Satellite Images Suggest North Korea Preparing Submarine Ballistic Missile Launch

On Friday afternoon as the market was about to close, we discussed an unconfirmed report that North Korea had issued “emergency standby orders” to its civil defense units, and we said that at the same time, “traders are furiously hitting refresh on the website of 38North.org for the daily satellite image update of North Korea’s missile launch preparedness, which has yet to hit and which could mean the difference between another sleepy, boring open on Monday and a VIX surging above 20, 30 or more depending on what “path” Kim Jong-Un picks over the next 48 hours.”

Shortly after the note, 38North, best known for its real-time satellite imagery of North Korean military operations and slightly less known for a pro-war spin according to some (hence, take their conclusions with caution), reported that recent satellite photos suggests that North Korea is preparing for fresh submarine-based missile tests even as Trump has repeatedly stated that any new provocation from North Korea could be grounds for a military operation.

Referring to photographs taken on August 7, Joseph Bermudez, a North Korea specialist, claimed that they could indicate preparations for a new test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). “Recent commercial satellite imagery reveals several developments suggesting that North Korea may be accelerating the development of the sea-based leg of its nuclear forces,” he said.

Of particular interest in the imagery is that netting or tarps have been suspended above both the fore and aft decks of the SINPO-class submarine obscuring any activity taking place beneath them. This was last done prior to the July 9, 2016 test of the Pukguksong-1, suggesting that the North may be preparing for a new series of “at sea” test launches, has undertaken modifications or upgrades to the submarine’s launch systems, or is developing a more advanced version of the Pukguksong-1. Recent ejection tests of an SLBM also support the assessment that an at-sea SLBM test may be forthcoming.

Figure 1. Netting or tarps suspended over SINPO-class SSBA in the secure boat basin

Some further details:

As noted in our July report, sometime during the last week in May, the SINPO-class submarine was repositioned forward along its dock and the submersible test stand barge was moved to a position aft of the submarine (both had previously been in their former positions since December 9, 2016). Since the July report, netting or tarps have been suspended above both the fore and aft decks of the submarine obscuring any activity taking place beneath them. The only other time this was seen was during May-July 2016 and prior to the failed July 9, 2016 Pukguksong-1 test. It is unclear if this activity is signaling a forthcoming at sea SLBM test, although the recent ejection tests would support such an assessment. No activity is noted on or near the submersible test stand barge in the latest image.

Figure 2. Netting or tarps suspended over SINPO-class SSBA observed in May 2016.

Separately, Bermudez said that imagery of the Mayang-do Navy Shipyard and Submarine Base shows the same number of ROMEO-class submarines that are usually berthed there, indicating that a recent spike in ROMEO activity in the East Sea (Sea of Japan) was a singular rather than force-wide event.

Imagery of the Mayang-do Navy Shipyard and Submarine Base shows the same number of ROMEO-class submarines that are usually berthed there, indicating that a recent spike in ROMEO activity in the East Sea (Sea of Japan) was a singular rather than force-wide event. The week-long patrol by a ROMEO-class attack submarine in the East Sea (Sea of Japan) was “highly unusual and unprecedented,” as Korea People’s Navy submarines have not been known to venture far from their home ports over the past ten years. The few times they have, it has been only to participate in short annual military exercises. The purpose of this recent activity is unclear, but there are several potential explanations including: Kim Jong Un’s desire to expand his provocative policy of the past two years into the naval arena; a practical exercise demonstrating renewed North Korean offensive naval capabilities (potentially a component of the strategic review of military capabilities ordered by Kim Jong Un when he came to power); a training cruise intended to prepare a submarine and its crew for a longer cruise to monitor future ballistic missile tests or conduct offensive conventional attack missions; validation of upgrades to the ROMEO-class submarine (a number of ROMEO-class submarines have been undergoing extended maintenance and refurbishment during the past five years)—or some combination of the above.

 

A preliminary comparison of the submarine activity at both the Mayang-do Navy Shipyard and Submarine Base during the past twelve months with the August 7 image shows the number of ROMEO-class submarines has remained relatively constant, averaging 12-15; and the number of SANGO-class coastal submarines averaging 11-15. In the August 7 image, 12 ROMEO- and 15 SANGO-class submarines are berthed. This suggests that the July “unusual activities” were a singular event rather than a force-wide event. Regardless, extended North Korean operations in the East Sea should be viewed with concern.

Figure 3. Multiple SANGO and ROMEO-class submarines berthed in the Mayang-do Navy Shipyard.

Figure 4. One SANGO-class and three ROMEO-class submarines berthed at the south pier of the Mayang-do Submarine Base.


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