N Korea heralds ‘new chapter’ with ‘tactical nuclear attack’ submarine

Kim waves at the launch of a new submarine. He is wearing a pale linen suit and carrying a straw hat. The submarine is behind him, It is black with the number 841 written on the side.

North Korea has launched its first operational “tactical nuclear attack submarine”, a key part of leader Kim Jong Un’s plan to develop a nuclear-armed navy to counter the United States and its Asian allies.

Submarine No 841 – named Hero Kim Kun Ok after a prominent North Korean historical figure – was launched on Wednesday with Kim overseeing the event, according to the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

The submarine was designed to launch tactical nuclear weapons from underwater, KCNA said, and “heralded the beginning of a new chapter” for North Korea’s navy.

It did not specify the number of missiles the vessel could carry and fire, but after analysing the state media photos some experts suggested it would have the ability to carry 10 of North Korea’s Pukgoksong-3 weapons, and fire them from underwater.

Analysts said much remained unknown.

“This is pretty new,” said Robert Kelly, a professor of international relations, at Pusan University in South Korea. “The core issue is the propulsion system; the louder it is, the easier it is to find. It’s not really clear if North Korea’s long range missiles have good guidance to land at a specific target so the submarine would probably not be able to go that far away.”

Official photos suggested the launch was a festive occasion with colourful balloons, and confetti. Kim was shown being greeted by hundreds of people gathered on the dock with women dressed in traditional Korean hanbok and waving flowers and flags. Sailors clapped in unison as he walked past on a red carpet with senior officers following behind.

The Hero Kim Kun Ok, which state media said would be deployed to the waters between the Korean peninsula and Japan, will perform its combat mission as “one of the core underwater offensive means of the naval force” of North Korea, Kim said, saying the country plans to turn its existing submarines into nuclear-armed attack submarines and accelerate its push to develop nuclear-powered submarines.

The submarine slips into the water. Kim Jong Un is standing on the dock watching.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un stressed the need for the ‘rapid development’ of North Korea’s navy [KCNA via Reuters]

“Achieving a rapid development of our naval forces … is a priority that cannot be delayed given … the enemies’ recent aggressive moves and military acts,” the North Korean leader said in a speech, apparently referring to the United States and South Korea.

Kim stressed the need to “push forward with the nuclear weaponisation of the navy”, KCNA said.

‘Loud, slow boat’

Some analysts were sceptical of the boat and said it underlined how the North Korean people continued to suffer for Kim’s military ambitions.

United Nations human rights chief Volker Turk told the Security Council last month that Pyongyang was letting its people go hungry as it devoted more resources to upgrading its armed forces.

“If conflict were imminent on the Korean Peninsula, you wouldn’t want to be a crew member on that submarine. Even if its nuclear attack capability is largely a bluff, that loud, slow boat could be sunk as soon as it left port,” Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, told Al Jazeera. “It’s another example of North Korea misallocating resources against the welfare of its people. Kim wants to increase military power, but when Pyongyang is more threatening, it is actually less secure. ”

North Korea has carried out a slew of weapons tests in recent years, including what it said was a “new type” of submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), as Kim steps up his efforts to modernise the country’s military. The country is banned from carrying out ballistic missile tests under longstanding United Nations sanctions.

Analysts first spotted signs that at least one new submarine was being built in 2016, and in 2019, state media showed Kim inspecting a previously unreported vessel that was built under “his special attention” and that would be deployed in the waters off the east coast.

North Korea has a large submarine fleet but only the experimental ballistic missile submarine 8.24 Yongung (August 24 Hero) is known to have launched a missile.

An aerial view of the submarine on the dock ahead of the launch
The submarine on the dock ready for launch [KCNA via Reuters]

A high-level Chinese delegation is due to arrive in North Korea on Friday as the country prepares to celebrate the 75th anniversary of its founding day on Saturday, probably with a large parade.

The US has said that Kim will also travel to Russia this month, possibly as early as next week, to meet President Vladimir Putin.

The two men will discuss the supply of North Korean weapons to Moscow, according to US intelligence reports, with North Korea seeking not only food and energy aid but possibly more advanced weapons technologies including for nuclear-powered submarines, which operate far more quietly than diesel vessels.

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