New satellite images show North Korea may be preparing to launch ballistic missile submarine

·3 min read
A floating dry dock has been positioned alongside the launch quay - Planet Labs
A floating dry dock has been positioned alongside the launch quay - Planet Labs

North Korea appears to be preparing to launch a new submarine capable of firing nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, with US and South Korean intelligence “thoroughly monitoring” developments at the North’s Sinpo shipyard.

New satellite images of the shipyard, on the east coast of the peninsula, show that a floating dry dock has been positioned alongside the launch quay for the vast construction hall where the submarine is being completed.

Analysis of the images by experts from The Stimson Center think tank and posted on the 38 North web site suggest the new vessel “may be nearing completion or is ready to be rolled out and launched in the near future”.

The news came as European members of the Security Council requested an urgent meeting on Tuesday to discuss the North’s recent ballistic missile launches, which are in contravention of previous Security Council resolutions, with the possibility of additional sanctions on Pyongyang.

Recent events suggest that Pyongyang is returning to the “fire-and-fury” diplomatic strategies of the past.

Last week, North Korea launched two short-range ballistic missiles from its east coast, the first such launches in nearly a year and widely interpreted as Pyongyang’s first challenge to the new administration of US President Joe Biden.

Under the terms of United Nations resolutions, North Korea is banned from firing ballistic missiles.

On Monday, North Korea accused the United Nations Security Council of “double standards” for criticism of its recent missile launches.

In a statement issued through the North’s KCNA news agency, a senior foreign ministry official defended the launches, saying, “Many other countries across the globe are firing all kinds of projectiles."

Work to refurbish the Shinpo construction hall was completed in late 2016 and it is believed that assembly of the submarine began shortly afterwards.

There are additional signs that the vessel may be ready to launch, the analysts said, including an official visit to the site in July 2019 by Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, during which images of the submarine were released by state media.

Storage areas at the site that were as recently as last summer full of components for the craft are also now empty.

“We are thoroughly monitoring the situation, with close coordination between the South Korean and US intelligence authorities,” a spokesman for the South Korean Defence Ministry told a press conference on Monday.

The North has already conducted a series of tests, from submerged barges, to simulate the firing of a submarine-launched ballistic missile.

The 2,720-tonne vessel that it is constructing is believed to be designed to carry three ballistic missiles and would theoretically be capable of sailing into the Pacific to threaten US military facilities in Hawaii or even the mainland of the continental US.

The US military has warned that the North deploying such a weapons system would be a significant increase in its offensive capabilities and a new cause for concern, but analysts have told The Telegraph that the threat is more limited as US and Japanese underwater monitoring technology will allow the submarine to be closely tracked.