The Korean People’s Army Navy is often said to be rich in numbers, yet operating only old barges left over from the Cold War. This stereotype is reinforced by naval exercises displaying outdated equipment and a bad safety track record, as is testified by the numerous accidents in the past. However, recent news about the Navy’s various modernization program and suspected new naval vessels equipped with the highly capable Kh-35 anti-ship missile has forced military analysts to radically alter their view on the North’s sea-based capabilities.
Some recent developments include the construction of several classes of surface effect ships (SES), some with stealth technology, corvettes capable of carrying helicopters, and ballistic missile armed submarines. Other existing naval craft that had become obsolete are starting to be outfitted with domestically-produced Kh-35 anti-ship missiles, modern close-in weapons systems (CIWS), radar systems and other weaponry.
However, the flag ships of the KPA Navy, the Najin- class frigates, until recently appeared to have been untouched by this wave of modernization. In commission since 1973 and using a design that has seen virtually no changes since the mid-1980s, these ships are the largest indigenous naval product of the DPRK at 103 meters in length. The original design, of which two were produced with hull numbers 531 and 631, was armed with triple 533mm torpedo launchers, which were later replaced by either two Chinese HY-2 “Silkworm” missiles (an upgrade of the Soviet P-15 “Styx”), or their North Korean derivatives. These missiles posed an inherent danger to the ship when launched as they were fitted extremely tightly around the ship’s midsection. Even without this drawback, the missiles are easy to fool by jamming systems and are likely to miss their intended target when used against a modern navy.
Other armament included 100mm guns and 57mm dual cannons at the bow and stern of the ship, six 2M3 25mm dual cannons around the midsection, two AK-230 30mm automated dual guns and anti-submarine depth charges. The 100mm, 57mm and 25mm guns are all operated manually and thus require the ship to stop to fire accurately. In fact, the 100mm guns are loaded manually and therefore achieve a very low effective fire rate compared to contemporary naval vessels. The same goes for the 57mm dual cannons, which fire bursts of five rounds from each barrel which have to be loaded separately after each burst.
Most of this weaponry would be hopelessly obsolete in any modern naval engagement, and thus the Najin -class has been the flag ship of only the Korean People’s KPA Navy. However, satellite imagery combined with footage published by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on December 13 shows that at least the Najin- class frigate on the west coast (hull number 631) has undergone a modernization program of its own.
The ship had been moored at Nampho harbor since late 2013, seemingly undergoing maintenance. It remained there at least until mid-April 2014, after which it was transferred to Unit 189 at Pip’agot naval base in South Hwanghae province, where it was inspected by Kim Jong Un on December 13. Satellite imagery of the ship during 2014 and footage of this inspection shows it has undergone a substantial transformation in an effort to revalidate the design.
At Nampho the outdated anti-ship missiles, aft 57mm dual cannon, Drum Tilt fire-control radar and surface search radar were removed, and several new systems were installed. Most clearly identifiable are two 30mm automated turrets at the aft, likely based on the Soviet AK-630 CIWS. These systems are quite capable at providing close-in protection against aircraft or guided munitions, yet fail to give a 360- degree radius of cover, leaving the bow of the ship vulnerable.
At Pip’agot Kim Jong Un was seen inspecting a rack used for mounting four Kh-35 anti-ship missiles, placed in the midsection of the ship which used to house the two P-15/HY-2/KN-01 anti-ship missiles. Although not visible on existing imagery, it is likely that there are four of these racks considering the space available; meaning the refit Najin-class has at least eight Kh-35 missiles ready to fire.
Another such rack was spotted during a visit by Kim Jong Un to Nampho, where he inspected one of the KPA Navy’s surface effect ships.
Oddly enough, some outdated systems had not been replaced by the date of Kim Jong Un’s visit. While the 100mm guns might have been included in the new design because their replacement requires too much room to place, the 57mm dual cannon at the bow and the six 2M3 25mm dual cannons especially serve little purpose on the new refit version of the Najin-class. Therefore, it is likely that the ship’s modernization program is still ongoing, yet continuing at Pip’agot naval base instead of at Nampho. Plausible future modifications might be the replacement of the 2M3s by with the DPRK’s indigenously-designed six-barreled 14.5mm Gatling cannon, the placement of short-range surface -to -air missile systems and more modern radars (although these may already have been fitted).
If outfitted with all these systems, the refit Najin-class will pose a credible threat to South Korean and U.S. naval assets, having both reasonable air defense systems on board and the capability to strike back. The Kh-35 anti-ship missile, often described as the most cost-effective in existence, is a particularly frightening opponent as it can operate under adverse weather conditions and electronic countermeasures, skimming just a few meters above the ocean surface and using a radar that blends in with background radiation to assure it remains undetected until it reaches its target. This target may weigh up to 5000 tons and be up to 260 kilometers away, depending on the variant of the missile.
As the suspected North Korean Kh-35 is an indigenously-designed copy with various modifications (such as the addition of a nozzle to the engine) it is unknown whether it retains the original missile’s characteristics, or whether it constitutes an up- or downgrade over of the original design.
It is expected the other Najin-class frigate (with serial hull number 531), on the east coast, will undergo the same modernization, which will likely take place at Wonsan, Najin and/or Sinpo.
Despite the common perception that the KPA Navy (and the armed forces of North Korea as a whole, for that matter) is a derelict force of the past, the modernization of older vessels and the development of newer vessels, often introducing modern technologies, once again shows that North Korea remains serious about its army, and is capable of taking the necessary steps to transform it into a fearsome force of the present.
Main photo: KCNA
The Korean People's Army Navy is often said to be rich in numbers, yet operating only old barges left over from the Cold War. This stereotype is reinforced by naval exercises displaying outdated equipment and a bad safety track record, as is testified by the numerous accidents in the past. However, recent news about the Navy's various modernization program and suspected new naval vessels equipped