Unusual Object Remains at the Sinpo South Shipyard, Possible Midget Submarine

Recent commercial satellite imagery of North Korea’s Sinpo South Shipyard indicates no notable activity at the construction halls, despite rumors that North Korea may be close to launching a new submarine.

The unusual object that was present on the quay of the secure boat basin on May 27 remains in the same place. While it is unclear what this object is, a recent article by H I Sutton suggests it may be a new type of midget submarine or unmanned underwater vehicle. North Korea uses midget submarines to conduct infiltration and reconnaissance missions, and as Sutton’s article notes, its known models are old, so a new model would not be out of character as the North works to advance its submarine capabilities.

Imagery has shown that a midget submarine had been secured alongside the submersible test barge for a period of six months—from December 2019 to May 2020. The submarine was approximately 15 meters long.

From late May, the midget submarine was no longer secured to the submersible test barge. Instead, an unusual linear object was present on the quay, which measured approximately 16 meters in length. If this linear object is a midget submarine or a shipping container with the submarine within, it may mean that in-water testing has been completed and adjustments are being made to it.

A probable trailer is situated near the linear object on June 14 but is gone by June 17. The trailer’s purpose is unknown, but its proximity to the linear object suggests it may have an associated role.

Furthermore, the secure boat basin would provide a secure environment to conduct development and testing of a new midget submarine. For example, the boat basin enclosure would block the collection of its unique acoustic signature during engine testing and preclude its identification.

Whatever the linear object is, higher resolution imagery would be needed for a definitive determination. However, its length precludes the notion it is a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) canister since North Korea’s Pukguksong-1 SLBM is only approximately 8.5 meters long with a canister about 10-11 meters long.

Figure 1. A midget submarine is attached to the submersible test barge in December 2019. Probable prop wash indicates possible engine testing.

Image © 2020 Planet Labs, Inc. cc-by-nc-sa 4.0. For media licensing options, please contact [email protected]

Figure 2. Midget submarine still attached to submersible test barge, probable trailer present.

Image © 2020 Planet Labs, Inc. cc-by-nc-sa 4.0. For media licensing options, please contact [email protected]

Figure 3. Close-up of secure boat basin from May and June.
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Figure 3A. Close-up of secure boat basin, May 27, 2020. Image © 2020 Planet Labs, Inc. cc-by-nc-sa 4.0. For media licensing options, please contact [email protected]
Figure 3B. Close-up of secure boat basin from June 14, 2020. Image © 2020 Planet Labs, Inc. cc-by-nc-sa 4.0. For media licensing options, please contact [email protected]
Figure 3C. Close-up of secure boat basin from June 17, 2020. Image © 2020 Planet Labs, Inc. cc-by-nc-sa 4.0. For media licensing options, please contact [email protected]
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