WASHINGTON (REUTERS, BLOOMBERG) - Satellite images taken this month of a North Korean naval shipyard indicate Pyongyang is pursuing an "aggressive schedule" to build its first operational ballistic missile submarine, a US institute reported on Thursday (Nov 16).
Washington-based 38 North, a North Korea monitoring project, cited images taken on Nov 5 showing activity at North Korea's Sinpo South Shipyard.
"The presence of what appear to be sections of a submarine's pressure hull in the yards suggests construction of a new submarine, possibly the Sinpo-C ballistic missile submarine - the follow-on to the current Sinpo-class experimental ballistic missile submarine," 38 North said in a report.
The report said that throughout 2017 there had been continued movement of parts and components into and out of two parts yards adjacent to the constructions halls in the centre of the shipyard.
It said the Nov 5 images showed two large circular objects that could be sections of a submarine's pressure hull. It said these appeared larger than those for North Korea's Romeo-class attack submarine.
Images of a test stand indicated continued testing of a mechanism for ejection launch of missiles from a submarine. However, the report said no activity could be seen suggesting preparations for a new test of a submarine-launched missile.
North Korea has been working to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of reaching the United States, sparking a major international crisis in which US President Donald Trump has said that all options are under consideration, including military ones.
South Korea's spy agency said on Thursday (Nov 16) that North Korea has not secured the key technologies needed to build ballistic missile that can survive a return through the atmosphere, reported Yonhap news agency.
An official from South Korea’s top spy agency told lawmakers on Thursday that Pyongyang’s missile programme still faced the barrier, Yonhap reported on Friday (Nov 17), citing a “parliamentary source”.
Building a vehicle that can protect warheads from the heat and stress of a return flight – or re-entry capability – is critical for developing functional intermediate-range and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM).
The National Intelligence Service told members of the National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee that North Korea’s recent missile engine tests haven’t provided the necessary capability, Yonhap said. A two-month hiatus in missile launches could be due to economic sanctions and financial constraints after frequent rocket tests under leader Kim Jong Un, the news agency said.
In July, Kim declared he could strike the entire continental US after test-firing the regime’s second ICBM within a month – a claim disputed by American officials. In a meeting last week with Chinese President Xi Jinping,
President Donald Trump again called on Beijing to use its leverage as North Korea’s top economic backer to pressure Kim into giving up his quest for a nuclear weapon that could threaten the US.
Xi is dispatching a special envoy Song Tao, to visit North Korea on Friday, just a week after Beijing hosted Trump on his first state visit to China since taking office in January.
The timing suggests that Song, head of the Chinese Communist Party’s International Liaison Department, may be carrying a message from the Xi-Trump talks.
Yonhap, citing unidentified diplomats in Beijing, said there was a good chance that Song would meet Kim on Sunday.
The North Korean leader is said to rarely meet with senior foreign visitors.
North Korea’s Choe Ryong Hae, one of the most senior officials in the Workers’ Party of Korea, was likely to attend a party leaders’ meeting in Beijing later this month, Yonhap News reported, citing an unnamed source in the Chinese capital.
Trump would announce next week whether the US will return North Korea to a list of state sponsors of terrorism, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said. Such a move would trigger more sanctions and represent a shift after a 2008 decision by President George W. Bush to lift the designation as part of an effort to use diplomacy.
North Korea has conducted dozens of missile tests this year and its largest and biggest nuclear test on Sep 3. The past two months have seen a relative lull and it has not tested a missile since firing one over Japan on Sep 15.
An article in The Diplomat last month quoted a US government source as saying that North Korea had tested a new solid fuel engine sometime between Oct 15 and Oct 21. US intelligence officials have declined to comment on this.