Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, has inspected a new submarine, potentially signalling continued development of a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) programme.
North Korean state media has released images of Mr Kim admiring the submarine in a covered fabrication building. The reports have not identified the location of the facility, but satellite images in recent months have shown the construction of new facilities at the Sinpo South Shipyard, on the east coast, and components being stockpiled nearby.
The Korean Central News Agency reported that Mr Kim expressed “great satisfaction” after being informed to the vessel’s capabilities, and that it will “perform its duties in the operational waters of the East Sea of Korea, and its operational deployment is near at hand”.
The North Korean dictator also “stressed the need to steadily and reliably increase the national defence capability” through the development of naval weapons.
The release of the photographs coincides with the arrival in Tokyo of John Bolton, the US national security adviser, and is likely to be a signal to Washington that Pyongyang is continuing to develop its military capabilities in the face of international sanctions.
“It’s a typical North Korean tactic; to talk tough and to show that they are not intimidated by the US, that they don’t care that Bolton is in the region and that they are going to continue to take a hard line,” said Robert Dujarric, a professor of international relations at the Tokyo Campus of Temple University.
“The other message that they are sending is that if the US does not hurry up and do a deal soon, then the North will have even more weapons and an even better military capability”, he said.
North Korea has a large submarine fleet but only one known experimental submarine capable of carrying a ballistic missile.
North Korea has made rapid progress in the submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) programme and in 2016, after a few years of development, successfully test-fired a ballistic missile from a submarine, while pursuing an intercontinental ballistic missile programme (ICBM).
Talks on the denuclearisation of North Korea have stalled since the collapse of the Hanoi summit in February. Washington says it is committed to the complete, verifiable and irreversible elimination of the North’s nuclear weapons capabilities and insists that sanctions will stay in place until that happens.
Pyongyang is standing firm in its demand for the lifting of sanctions in return for phased moves towards denuclearisation – a tactic that some believe will enable the North to ultimately avoid abolishing its nuclear arsenal.
Lance Gatling, a Tokyo-based military analyst, said that while it is impossible to state categorically based on the photos that this is the North’s first submarine built specifically to deliver nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, that fact that it is in an “enclosed facility to frustrate overhead reconnaissance” indicates that the regime is trying to keep it away from prying eyes.
“They have gone to a tremendous amount of effort and expense to build this thing and to keep it hidden and the only way that we are going to find out exactly what it is will be when they have to bring it out to start doing sea trials”, he told The Telegraph.
Experts have expressed concern in the past about North Korea deploying a submarine that is capable of traversing the Pacific ocean and threatening the continental US with ballistic missiles, although Mr Gatling is confident that US and Japanese forces are devoting a lot of time to assessing the new vessel’s capabilities and will be able to monitor its movements very closely if it ever ventures outside North Korean waters.
Analysts said that based on the apparent size of the new submarine it appears designed to eventually carry missiles.
“We can clearly see that it is a massive submarine – much larger than the existing one that’s been well known since 2014,” Ankit Panda, senior fellow at the US-based Federation of American Scientists, told Reuters.
“What I find significant about the political messaging here is that this is the first time since a February 2018 military parade that he has inspected a military system clearly designed to carry and deliver nuclear weapons.”
“I take that as an ominous signal that we should be taking Kim Jong-un’s end-of-year deadline for the implementation of a change in US policy with the utmost seriousness.”