident i, with a range of about 7.400 km, which was embarked on the "Ohio" class submarines.
Some observers believe that the last born has dimensions that are incompatible with the silos of the gods Romeo mod/Sinpo-C and, therefore, it would be impossible to launch from those platforms, the only North Korean ones capable of launching ballistic missiles.
Finally, on 20 October 2021, a missile was successfully launched from an underwater platform (apparently the "Gorae" class), which traveled about 600 km at an altitude of 60.000 m. The launch did, however, damage the diving platform, which had to be towed to port.
The North Korean Navy has three main missions. The first is that of posing a threat to the opposing missile units, which constitute an important sector of defense against the North Korean ballistic and nuclear threat. By threatening these units, Pyongyang intends to divert part of their capabilities from "ballistic surveillance", reducing the overall effectiveness of the enemy's protective shield.
The second mission is to contribute to the fight against opposing amphibious operations, threatening the landing units and escort units which, during these operations, are forced to remain in the same area for a long time.
The third is that of gathering information on the adversary, conducted by means of submarines. In this context, the North Korean submarine fleet is mainly characterized by pocket boats (200-400 t), which Pyongyang mainly employs for this mission. There real overall efficiency of the submarine fleet, however, remains a mystery, as does its real capacity as a ballistic missile launch platform.
That said, it should be remembered that, according to a 2018 analysis conducted by Nuclear Threat Initiative, the only diving platform currently available "…seems capable of firing a single ballistic missile…" and it has to emerge every few days, limiting its operability1.
Despite the artfully disseminated North Korean propaganda that would speak of 3.000-ton submarines with eight embarked missiles, the relative submarine-missile dimensions would also seem to suggest that the news would be more a wish than a reality. So today, there is no evidence that such a carrier is actually available to the North Koreans.
The lack of completely reliable information, however, raises many questions. The first of these concerns the real availability of efficient vessels capable of embarking and launching ballistic missiles. The recent news of military supplies to Russia for the war in Ukraine, what compensation has it received? Could it be the assistance of Russian technicians (notoriously experts in the underwater sector) for the construction of more efficient and larger submarines, such as to be able to embark more ballistic missiles?
Meanwhile, Kim Yong-un's attitude continues to cause concern, swinging periodically from threats to détente. At the opening ceremony of the February 2015 Winter Olympics, for example, North Korean athletes marched together with South Korean athletes. The following April, he declared – together with the South Korean President – that he wanted to denuclearize the peninsula, while on 12 June following he met with US President Trump. However, these demonstrations of détente are accompanied by displays of strength (or arrogance?) that appear to be real challenges, such as the launch of ballistic missiles which crossed Japanese airspace on 4 October, creating unrest and alarm in several cities, or several launches over the past ten days, the last (sic!) of which saw two short-range ballistic missiles flying east before sinking outside Japan's exclusive economic zone, just as the US aircraft carrier Truman was participating in joint exercises in South Korean waters (read article "Exclusive Economic Zone and maritime power").
Fluctuations that led to the American decision to build a space shield on the border between the two Koreas, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System (Thaad), to protect the southern region from possible North Korean missile launches. The move has raised protests from Beijing (supported by Moscow), which sees the Thaad as a tool intended to change the geostrategic balance of the area. However, during a top-level talk between China and South Korea in 2020, Beijing hinted that it could tolerate the maintenance of the current Thaad deployment but never its strengthening, as would be the South Korean intention.
But the Thaad could paradoxically also constitute a tool by which to find a compromise solution that would lower the level of tension on the Korean peninsula. The Thaad launchers, in fact, are mobile and could be easily withdrawn in exchange for a dismantling of the North Korean nuclear arsenal, which is cumbersome for all the players in the area, including China. Beijing, if it wanted to, could convince Kim Yong-un to do so.
And while diplomacy seeks a solution that allows one de-escalation, the North Korean Navy, albeit not at the same level as its potential opponents (which Pyongyang itself attributed to itself), it should not be simplistically branded as marginal, since it still poses a threat. Limited in space and means, but still a threat, interpreted according to the naval capabilities available to relatively weak countries that intend to prevent access to certain maritime areas (read article "The Iranian maritime strategy in the balance of the Persian Gulf").
Doubts about the level of maintenance and overall operation of naval units, boats and missile systems (including coastal ones) must therefore not lead to an underestimation of the potential danger posed by the North Korean fleet. The uncertainty deriving from the scarce reliable news and the approach of the Pyongyang leadership must, in fact, encourage prudence.
1 HANDLE, North Korea, KCNA confirms: missile tested by a submarine, October 20, 2021