North Korea's Kim Jong Un inspects new submarine, signals possible ballistic missile development

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspected a newly built submarine and pointed out its tactical capabilities and weapons systems on Tuesday, according to North Korean state media.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits a submarine factory in an undisclosed location in North Korea.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits a submarine factory in an undisclosed location in North Korea.PHOTO: REUTERS
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits a submarine factory in an undisclosed location in North Korea.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits a submarine factory in an undisclosed location in North Korea.PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (REUTERS) - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspected a newly built submarine and pointed out its tactical capabilities and weapons systems, North Korean state media KCNA said on Tuesday (July 23), potentially signalling continued development of a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) programme.

Mr Kim inspected the operational and tactical data and combat weapon systems of the new submarine which was built under his "special attention", and will be operational in the East Sea, KCNA said.

"The operational capacity of a submarine is an important component in national defence of our country bounded on its east and west by sea," Mr Kim said.

KCNA did not describe the kind of weapons systems the submarine contained or where and when the inspection took place but Mr Kim showed great satisfaction with the construction of "our kind of powerful submarine."

North Korea has a large submarine fleet but only one known experimental submarine capable of carrying a ballistic missile.

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," said Mr Ankit Panda, senior fellow at the US-based Federation of American Scientists.

"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," said Mr Panda.

A South Korean defence ministry spokesman said they were monitoring developments but could not confirm if the submarine was designed to carry missiles.

Mr Kim Dong-yub, a military expert at Kyungnam University’s Institute of Far Eastern Studies in Seoul, said Mr Kim likely also wanted to reassure North Koreans of his commitment to national defence at a time when he is focusing more on the economy.

"Announcing his inspection of the new submarine is also to build internal solidarity, to dispel people’s concerns about national security, reassure them, and boost military morale," said Mr Kim Dong-yub.

North Korea maintains one of the world’s largest submarine fleets, but many of the vessels are aging quickly, casting doubts on how many are operational, according to the Washington-based Nuclear Threat Initiative.

Most of North Korea’s fleet consists of small coastal submarines, but in recent years it has made rapid progress in the SLBM programme, the organisation said in a report released late last year.

In 2016, after a few years of development, North Korea successfully test-fired a ballistic missile from a submarine, while pursuing an intercontinental ballistic missile programme (ICBM).

Mr Kim has declared a moratorium on testing ICBMs and nuclear weapons while engaging in denuclearisation talks with the United States and South Korea.

The North’s submarine report comes amid another delay in dialogue between the United States and North Korea after Mr Kim and US President Donald Trump agreed at a meeting at the Panmunjom Korean border on June 30 to working-level nuclear talks.

Mr Trump said such talks could come in the following two to three weeks.

His national security advisor, Mr John Bolton, arrives in South Korea on Tuesday to meet security officials.

During the submarine inspection Mr Kim was accompanied by officials who have played a major role in missile development, and probably nuclear weapons.

US-based monitoring group 38 North said in June 2018 that North Korea appeared to be continuing submarine construction at its Sinpo Shipyard, of possibly another Sinpo-class ballistic missile submarine, based on commercial satellite imagery.

"This, to my eye, is the submarine that the US intelligence community has been calling the Sinpo-C, a successor to North Korea’s only known ballistic missile submarine," Mr Panda said.