What North Korea’s “nuclear submarine” means for the navy

STORY: North Korea unveiled its first operational “tactical nuclear attack submarine,” state media said Friday (Sept. 8).

The boat, named Hero Kim Kun Ok, was assigned to the fleet that patrols the waters between the Korean Peninsula and Japan, North Korean outlets reported.

So what is the new ship and what does its launch mean for the reclusive country’s navy?

In a speech at the submarine’s launching ceremony, North Korean leader Kim Jung Un said it would become one of the most important “underwater attack assets of the naval force.”

North Korea’s navy has historically been dwarfed by its land forces and overshadowed by its rapidly advancing ballistic missile program.

But last year it began bolstering its navy with new nuclear weapons, including an underwater drone and warships.

Analysts say the new ship appears to be a modified Soviet-era Romeo-class submarine that North Korea acquired from China in the 1970s and began producing domestically.

Shin Seung-ki, a research fellow at the Korea Institute For Defense Analyzes, says it is expected to carry tactical ballistic and cruise missiles but may face limitations.

“As it has excessively modified the existing Romeo-class submarine, there may be some limitations in immediate operation compared to the existing submarine. However, there is a possibility that North Korea has strengthened the internal structure in some way to ensure operations.” While there may be limitations in this regard, it is likely that they will develop it to the point where it will be available at some point in the year can be operated in the future.”

Such weapons would not add much value to land-based nuclear forces, added former U.S. government weapons expert Vann Van Diepen, who works with the Washington-based organization 38 North.

That’s because at the core of the design, the aging submarine is relatively slow, noisy and has a limited range.

Together, these factors meant it might not survive long in a war and would be vulnerable to anti-submarine warfare, he said.

The South Korean military said the submarine did not appear ready for normal use and that there were signs that North Korea was trying to exaggerate its capabilities.

The North Korean Navy has around 470 surface ships and around 70 submarines.

In August, Kim inspected a new Amnok-class corvette, a patrol ship that state media said was capable of firing nuclear-armed cruise missiles.

The trade website Naval News described the corvette’s weapons and sensors as “completely outdated compared to Western or Asian designs.”

However, it was claimed that the ship represented a major advance for North Korea as it had potentially game-changing nuclear cruise missile capabilities.

And back in the spring, the Navy tested a so-called “nuclear-capable unmanned underwater attack weapon.”

It is intended to be designed to conduct sneak attacks in enemy waters and to destroy naval strike groups and large ports by an underwater explosion.

A 38 North report at the time said that due to its low speed and limited range, the weapon was significantly inferior to existing nuclear-armed ballistic and cruise missiles in terms of target acquisition time, accuracy and lethality.


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