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North Korea is 'on an aggressive schedule' to develop a ballistic missile submarine

  • Imagery appearing to show a submarine's pressure hull in North Korea's Sinpo South Shipyard could indicate construction of a ballistic missile submarine, according to 38North
  • Pyongyang has an experimental submarine capable of firing missiles but it isn't operational

North Korea is reportedly moving closer to developing a submarine capable of firing ballistic missiles.

Nov. 5, 2017: Close-up of satellite imagery show potential pressure hull components of a ballistic missile submarine in North Korea's Sinpo South Shipyard
DigitalGlobe/38 North via Getty Images
Nov. 5, 2017: Close-up of satellite imagery show potential pressure hull components of a ballistic missile submarine in North Korea's Sinpo South Shipyard

The pariah nation "is on an aggressive schedule to build and deploy its first operational ballistic missile submarine," said a Thursday note on 38North, a project of the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Strategists anticipated such a development after Pyongyang began testing submarine-launched ballistic missiles, or SLBMs, last year. Under dictator Kim Jong Un, the country's nuclear weapons program has made great technological advances and has signaled a willingness to use submarines for offensive military action.

Commercial satellite imagery from Nov. 5 shows sections of a pressure hull — the inner casing of a submarine that's designed to withstand the intense underwater pressures — in a shipyard located within the North Korean port city of Sinpo, the 38North note said. That likely means construction of a new vessel, possibly the SINPO-C ballistic missile submarine.

Such a watercraft would be the logical follow-up to the North's current ballistic missile submarine, which is experimental in nature, the note continued.

Nov. 5, 2017: Close-up of satellite imagery show components of a ballistic missile submarine in North Korea's Sinpo South Shipyard
DigitalGlobe/38 North via Getty Images
Nov. 5, 2017: Close-up of satellite imagery show components of a ballistic missile submarine in North Korea's Sinpo South Shipyard

The Sinpo South Shipyard has historically been the primary manufacturer of large submarines for the North Korean navy.

An unreadable pennant number is visible on the side of the submarine's superstructure, known as the conning tower, the note said, adding that pennant numbers are typically assigned to a submarine after it's been accepted into naval service.

Tarps and netting are also suspended over the vessel's decks, according to the note. While their exact purpose in this case is unclear, officials often place tarps over vessels "to conceal activity from both ground and overhead observation or in deception operations," the note said.