Activity at the Sinpo South Shipyard Part 2: The Construction Halls
- For the past two months, a significant increase in activity has been observed at the Sinpo South Shipyard at its construction halls and the secure boat basin.
- The observed activity at the shipyard’s construction halls is suggestive of preparations to launch either North Korea’s much-anticipated new ballistic missile submarine (SSB) or some other unidentified type of submarine or vessel.
- Undertaking either or both of these efforts have a clear potential to be undertaken by the end of 2022 and would reinforce North Korea’s aggressive ballistic missile and nuclear posturing during 2022.
- This assessment recognizes the fact that North Korea maintains the capability to undertake either of these actions on very short notice should Kim Jong-un decide to do so.
In Part 1 of this two-part report, we discussed the unusually high level of activity observed at the Sinpo South Shipyard’s secure boat basin. In this second installment, we discuss the activity observed at the shipyard’s construction halls and their associated support pier using fifteen satellite images collected between August 11 and October 12, 2022.
While general low-level activity is both expected and often observed at the Sinpo South Shipyard, the level of activity observed during the past two months at the secure boat basin and the construction halls is atypical. Observed activities include:1
- The shipyard’s floating dry dock has been present in all images for the studied two months. It is believed to have been continuously present at the launching ways of the large construction hall for at least three weeks from September 13 to October 1.2
- A large crane barge is only occasionally observed at the Sinpo South Shipyard but has been present in six images during the past two months. Of these, it was present at the launching ways of the large construction hall in five images.
- Likewise, a medium crane barge is only occasionally observed near the shipyard’s support pier or construction halls but was present in two images. In one of these images, captured on September 18, the medium crane barge was present nearby both the floating dry dock and a large crane barge at the launching ways of the large construction hall.
Movements of the floating dry dock, large crane barge, and medium crane barge at the construction hall visible over the studied two-month period are significant.
Given the limitations of open source information and satellite imagery, opinions differ on what the purpose of these observed activities indicate. The leading opinions include,
- Preparations for the launching of North Korea’s much-anticipated first true ballistic missile submarine (SSB) to supplement the existing 8.24 Yongung (August 24th Hero) experimental ballistic missile submarine (SSBA).
- Preparations for the launching of a new type of submarine or vessel yet to be identified. Unconfirmed reports and intermittent indications of ongoing construction work within the large construction hall during the past several years apparently support this opinion.3
Undertaking either or both of these efforts have a clear potential to be conducted by the end of 2022 and would reinforce North Korea’s aggressive ballistic missile and nuclear posturing this year.
The Construction Halls
An image acquired on August 11, 2022, shows activity in the area of the construction halls and support pier at the Sinpo South Shipyard. While the shipyard’s empty floating dry dock remains in its usual position along the support pier, a large crane barge and an apparent telescoping crane are working on the pier closer to shore. The nature of the work being undertaken by the cranes is unclear. However, they may be engaged in the maintenance of the telescoping crane itself.4 Several small vessels of various types are present elsewhere along the support pier. No activity is observed on the inclined or launching ways at the construction halls, although the doors of both halls are partially open. The higher off-nadir angle of this August 11, 2022, image does provide a unique, albeit extremely limited, view of the interiors of the halls through the partially open doors. Regrettably, nothing of significance is visible.
In an August 28, 2022, image, both the large crane barge and telescoping crane are no longer present at the support pier or near the construction halls, the floating dry dock remains in its normal position, and the doors to the construction halls have been closed.
Barring minor changes in the composition of the miscellaneous small vessels present, no changes of significance are noted in an image acquired approximately two weeks later, on September 12. On the following day, September 13, a 70-centimeter image shows that during the previous 24 hours, the floating dry dock had been moved from its normal position along the support pier to the south side of the launching way at the large construction hall. Except for grain having been spread out to dry on the concrete adjacent to this hall, no activity of significance is noted elsewhere in the area of the construction halls or support pier in.5
While no changes of significance are noted along the support pier in a September 18 image, it does show considerable activity at the large construction hall. The floating dry dock remains tied up along the south side of the launching way but has now been joined by both large and medium crane barges positioned off the end of the launching way. The large crane barge has two small vessels tied up alongside, one of which is likely a small harbor tug. On the launching way itself are two rail-mounted launching cradles, one of which has a small vessel on it. The empty cradle may have held the second small vessel tied up alongside the large crane barge. Regardless, it is unusual to have two crane barges present for the launching of just one or two small vessels, suggesting that their presence is to support a more significant activity.
Two days later, on September 20, only the floating dry dock with a small vessel onboard remains at the large construction hall. Neither the large nor medium crane barges are in the immediate area of the support pier or construction halls. The medium crane barge has been moved back to the civilian Sinpo shipyard. The whereabouts of the large crane barge is unknown.
While of only 3-meter resolution, images acquired on September 24 and 26 show some activity along the support pier on September 24 but is of insufficient resolution to provide details. This activity is no longer evident two days later, on September 26. The floating dry dock remains alongside the large construction hall’s launching way on both dates. A subsequent high-resolution image acquired on September 29, 2022, shows the floating dry dock present alongside the large construction hall’s launching way, although without the previously observed small vessel onboard. The image also shows the return of the large crane barge and harbor tug, now positioned approximately 65-meters off the launching way. No launching cradles or activity is noted on the launching way.
An image collected two days later, on October 1, shows the large crane barge and small harbor tug now at the end of the launching way while the floating dry dock remains tied up along the south side of the launching way.
Approximately a week later, an image collected on October 10 shows that due to rough waters from a storm, vessels of various types and sizes have sought shelter in the protective seas of the Jungheungni-man (Jungheungni Bay). In the area of the construction halls and support pier, numerous vessels are docked along the support pier and in the waters north of it. Notably, the floating dry dock with a small vessel onboard has been tied up at its usual position along the pier. The large crane barge with harbor tug is tied up forward of this, and the medium crane and other barges are now tied up aft of the floating dry dock. Numerous small miscellaneous vessels are seen moored in the waters north of the support pier. No activity is noted at the construction halls.
Two days later, on October 12, a 70-centimeter image shows that the large crane barge with a small harbor tug has been moved from the support pier to the south side of the large construction hall’s launching way, a position formerly occupied by the floating dry dock. The floating dry dock remains at its position along the support pier. The numerous barges and small vessels previously observed along the support pier and waters north of it have now dispersed. No other activity of significance is observed.
- We previously discussed a somewhat similar period of elevated activity in our reports in April 2021 and September 2001. ↩
- This floating dry dock has been a fixture at the Sinpo South Shipyard since at least 2012. And since about 2014, it has been berthed on the pier adjacent to the second construction hall. ↩
- Interview data acquired by Joseph S. Bermudez Jr. ↩
- For more on the movements of the telescoping crane during the period under study, please see Part 1 of this report. ↩
- The drying of grain on open concrete surfaces is typical practice in North Korea at this time of the year. ↩