Key point: North Korea has some decent submarine technology that Taiwan wants to buy.
Submarines are a critical asset for Taiwan’s Navy, the Republic of China Navy (ROCN). They provide critical intelligence gathering, patrol, and deterrence capabilities in the Taiwan Strait. However, they are few in number. The ROCN only operates four submarines, only two of which are used operationally.
Pressure by the People’s Republic of China on would-be exporters has prevented Taiwan from buying full submarines abroad, so Taiwan has started its own indigenous submarine program. This program has attracted the usual European and American partnerships, but some other nations appear to have thrown their hat into the ring.
Surprisingly, North Korea is one of these nations. It was recently reported in various Taiwanese media outlets that North Korea and Taiwan discussed the transfer of North Korean submarine technology to Taiwan. According to one account, the attempted transfer was facilitated by the North Korean Central Military Commission. The commission asked senior figures in North Korea if export was acceptable. Leadership concluded that Taiwan was not actively hostile towards North Korea and relations were cordial enough, so the export was approved.
North Korea then provided materials and data on three of North Korea’s designs, the coastal Sang-O-class submarine and the midget Yugo-class and Yono-class submarines to their Taiwanese contact. North Korea even indicated that it was willing to license the production of these submarines to Taiwan.
However, military sources familiar with Taiwan’s submarine project have suggested that these plans are wholly unsuitable for Taiwan’s needs, as Taiwan needs a larger submarine than the kind that was provided.
A different media outlet’s account adds more details. In this account, the North Korean contact mechanism is made more clear: they decided to bid on the submarine contact through a Taiwanese corporate partner. This account also suggests that Taiwan was most interested in the North Korean Air-Independent Propulsion (AIP) system.
The AIP system is crucial for a modern submarine: it allows a submarine to be more stealthy by reducing the amount of time it stays surfaced. However, whether North Korea actually has mature AIP technology or not is up to debate, as none of their operational submarines are known to use it. Taiwan included AIP in the original specifications for its submarine project, but later abandoned it due to cost reasons.
The report then goes onto say that the Taiwanese military sent a representative to North Korea to confirm the sincerity and capability of North Korea to follow through on the deal. However, in the end, Taiwan decided not to go through with it due to “sanctions against North Korea.”
Regardless of who initiated the deal, the affair may suggest that North Korea is becoming increasingly desperate for trade and economic opportunities due to the level of which they have become isolated from the outside world.
However, the decision of North Korean leadership to initiate contact with Taiwan may come as a slight surprise given how the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has punished other countries for engaging with Taiwan and NK’s traditional reliance on the PRC. However North Korea’s relationship with the PRC has been fluid in recent years, and their offer of assistance to Taiwan may be a political move used to bargain as opposed to a serious economic military offer.
Charlie Gao studied Political and Computer Science at Grinnell College and is a frequent commentator on defense and national security issues. This first appeared in April 2019.