North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspected a “newly built submarine” that was to operate in the Sea of Japan, state-run media said Tuesday, in one of the first displays of power related to his country’s nuclear capabilities since November 2017.
Without giving a date, the official Korean Central News Agency said Kim toured the submarine site and “learned in detail about its operational and tactical data and combat weapon systems.”
“The operational capacity of a submarine is an important component in national defence of our country bounded on its east and west by sea,” Kim was quoted as saying. He stressed “the need to steadily and reliably increase the national defence capability by directing big efforts to the development of the naval weapons and equipment,” including submarines.
The vessel’s “operational deployment is near at hand,” the report added.
Photos with the report showed Kim and accompanying officials standing near the vessel, dwarfed by what is likely a ballistic-missile submarine that the U.S. intelligence community refers to as a Sinpo-C-class, built to be capable of launching nuclear-tipped missiles.
In another ominous sign, accompanying Kim were Kim Jong Sik, a veteran rocket scientist, and Jang Chang Ha, the head of the country’s Munitions Industry Department, a weapons development and procurement center. The pair are two of his so-called rocket men, the top officials responsible for bringing the country’s missile program into the 21st century.
“This would mark the first Kim inspection of a North Korean military asset designed to carry and launch nuclear weapons since 2017,” Ankit Panda, a senior fellow with the Federation of American Scientists, wrote on Twitter. “He’s not disarming, folks.”
Vipin Narang, a North Korea expert and professor of international relations at MIT, called the submarine “a pretty monster prototype,” noting the “saddle with missile tubes that can carry lord only knows.”
North Korea’s last public display of its nuclear weapons program came in November 2017, when it tested a Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump acknowledges that North Korea is capable of striking deep within the United States.
Since then, it has kept to a self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests amid denuclearization talks with the U.S.
Those talks, which had been stalled until President Donald Trump’s surprise meeting with Kim at the Demilitarized Zone dividing the two Koreas last month, appeared to hit yet another snag Monday.
Asked if a new round of talks had been scheduled with North Korea, Trump said: “No, we just have a very good relationship and probably they would like to meet, and we’ll see what happens.
“There was a little correspondence recently. We had very positive correspondence with North Korea. Again there’s no nuclear testing, there’s no missile testing, there’s no nothing,” he said, repeating his common refrain on the issue.
“I think we will, yeah, at a certain point. … When they’re ready, we’ll be ready,” Trump said.
The negotiations had been expected to resume in mid-July, but the North Koreans have reportedly been silent on a U.S. offer for talks.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in an interview with Fox News on Monday that he hopes the North Koreans “take a position that’s different” when they return to the negotiating table. Pompeo said in a separate interview with CBS that he hopes the talks will begin “soon.”
North Korea’s Foreign Ministry hinted last week that the working-level nuclear talks could be halted if the U.S. goes ahead with its planned joint 19-2 Dong Maeng (alliance) exercise with South Korea scheduled to take place in August, suggesting that going ahead with the drills could put its nuclear and missile moratorium at risk.
Tuesday’s report of Kim’s sub visit was almost certainly related to this ongoing back and forth, experts said.
“For now these are just pics,” Narang said. “But the fact that the KCNA release is littered with the word ‘strategic’ suggests Kim wants us to believe that is a possible” ballistic missile submarine.
This move made sense from a nuclear strategy perspective, he said.
“ICBMs are for responsiveness and range, SLBMs are for survivability,” he said, using an abbreviation for submarine-launched ballistic missiles. “Like a normal nuclear state. Which is exactly what Kim wants us all to accept and recognize that North Korea is.”
The North has in recent months ramped up activity at its Sinpo South Shipyard on the country’s east coast, according to analysts.
Last month, 38 North, a U.S.-based North Korea-monitoring website, assessed that it was continuing construction of the apparent new Sinpo-class submarine, citing commercial satellite imagery.
It is also known to have poured resources into the development of SLBMs in its quest for a sea-based nuclear deterrent.
It has tested at least one SLBM, known as the Pukguksong-1, and is believed to be developing a new and more powerful submarine-launched missile, the Pukguksong-3, according to photos published in state-run media in 2017. Some analysts have said the Pukguksong-3 appeared to be designed to carry a nuclear warhead, which would give the North considerably more strategic leverage, as it complicates the U.S. and South Korean ability to preemptively destroy the country’s nuclear capabilities by threatening a second strike capability.
Euan Graham, a former British diplomat who served in Pyongyang and who is currently Executive Director of La Trobe Asia at La Trobe University in Australia, had harsh words for Tuesday’s revelations.
“I understand (Kim) can rationally want a survivable nuclear deterrent. But this a Bond villain vanity project and utter waste of resources,” Graham said.
It’s a “reminder that there are no constraints on North Korea’s military industrial complex, including mass production of missiles, fissile material and, apparently, a (ballistic missile submarine) under construction,” he added.
“The fetishizing of weapons of mass destruction for a country of such limited means is sickening.”