Sinpho South Shipyard: New Submarine Makes Debut, but With Many Questions To Be Answered

Commercial satellite imagery of the Sinpho South Shipyard from September 6 captured the celebration activities both before and after the launching of North Korea’s new ballistic missile submarine (SSB). Imagery from the following day revealed puzzling activity as the study of the submarine’s capabilities continues.

North Korean media coverage of the launch and christening of the new submarine was extensive, including Kim Jong Un’s arrival at Sinpho to preside over the festivities. The new submarine was christened by Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui, the “Hero Kim Kun Ok” with the unit number 841. While some features of the new submarine, such as the stern’s propulsion system, were blurred in videos and photos from the event, several new features were revealed. This includes the submarine’s missile bay containing ten missile tube hatches, set in pairs, with the foreword four being larger in diameter than the aft six, indicating the submarine will be fitted with a mix of weapon systems. Further analysis is ongoing.

The Hero Kim Kun Ok appears to be the anticipated “Sinpo-C SSB” seen in photos in July 2019, when Kim Jong Un last visited the shipyard, but with some significant differences. Moreover, during this launching ceremony, Kim described the submarine as a “tactical nuclear attack submarine,” a description which may be slightly misleading as the vessel is diesel powered, although its armaments may be nuclear capable.

Figure 1. Overview of Sinpho South Shipyard. Image Pleiades NEO © Airbus DS 2023. For media options, please contact [email protected].

Pre-ceremonial Coverage

A fortuitous satellite image from September 6 captured the moment prior to the launching celebration’s beginning. At the shipyard, the new submarine had been rolled out of the older of the two construction halls and positioned on an inclined marine railway. A large group of spectators were on the quay just north of the hall, and three fast boats—the larger has been confirmed by video as the vessel that brought Kim to the festivities, flanked by two torpedo boat escorts.

Figure 2. Hero Kim Kun Ok submarine rolled out of construction hall before launching ceremony captured on satellite imagery from September 6, 2023. Image Pleiades NEO © Airbus DS 2023. For media options, please contact [email protected].

Figure 3a. Image of submarine captured on Korean Central Television broadcast. (Source: Korean Central Television).
Figure 3b. Image of submarine launching ceremony published in KCNA. (Source: Korean Central News Agency).
Figure 3c. Image of naval ceremony underway. (Source: Rodong Sinmun).
Figure 4. Kim Jong Un’s patrol boat and two escort patrol boats captured entering Sinpho South Shipyard pre-ceremony. Image Pleiades NEO © Airbus DS 2023. For media options, please contact [email protected].

Ahead of the event, the submersible missile test barge had been moved from the secure boat basin to a sheltered basin south of the large pier that bounds the southern end of the shipyard. Typically, a floating dry dock is berthed at that pier, but it had been moved into the south boat basin. The experimental Sinpo-class SSB (the Gorae-class/Sinpo-class), however, remained beneath the protective awning in the secure boat basin.

Figure 5. Submersible missile test barge and floating drydock relocated to south basin on imagery from September 6, 2023. Image Pleiades NEO © Airbus DS 2023. For media options, please contact [email protected].

In the imagery, most of the new submarine is visible, its bow being slightly blocked from view. The overall length is around 86 meters, including 9.3 meters of the bow under the hall entrance. The length of the sail and vertical launch array is 22.4 meters, including the taper as it meets the deck. The beam at the sail is about 7.1 meters. The top of the sail section containing the missile tubes appears to be 3.5 meters wide. The Pukguksong family of missiles are between 1.5 to 1.8 meters in diameter, so it would appear that the four larger openings could accommodate a smaller-diameter missile of that class or a new, smaller-diameter missile. The latter six are intended to accommodate cruise missiles.

The submarine’s stern appears to be that of a ROMEO-class (R-class) submarine with twin shrouded screws on either side. For comparison, two R-Class are presently in the northeast drydock undergoing probable maintenance.

Figure 6. Two Romeo-class submarines in drydock on imagery from September 6, 2023, probably undergoing maintenance. Image Pleiades NEO © Airbus DS 2023. For media options, please contact [email protected].

Based on these photos, this does not look the same as the submarine seen inside the hall on July 17, 2019, when Kim Jong Un inspected the ongoing modifications of an R-Class submarine. In photos from that visit, the missile bay, located immediately behind the sail, was blurred to disguise its configuration. The shrouded screws were visible, but the limber holes along the base of the boat’s sail appeared slightly different than the newly launched submarine, and there were no dive planes on the sail nor openings for their placement at the time. While a 2019 report, “Two Halls Enter—One Sub Leaves,” made the case for which hall Kim visited at that time—what would be the same one from which this new submarine was launched—the differences between what was shown then vs. now are notable. This has analysts questioning whether this is the same boat, as seen previously, that has undergone further and extensive modifications.

Post-ceremonial Coverage

A second satellite image was taken post-launch activities on September 6. In that image, all personnel present for the celebration had departed, and unit 841 remained at the pier, but with a mobile crane now parked on the pier next to the boat’s midsection. Just 24 hours later, on September 7, in a puzzling occurrence, the submersible ballistic missile test barge had been moved from the south protected basin and was nested outboard of the newly launched submarine. The purpose of this movement is unknown, but following a brief final fitting out, the submarine could begin sea trials.

Figure 7. Submersible missile test barge moved and nested outboard of the new submarine after the ceremony. Image © 2023 Planet Labs, PBC cc-by-nc-sa 4.0. For media licensing options, please contact [email protected].
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