Why is North Korea suddenly investing so much in its navy?

In this undated photo provided on Monday, 21 August 2023, by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, centre, visits a navy flotilla in North Korea (AP)
In this undated photo provided on Monday, 21 August 2023, by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, centre, visits a navy flotilla in North Korea (AP)

North Korea announced on Friday that its newly developed missile submarine possesses the capability for nuclear attacks.

The submarine project has been in development for several years, and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has previously also emphasised its critical role in establishing a nuclear-armed naval force as a means to counter the United States and its allies.

The newly unveiled vessel – named “Hero Kim Kun Ok” after a prominent North Korean historical figure – has been designed with the capability to launch tactical nuclear weapons from beneath the water, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported.

It did not, however, provide specific details regarding the number of missiles it can carry and deploy.

In the past year, North Korea has taken steps to enhance its naval capabilities by introducing new nuclear weapons systems. These include an underwater drone, the development of warships, and now the first operational missile submarine.

In recent weeks, Mr Kim has also been placing significant emphasis on the imperative to bolster North Korea’s navy. Some analysts speculate that this heightened focus may be driven by a desire to enhance military collaboration with Russia, as Russia has hinted at the potential for joint military exercises between the two nations.

It was recently reported that South Korean officials indicated that North Korea is likely to have received an invitation to participate in trilateral naval exercises alongside Russia and China for the first time.

According to South Korean lawmaker Yoo Sang-bum, it is believed that Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu proposed the idea of joint naval drills during his visit to Pyongyang in July.

China and Russia have conducted annual joint naval exercises for over a decade. However, this is the first time that North Korea has been invited to participate in these joint naval exercises. Experts believe that amid escalating nuclear tensions involving Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo, Mr Kim has been making efforts to enhance the visibility of his alliances with Moscow and Beijing.

The reports about the trilateral naval drills emerged shortly before Mr Kim’s anticipated trip to Russia’s far eastern port city of Vladivostok for the 10 September to 13 September Eastern Economic Forum.

Last month, North Korean state media published photos showing Mr Kim conducting an inspection of a missile test just days after the commencement of joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea.

KCNA reported that the leader was on site to monitor the launch of strategic cruise missiles fired from a patrol ship, belonging to the North Korean Navy’s East Sea Fleet.

Mr Kim reportedly inspected the patrol ship’s weapons and combat preparedness and “highly praised the ship for maintaining high mobility and mighty striking power and constant preparedness for combat to cope with sudden situation,” according to KCNA.

David Maxwell, vice president of the Center for Asia Pacific Strategy, told VOA that members of the Moscow-Beijing-Pyongyang “authoritarian axis” may also feel a need to counter other US-led security alliances, including AUKUS (Australia, the UK and the US), the QUAD (Australia, India, Japan and the US) and Nato, besides Japan, South Korea and the US security arrangement.

According to state media reports, the newly unveiled submarine on Friday is seen as a significant enhancement to North Korea’s nuclear deterrent capabilities and state media said the submarine will strengthen it by “leaps and bounds”.

“Until quite recently, Kim has largely appeared to neglect naval nuclear programmes. The recent refocus on naval nuclear capabilities has likely been welcomed by the Korean People’s Navy,” Ankit Panda of the US-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told Reuters news agency.

After analysing the photos of the new submarine, Hero Kim Kun Ok, experts suggest it can silently transport and launch 10 Pukguksong-3 missiles while still submerged.

“This is pretty new,” Robert Kelly, a professor of international relations, at Pusan University in South Korea told Al Jazeera. “The core issue is the propulsion system; the louder it is, the easier it is to find. It’s not really clear if North Korea’s long-range missiles have good guidance to land at a specific target so the submarine would probably not be able to go that far away.”

Analysts have suggested that, similar to the nuclear drone, the utility of this new submarine in a wartime context may be restricted when compared with North Korea’s more formidable land-based missile systems.

“Their submarines just aren’t going to be able to be as survivable as their land-based forces,” Vann Van Diepen, a former US government weapons expert said. “And they’ll have a hard time deploying enough missiles at sea to make a big difference.”

As per the 2022 Defense White Paper from the South Korean military, the Korean People’s Army Naval Force maintains approximately 470 surface vessels in its fleet. These vessels include various types, such as guided missile ships, torpedo boats, small patrol vessels, and fire support boats. It also has about 70 submarines, including Romeo-class vessels of Soviet-era design, and midget submarines.

The navy also has about 40 support craft and 250 landing craft.

According to the White Paper, the Korean People’s Army Naval Force is organised into two fleet commands, which oversee operations along the country’s east and west coasts. The document reveals that roughly 60 per cent of the naval force is stationed to the south of Pyongyang.

“The North Korean Naval Force possesses the capacity to carry out a surprise attack any time,” the paper said. “However, its capacity for deep-sea operations is limited because its force primarily consists of small, high-speed vessels.”

Meanwhile, South Korea has condemned the launch of North Korea’s missile submarine and said that Pyongyang might be exaggerating its capabilities. Japan also expressed hesitation.

Earlier this year in March and April, North Korea claimed that it tested a nuclear-capable unmanned underwater attack weapon. KCNA said at the time that the submarine travelled underwater for over 59 hours before reaching its target where its “test warhead” – not an actual nuclear device – was detonated underwater.

North Korea has conducted six underground nuclear tests since 2016 as per its state media but it is difficult to verify the claims. North Korea asserts that it possesses nuclear warheads compact and lightweight enough to be affixed to drones, as well as cruise and short-range missiles.

(Additional reporting by agencies)