North Korean Sub­ma­rine ICBM Pro­gram Takes a Gi­ant Leap

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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 (, 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.

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