SEOUL – North Korean state media showed on Tuesday North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un inspecting a new submarine capable of launching ballistic missiles, a message that may warn the US of Pyonyang’s impatience over stalled dialog.
North Korean state media KCNA showed Kim on Tuesday inspecting the submarine, and said its operational deployment in the waters of Sea of Japan (called the East Sea on the Korean Peninsula) is “near.”
Kim learned about its operational and tactical data and combat weapons system after the submarine was built under his “special attention,” KCNA said.
The images show the submarine in a covered dry dock facility, with neither the date of Kim’s visit nor the location of the vessel disclosed, but experts have indicated that the location could be the Sinpo South Shipyard.
Last month specialist website 38 North reported that there was “continuing submarine construction of possibly another SINPO-class ballistic missile submarine” at the base.
The vessel in the photos appears to be a new and advanced submersible capable of launching ballistic missiles.
The new submarine, dubbed Sinpo-C by intelligence analysts, is based on the Sinpo, an experimental submarine – it has never been an operational asset – that North Korea used to carry out its first submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) test in 2016.
However, this is a larger model, corresponding to its potential capacity to carry at least four ballistic missiles, while its predecessor had the capacity of just one.
North Korean state media’s prominent staging of the submarine appears to show that the country is not leaving anything to chance.
The weight given to coverage – the news occupied the cover of Rodong Sinmun newspaper with three full-color photos – and the language used suggests that this is signaling Washington’s attention as the denuclearization dialog has failed to progress.
KCNA said the submarine has been “designed and built to be capable of fully implementing the military strategic intention of the (Korean Workers’) Party under various circumstances,” adding that it was an important boost for “national defense capability.”
A number of analysts have interpreted this as an unambiguous reference to nuclear weapons being an essential part of North Korea’s deterrence policy.
With Kim at the inspection was the presence of three figures key to the North Korean weapons of mass destruction program – Hong Yong-chil and Kim Jong-sik, deputy directors of the Machine Building (Military) Industry Department and Jang Chang-ha, president of the Academy of the National Defense Science.
The North Korean submarine fleet, although large, is outdated and does not pose a threat in the short term. Its vessels developed in the 1990s suffer from significant operational challenges, while others are based on the Soviet Romeo class submarines from the 1950s.
However, the submarine unveiled on Tuesday shows that North Korea is continuing its development of weapons despite recent rapprochement with the US and that the SLBM program, which could lend better mobility and reach to Pyongyang’s arsenal, continues to progress. Many experts are alert to the possibility that North Korea might soon test a new SLBM, the Pukguksong-3.
North Korea has also published the report coinciding with US National Security Advisor John Bolton’s visit to Seoul. Bolton has been harshly criticized by Pyongyang for his insistence on North Korea completely denuclearizing before the US withdraws any sanctions, while Pyongyang has reiterated that it wants a gradual denuclearization process accompanied by the progressive lifting of sanctions.
Bolton will hold meetings on Wednesday with his South Korean counterpart Chung Eui-yong, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, and Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo, to discuss, among other issues, the current situation with North Korea.
The leaders of the US and North Korea clashed at the failed Hanoi summit in February, and after the recent impromptu summit on June 30 between Kim and Donald Trump, the sides announced they would resume working-level dialog to come to a denuclearization agreement by mid-July. However no such meetings have so far taken place.
On Monday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he expected the dialog with North Korea to resume in a couple of weeks, but Tuesday’s public display of the submarine along with recent protests by Pyongyang over joint US-South Korea military exercises indicates that the regime may be tired of waiting.