WASHINGTON - Recent satellite images show two new North Korean frigates, the largest surface combat ships the North has constructed in a quarter of century, a website reported Thursday.
The North Korea-watching site, 38 North, says the frigates can carry one helicopter and appear to be designed to counter South Korean submarines and protect fisheries. The vessels appear to be equipped with anti-submarine rocket launchers.
The ships can be seen in commercial satellite images from December and January. One is berthed at a shipyard in the western port of Nampo, and the other at a shipyard at the northeastern port of Nanjin.
It is unclear whether the frigates are ready for service.
The website is associated with the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. The analysis of the ships is by Joseph Bermudez, who is an expert in satellite imagery and North Korea’s military.
He notes that North Korea has been able to construct the vessels and other combat ships over the past decade despite international economic sanctions and industrial stagnation, and says reports of the North’s military decline must now be re-evaluated.
Bermudez says it will likely take several years to integrate the frigates’ capabilities into the North’s fleet operations.
Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corp., said the two new frigates would be bigger and more capable than the rest of North Korea’s surface fleet, which is viewed by many as weak. While North Korea has a large submarine force and many patrol craft, it has little in the way of higher-end surface ships.
Bennett said that by investing in the frigates, the North’s authoritarian regime may be seeking to consolidate support from naval personnel.
Bermudez said the vessels might also be used to protect fisheries in view of increasing pressure from South Korean, Chinese, Japanese and Russian fishing fleets.