Just prior to yesterday’s launch of two short range missiles, photos of a new class of submarine in drydock were purposefully leaked to the media while being inspected by leader Kim Jong Un. North Korea has previously experimented with submarine missile delivery systems with poor results- the previous design, named Sinpo, which had two in its class. Due to outdated design the missile had to be launched from the con tower, obviously leading to issues.
According to underwater warfare expert over at Popular Mechanics, this new boat ain’t exactly new. From the photos its alleged that this is a refitted Soviet Project 629A missile sub, which North Korea purchased 10 as scrap during the 1990s. The subs are diesel-electric and must surface to fire, while having an endurance of 70 days at sea unsupported. Originally designed to fire Scud missiles, the boats are a regional strategic weapon system. That last point is important.
The mistake their analyst is making is Western thinking- our SSBN fleet is for nuclear deterrence, not an offensive weapon. But what if you didn’t need a platform for an ICBM? The Kalibr missile which has been at the center of international controversy and the scrapping of the INF treaty fills the same role as the older Scud, as does the Shahab missile designs that Iran has successfully developed. This may explain yesterday’s test. Both would be fairly simple to retrofit into the existing 629A hull, creating a weapons platform that, while outdated by Western standards, could launch relatively close to a nation’s shoreline, thus negating most defenses until its too late.
One critical piece North Korea lacks is experienced submariner crews to pull off such a retrofit and mission. That level of training would take a long time to spin up, and for a nation which faces the plethora of issues North Korea does, both socioeconomically and militarily, no level of equipment negates experience. And if they have 10 in the inventory, it’d be reasonable to assume they’re working on getting most of those in service. It just so happens their neighbor and ally just lost seven senior submariner Captains in a very tragic accident.