The announcement on Saturday, May 9, 2015 by North Korea’s official news agency KCNA that the Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un had observed a “underwater test-fire of Korean-style powerful strategic submarine ballistic missile” has caused a great deal of speculation concerning the status of that nation’s submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM) program and its associated submarine development. Much of that speculation has implicitly accepted the North Korean position that the nation has advanced SLBM capabilities and that these capabilities are a threat capable of being employed against any potential enemies.
38 North has been following this issue since October 2014 when it first identified unique activity at the Sinpo South Naval Shipyard in North Korea and the launching of what appears to be an experimental submarine (tentatively identified as a SINPO-class submarine) designed to test an SLBM. A subsequent report in January 2015 updated and expanded upon those initial reports. The analytical conclusion of these reports was that North Korea was in the initial stages of developing a seaborne ballistic missile launch capability and that under optimal conditions this was an emerging regional threat rather than an imminent threat. It does not represent an emerging intercontinental threat.
Using a combination of ongoing research, analysis of a May 10, 2015 DigitalGlobe commercial satellite image of the Sinpo South Naval Shipyard and the recent North Korean news releases, 38 North has reviewed its earlier analytical conclusions. This review concludes that:
- The earlier assessment that North Korea was in the initial stages of developing a seaborne ballistic missile launch capability remains valid.
- North Korea is expending significant resources to develop a SLBM capability.
- The Sinpo South Naval Shipyard is continuing to be modernized, likely in preparation for a new submarine construction program.
- North Korean camouflage, concealment and deception (CCD) efforts are in full effect and that there is an even chance that the recent SLBM test was conducted from a submerged launch platform rather than a submerged submarine. With regards to CCD, some of the imagery released by North Korea may have been altered.
- The concurrent development of a new submarine-launched ballistic missile system and an associated ballistic missile capable submarine are within the upper limits of North Korea’s industrial and technical capabilities.
- The earlier assessments that under optimal conditions North Korea possesses an emerging regional seaborne ballistic missile threat rather than an imminent threat and that it does not represent an emerging intercontinental threat, remain valid.
The Recent Test
KCNA announced on May 9, 2015 that the Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un had observed an “underwater test-fire of Korean-style powerful strategic submarine ballistic missile.” Subsequent statements by South Korean officials indicated that the test was more accurately an “ejection test” to evaluate stabilization systems and the process of ejecting a ballistic missile from a submerged submarine rather than a full-scale test of a new submarine-launched ballistic missile system (sometimes identified as the KN-11). These same officials indicated that the missile flew a short distance before it impacted into the sea. Preliminary information suggests that this test, as well as previous ejection tests, were very likely conducted from the general area of the SINPO-class submarine’s homeport at the Sinpo South Naval Shipyard and that the short flight trajectories were either northeast towards Kimchaek or southwest in the direction of Wonsan. The images of the test released by KCNA depict Kim Jong Un standing on a boat with a submarine in the background that one is led to believe conducted the test.
Figure 1. Kim Jong Un on what appears to be one of his many pleasure craft observing the test of a new SLBM, May 9, 2015.
Figure 2. Kim Jong Un with the SINPO-class experimental ballistic missile submarine in the background, May 9, 2015.
Figure 3. A new North Korean SLBM breaking the surface during the recent test, May 9, 2015.
The Sinpo South Shipyard
The submarine seen in the images of the recent test is the SINPO-class experimental ballistic missile submarine based at the Sinpo South Shipyard and is discussed in detail in 38 North’s previous reports.
Analysis of a May 10, 2015—one or two days after the reported test launch—commercial satellite image of the Sinpo South Shipyard shows:
- The new test stand west of the shipyard does not appear to have been used recently.
Figure 4. Test stand at the Sinpo South Shipyard, May 10, 2015.
- Renovation of the main maritime construction halls continues. As does the expansion of the existing launching way.
Figure 5. Renovation of the Sinpo South Shipyard’s construction halls and launch way continue, May 10, 2015.
- The experimental ballistic missile submarine is berthed within the secured boat yard with its bow pointed north (i.e., the opposite direction from the previous available image). It is believed that the opening in the center of the submarine’s sail houses a single launch tube, however, details of this area remain obscured in the current image due to the angle of the sun and the look angle of the satellite.
- Immediately forward of the submarine is a support vessel of an unknown class.
Figure 6. Secured boat yard showing the SINPO-class experimental ballistic missile submarine, a support vessel forward of its bow and the uniquely configure barge is to its stern, May 10, 2015.
Figure 7. Close-up of the SINPO-class experimental ballistic missile submarine. Details of the top of the submarine’s sail remain unclear, May 10, 2015.
- Alongside the submarine on the dock are two heavy equipment tractor-trailers (HETT), a heavy-lift crane and what appears to be a long shipping canister. Another HETT is located in a yard to the north of the boat yard. The shipping canister measures approximately 9.5 meters long by 1.5 meters in diameter and there is an even chance that it is for a ballistic missile.
Figure 8. Close-up of the heavy equipment tractor-trailer (HETT) just north of the secured boat yard, May 10, 2015.
Figure 9. Close-up of the uniquely configured barge showing four outer stations and a central circular structure, May 10, 2015.
- Located immediately astern of the experimental submarine, and moored to the same dock, is a uniquely configured barge that has been present since October 2014. The barge measures 22 meters long by 10 meters wide. The configuration consisting of four tall stanchions with a circular structure in the center. This suggests the possibility that it is a platform that could hold a ballistic missile launch canister in the vertical position for test launches. Given North Korea’s experience in constructing numerous floating dry-docks of numerous classes, it is conceivable that this barge could also be submerged for test launches.
There is little doubt that North Korea conducted a submerged ballistic missile test on about May 9, 2015. South Korean officials indicate that rather than a full test of a SLBM, it was an “ejection test” designed to evaluate stabilization systems and the process of ejecting a ballistic missile from a submerged submarine. This is a reasonable assessment given the presumed level of ballistic missile submarine and SLBM development, as well as North Korea’s technology and industrial base.
The imagery and information released by KCNA would lead an observer to conclude that this recent test was conducted from the SINPO-class experimental ballistic missile submarine based at the Sinpo South Shipyard. This, however, may be incorrect. To conduct a ballistic missile test (even an ejection test) of a new SLBM system from a new class of experimental ballistic missile submarine that was only launched eight months previously would appear to be at the uppermost limits of North Korean naval and ballistic missile design and development capabilities. It would appear to be more reasonably in line with assessed North Korean capabilities, however, that the test launch was conducted from a submerged barge—possibly the one seen at the Sinpo South Naval Shipyard.
Joseph S. Bermudez Jr. is Chief Analytics Officer for AllSource Analysis Inc.