A 38 North exclusive with analysis by Joseph S. Bermudez Jr.
Commercial satellite imagery from December 9 of North Korea’s Sinpo South Shipyard suggests that the GORAE-class experimental ballistic missile submarine and submersible test barge may have recently been or are preparing to go to sea, although it is impossible to determine whether that would be related to an impending missile test or normal maintenance activities. Imagery is not yet available from after a recently reported “cold launch.” The December 9 image indicates that previous work on the protective berm at the test stand is complete, making it capable of testing missiles larger than North Korea’s KN-11 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) tested in August. As previously concluded, a shipbuilding program is possibly also underway in the construction halls.
Figure 1. Overview of the Sinpo South Shipyard.
Commercial satellite imagery from December 9 indicates that netting previously covering the GORAE-class experimental ballistic missile submarine (SSBA) and submersible test barge is gone. Additionally, on the deck immediately aft of the GORAE’s sail is what appears to be a small grouping of equipment or supplies. These two factors suggest that both craft may have recently been at sea or are preparing to go to sea in the near future. However, there is no activity on the dock adjacent to the submarine and none of the commonly seen support vessels are present in the secure boat basin. The reason for their absence is unknown but could include being out to sea with other submarines or getting serviced in a different area. Moreover, a floating security barrier is present at the basin entrance, meaning neither the submarine or barge was likely put to sea that day.
There are numerous reasons why the GORAE or test barge would be put to sea other than testing missiles or their components, such as certification of personnel or validation of repairs. Therefore, based on satellite imagery alone, it is not possible to determine whether a SLBM test is imminent.
Figure 2. The GORAE-class submarine and test barge are docked in the secure boat basin.
Test Stand Now Capable of Handling Larger SLBMs
A recent “cold launch” test, if reports are correct, would have taken place from the vertical test stand at Sinpo. Since no imagery from that time is yet available, no assessment can be made to corroborate that claim.
Imagery from December 9 does indicate that work on the western protective berm, which began in February, is now complete with a higher, more substantial, berm in place. This reconfiguration will allow the stand to test missiles with engines larger than the KN-11 SLBM last tested in August.
Figure 3. The protective berm at the vertical test stand is complete, allowing for larger missile tests.
Activity at the Parts Storage Yard
During the past four months, the rail-mounted gantry cranes and transfer table at the construction hall parts storage yard continue to be repositioned. Furthermore, the contents of the storage yard have also continued to change. These two developments suggest that there is either internal construction work underway on the halls or a shipbuilding program has begun. If a shipbuilding program has begun, one possibility is that North Korea has commenced construction of a new submarine to carry ballistic missiles. But there is no clear evidence to suggest that it the case.
A heavy lift crane, present at the parts storage yard, has been seen at Sinpo before immediately prior to or after a SLBM test. At those times, however, it was located on the dock adjacent to the GORAE-class submarine and used for loading the missile into the submarine or to facilitate maintenance and repair work. From its present location, the heavy-lift crane could be used to support work within the construction halls, assisting the movement of components in the storage yard or work on the GORAE-class submarine.
Figure 4. Maintenance or shipbuilding could be taking place at the construction halls.
Additional Construction Activity Slows
Work on a new construction or maintenance hall on the southern tip of the Sinpo peninsula, which began in 2012, has slowed during the second half of 2016. The new hall is approximately 119-meters-long and its location and construction characteristics suggest that when complete, it could be covered with earth to provide protection from attack. If this is the case, it may be used to support a future ballistic missile submarine fleet. The associated 197-meter-long L-shaped pier remains incomplete in the December 9 image. Cement caissons that can be placed and filled with rock, however, are readily available at nearby docks to complete the work when required.
Figure 5. Work has slowed on building a new construction hall.
Figure 6. L-shaped pier still under construction.