20 December 2016
North Korea’s ballistic missile-launching submarine appears to have been out to sea recently, a Washington-based think tank says, though it’s unclear whether a test is imminent.
The news comes at the end of a year in which the communist nation conducted two underground nuclear tests and a number of missile launches, including three from a sub.
Satellite images taken this month of the North’s Sinpo South Shipyard show that netting previously covering the GORAE-class experimental ballistic missile submarine and submersible test barge is missing, said an analysis published Monday by 38 North, a website run by Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
Equipment and supplies are visible near the vessel, suggesting it had either recently been at sea or was being prepared to head out soon, the website said.
However, the analysis said it’s impossible to determine whether a submarine-launched ballistic missile test is in the cards since the sub and test barge could be sent out for a variety of reasons, including “certification of personnel or validation of repairs.”
The photos also show that a protective berm at the shipyard’s test stand has been finished, allowing the North to test missiles larger than the KN-11 SLBM fired in August.
That missile flew about 310 miles but at a high angle, suggesting it could have gone much farther.
Construction also may have started on a new ballistic-missile submarine, said the analysis, citing the repeated movement of rail-mounted gantry cranes near construction halls over the past several months, and frequent activity at a storage yard.
“These two developments suggest that there is either internal construction work underway on the halls or a shipbuilding program has begun,” 38 North said. “If a shipbuilding program has begun, one possibility is that North Korea has commenced construction of a new submarine to carry ballistic missiles.”
Asked about the 38 North report, South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff spokesman Roh Jae Cheon said the military was keeping a close watch on North Korea.
“We can’t confirm any details, though we are closely tracking and monitoring their development trends of submarines capable to load SLBMs,” he said, according to a transcript of the media briefing.
North Korea has several land-based missiles with a range that puts them in reach of U.S. bases in the region. SLBMs would increase the threat because they’re harder to detect in advance.