Military

Nampo Missile Test Stand Barge Update: Continued Intermittent Activity

Key Findings

  • Satellite imagery collected from the last several months show­­­ intermittent activity on North Korea’s second submersible missile test stand barge located in Nampo Navy Shipyard on the west coast.
  • Whether this is for ongoing research and development efforts or long-term modifications or repairs to the craft is unclear.
  • Despite there being no known submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) tests conducted employing the barge at Nampo, the barge remains an important asset to North Korea’s SLBM research, test, development, and engineering (RTD&E) efforts. This is indicated by the changes to the barge’s position and indications of intermittent unspecific work to it over the years. It is likely that the barge will be, or is being, used for several purposes.

Satellite imagery of the Nampo Navy Shipyard from April to June shows intermittent activity on North Korea’s second submersible missile test stand barge, such as the movement of the netting over the barge, since the last report in April 2021. The submersible missile test stand barge continued to be located on the construction way, with no significant change in position and covered by netting. The cables from the four support structures and a square support covering the central mounting position are clearly visible under the netting. Whether this activity is for purposes of ongoing research and development efforts or long-term modifications or repairs to the craft is unclear.

The submersible missile test stand barge was first identified at the Nampo Naval Shipyard in commercial satellite imagery from April 2017. The dimension and layout of the barge resemble those of the original submersible ballistic missile test stand barge located at the Sinpo South Shipyard. It also resembles old Soviet/Russian PSD-4 submersible missile test stand barges, which have been used to conduct underwater tests of submarine missile launch tubes, associated launch systems, and test-firings of SLBMs. Work suspected to be modification or refurbishment of the barge was first observed in imagery from September 2017.

In November 2017, the barge was observed to have been moved for the first time out of the construction/repair way to the base’s floating dry dock, then later to the fitting-out dock. Until December 2020, the test stand barge was observed in these locations and the neighboring secure boat basin, along with floating cranes and netting suspended over the barge, strongly suggesting that repair, modification, or other work was being undertaken on it.

Commercial satellite imagery in December 2020 showed the submersible test stand barge had been moved back to the construction/repair way, where it was originally spotted back in 2017. A few months later, in April 2021, a new cylindrical object was observed mounted on the central structure of the barge. Later images indicate that the object is similar in size and layout to the launch tubes previously observed at Sinpo.1

Significance of the Barge’s Location

Given the time the submersible missile test barge at Nampo has spent within the shipyard’s secure boat basin, on the construction/repair way, or at the fitting-out dock, it is likely capable of conducting an SLBM test launch should North Korean leadership decide to do so.2 However, the placement of a likely operational test stand barge on the west coast prompts several questions about the purpose of the barge.

At the time of writing, all North Korean SLBM tests have been conducted from the Sinpo South Shipyard on the East Sea using either the 8.24 Yongung (August 24th Hero) experimental ballistic missile submarine (SSBA) or the original submersible missile test stand.3 There have been no known SLBM tests conducted employing the barge at Nampo. More significantly, compared to the East Sea, the West Sea is not as conducive to SLBM testing and submarine operations due to its shallow depth, which creates a tidal range of up to 10 meters (32 feet) that exposes miles of mud flats along the coastline.

Despite these factors, the barge likely remains an important asset for North Korea’s SLBM research, test, development, and engineering (RTD&E) efforts. This is indicated by the changes to the barge’s position and indications of intermittent unspecific work to it over the years. It is likely that the barge will be, or is being, used for several purposes. For example,4

  1. Its location near missile research and design bureaus and manufacturing plants within the Pyongyang area provides ready access to engineers and designers, allowing them to develop practical hands-on technical experience for upgrading and modifying the test stand barge and its operating systems or designing future SLBM launch systems, etc.
  2. To test future SLBM designs to greater ranges without crossing Japan or South Korea than is practical from the East Sea.
  3. To serve as an operational ready backup to its first submersible test stand barge located at Sinpo should it suffer significant damage from a catastrophic failure in the future.5
  4. To facilitate the training barge or submarine operating crews.
  5. To serve as a component of a strategic deception or disinformation operation.

References

Show 5 Footnotes
  1. Joseph S. Bermudez Jr. and Victor Cha, “North Korea Working on Nampo Missile Test Stand Barge,” Beyond Parallel, April 20, 2021, https://beyondparallel.csis.org/north-korea-working-on-nampo-missile-test-stand-barge/.
  2. Joseph S. Bermudez Jr. and Victor Cha, “December 2019 Update: The Nampo Submersible Missile Test Stand Barge,” Beyond Parallel, December 14, 2019, https://beyondparallel.csis.org/nampo-submersible-missile-test-stand-barge/.
  3. Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., Victor Cha, and Jennifer Jun, “Post-SLBM Test Activity at the Sinpo South Shipyard,” Beyond Parallel, June 1, 2022, https://beyondparallel.csis.org/post-slbm-test-activity-at-the-sinpo-south-shipyard/.
  4. Joseph S. Bermudez Jr. and Victor Cha, “North Korea Working on Nampo Missile Test Stand Barge,” Beyond Parallel, April 20, 2021, https://beyondparallel.csis.org/north-korea-working-on-nampo-missile-test-stand-barge/.
  5. The 8.24 Yongung (August 24th Hero) experimental ballistic missile submarine, which is also used for conducting SLBM tests, have suffered a malfunction during a test launch in October 2021. See: Joseph S. Bermudez Jr, Victor Cha, and Jennifer Jun, “Sinpo-class Submarine Damaged During October 19 Test Launch,” Beyond Parallel, January 7, 2022, https://beyondparallel.csis.org/sinpo-class-submarine-damaged-during-october-19-test-launch/.