North Korean Submarine ICBM Program Takes a Giant Leap
There is nothing like a credible threat of catastrophic military attack from another country to motivate an effective self-defense program. Faced with "being wiped off the map" by Donald Trump, North Korea is certainly highly motivated to defend itself against a massive attack by the United States.
North Korea’s above-ground missile tests have been worrying most of the world because they are happening more often and flying farther. But the country’s parallel developments in submarine missiles is another issue that deserves attention.
According to a report published just a few weeks ago by 38 North (38North.org), North Korea has just completed a second submersible ballistic missile test stand barge.
That barge, which was assembled at the Nampo Navy Shipyard, is a special structure that makes it possible to launch missiles outside of submarines and yet still be positioned underwater. Based on aerial photos of the facility, it appears that this second barge was completed and then floated out alongside the fittingout dock.
A floating dry dock approximately 126 meters long, along with a test stand barge related to the construction, was apparently towed to another pier with a flexible fabric cover overlaid across the central submarine-launched ballistic missile canister. Ahead of the test stand structure is a vessel that North Korea put into service sometime between 2013 and 2016. That ship is being retrofitted to convert it into a missile-armed frigate.
This all happened in November.
Since then, the work has continued, mostly on what is likely the installation of pumps, electrical systems, telecommunications modules and more.
What is clear is that not everything North Korea plans to put into service as a potential means of launching intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMS) is going above ground. These floating barges will not only be less visible but the more serious aspect is that when they are complete, North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un will have a far more dangerous means available to him to deploy his ICBMS. The land-based missiles may be more reliable, powerful and accurate. But the submarine-based missiles will allow North Korea to take its missiles virtually anywhere it wants, including along the coast of South Korea, over to Japan and potentially far closer to the United States. The submarines themselves will be detectable by sonar and other means that the United States and other nations may deploy. Yet until they open up their missile launching capabilities, they will seem no different than most other submersible craft legally moving about in international waters. This makes it all the more difficult to justify stopping them, even with pre-emptive strikes, until the time may be too late.
Mixed in with this information is the latest news reported on December 20 by Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper. In that report, a person connected with South Korea’s intelligence services said that Pyongyang has recently begun testing to see how anthrax might be used as one of its payloads on its ICBMS. The technical problem being worked out is how to ensure that live anthrax can both be mounted in the missiles and somehow isolated to withstand the high temperatures associated when the missiles come back down through the Earth’s atmosphere and onto their targets. Smallpox, which the country is also thought to have in small quantities, may also be in the process of being ramped up in production for use as an alternative to anthrax.
This new threat is in addition to previously announced leaks about North Korea looking at making use of its estimated 2,500 to 5,000 tons of chemical weapons in its missiles.
This now makes four kinds of weapons that Kim Jong-un may be readying for use: conventional missile explosive payloads and nuclear, chemical and now biological weapons. And with submarinelaunched ballistic missiles soon to be available as an alternative to airborne attacks, the options available to North Korea for either offensive or defensive use are growing rapidly.
Many eyes are likely watching those same floating missile launch barges in North Korea right now. One can only hope that cooler heads will prevail on all sides of the current conflict before any of these options get used for something more than a test.