The submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) test performed from the DPRK’s east coast is a perfect example of how well North Korea can hide its advanced weapons programs if it really wants to. The land-based test stand used for testing the missile was built through 2013, the submarine from which the missile was launched popped up on satellite imagery in late 2014 and subsequent testing from the land-based test stand and sea-based test beds culminated with the recent launch from a submarine. All in all, the intelligence community has been forced to adapt to the idea of a North Korea with plausible SLBM capabilities in a very short timeframe.
Aside from being a first in terms of the type of launch platform used, the missile test also presents a leap in missile capabilities as a whole. The ballistic missile, mockingly displaying the name of “Pukkuksong-1” in images (Polaris-1, a clear reference to the United States’ first SLBM: The UGM-27 Polaris) and designated KN-11 by the U.S. Department of Defense, appears to be based on the Hwasong-10, albeit reduced in length. The Hwasong-10, often referred to as the BM-25 Musudan, is itself heavily inspired by the Soviet R-27 Zyb SLBM, supposedly incorporating many of its characteristics but with an extended body. The most significant aspect of this similarity to the R-27 Zyb is that it makes the Hwasong-10, one of the longest-ranged ballistic missiles on a transporter erector launcher (TEL) in use by the DPRK, capable of striking targets up to 4,000 kilometers away. However, as the system is not known to have ever been tested, despite being deployed and erected near the east coast during April 2013, it is still not certain whether it is actually operational, much like the massive Hwasong-13 (KN-08) missile that made a stir during the 65th anniversary parade in 2013.
The string of tests of the new Pukkuksong-1 SLBM this and last year might change this, however. Due to the fact that the two missiles likely use many of the same components and use the same fuel combination it appears likely that the recent tests are meant to validate both the Pukkuksong-1’s and the Hwasong-10’s design, even though the former differs from the latter in that it seems to mirror the R-27 Zyb’s length more closely.
Images of the launch also gave the intelligence community a good first look at the new submarine constructed at Sinpo on the east coast, near the submarine base on the island of Mayang-do. This submarine, dubbed the Sinpo-class, measures about 67 meters in length and carries a single Pukkuksong-1 SLBM in its conning tower; quite an unconventional design to which the North was probably forced due to the limited size of the submarine, which has an estimated displacement of just 2,000 tons. The new images reveal the outward design is similar to that of the Romeo-class submarines, and it can be expected that many aspects of the submarine, such as its diesel-electric propulsion system, are also present on the Sinpo-class. As the new submarine already presents the largest indigenous submarine currently produced by the DPRK, surpassing the Sang-O II at some 40 meters in length, it can be expected that future submarine development will seek to produce designs of even greater size.
Although some sources claim a range of 3,000 to 4,000 kilometers for the new Pukkuksong-1 SLBM, without proper knowledge of the missile’s inner workings, fuel and propulsion system the only thing that can be said is that it likely has at least the range of the Soviet R-27 Zyb: 2,400 to 3,000 kilometers. Even so, due to the small size and relatively silent propulsion mechanism the submarine would be extremely hard to detect in a possible future conflict, presenting a credible yet limited second-strike capability even to the U.S. mainland. Of course, whether the DPRK is currently capable of producing a suitable atmospheric reentry vehicle for a nuclear warhead is under much debate, and it is highly unlikely any nuclear warhead would be as advanced as the R-27 Zyb’s, which also allows for the deployment of multiple warheads from a single missile (MRV).
The test also sheds light on Kim Jong Un’s sudden decision not to attend the 2015 Moscow Victory Day Parade, as the missile launch was performed on the same day. Why it was deemed necessary to plan the launch on this particular day is not known, although it might be to maximize media impact, something with which the DPRK’s new leader is well familiar.
Putting this new development in perspective with other projects that have come to light in recent years, it is clear that it is yet another example of the fast-paced and hard-to-analyze progress North Korea is making in the field of weapons of mass destruction. Just a few years back, few would have dared to guess that the DPRK was on its way to join the select group of nations developing ballistic missile submarines, and coupled with other major revelations such as the indigenous Kh-35 AShM, Pon’gae-6 (KN-06) SAM and Hwasong-13 it means the North presents a larger threat to the region than it has in decades.
Featured image: KCNA
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