North Korea has announced the christening of a purported nuclear attack submarine it has been developing for years. Leader Kim Jong Un described this development as a crucial step in his efforts to build a nuclear-armed navy aimed at countering the United States and its Asian allies.
The North’s official news agency, Korean Central News Agency, reported that the vessel, named “Hero Kim Kun Ok,” is designed to launch tactical nuclear weapons from underwater. However, it did not specify the number of missiles it could carry and fire.
South Korean officials expressed scepticism about the submarine’s capabilities, suggesting it may not be ready for operational duty. Nevertheless, the development of this vessel highlights North Korea’s ongoing efforts to extend the range of its nuclear arsenal with systems that are difficult to intercept in advance.
Based on Kim Jong Un’s statements and photos released by North Korean state media, it appears that the submarine in question is the same one that Kim inspected in 2019 while it was under construction. Experts had previously assessed it as an attempt to convert an existing Romeo-class submarine. The submarine is equipped with at least ten launch tubes, with four of them appearing to be larger, possibly designed for missiles.
Ankit Panda, an expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, commented on the development, saying, “This submarine, though heavily modified, is based on 1950s Soviet-origin technology and will have inherent limitations. Nevertheless, in terms of complicating the targeting challenges that the U.S. and its allies will face, the submarine will serve North Korea’s purposes.”
Extending North Korea’s Nuclear Reach
North Korea has been conducting various missile tests designed for launch from submarines, aiming to enhance its ability to carry out nuclear attack from underwater. This capability theoretically strengthens its deterrent by ensuring a survivable means of retaliation even after a land-based nuclear attack.
The addition of ballistic missile submarines would also introduce a maritime threat to North Korea’s growing arsenal of solid-fuel weapons, primarily fired from land vehicles, intended to overwhelm missile defences in South Korea and Japan.
However, analysts suggest that building a fleet of submarines capable of conducting reliable and quiet underwater attacks would require significant time, resources, and technological advancements, particularly considering the nation’s heavy sanctions.
During the vessel’s launching ceremony and an onboard inspection, Kim Jong Un expressed satisfaction with North Korea’s acquisition of a nuclear attack submarine. He emphasized the importance of having this asset to counter the advanced naval capabilities of the United States. In a notable move, the U.S. docked a nuclear-capable ballistic missile submarine in South Korea in July, marking the first such deployment since the 1980s.
Kim also revealed that North Korea is pursuing a nuclear-propelled submarine and plans to modify its existing submarines and surface vessels to accommodate nuclear weapons. He described the development of a nuclear-capable military as an “urgent task.”