Nuclear Weapons

North Korea Working on Nampo Missile Test Stand Barge

Key Findings1

  • Satellite imagery on April 19 shows that North Korea has positioned a cylindrical object on the submersible missile test barge at Nampo.
  • This object could be a launch tube for an SLBM, but this cannot be confirmed yet based on available imagery.
  • The North Korean leader has made clear his desires to perfect long-range ballistic missiles capabilities to reach the United States.  An operational SLBM capability would enhance the survivability of their nuclear deterrent.
  • Other explanations for the activity include repairs, equipment updates, training, strategic deception, or any combination of these.

Satellite imagery of the Nampo Navy Shipyard collected on six dates during April 2021, most recently on April 19, shows that during the previous four weeks, North Korea has been working on a cylindrical object mounted on the central position of its submersible missile test stand barge.2 It is here that a missile launch tube would be mounted before conducting a test launch from the barge. The resolution of the available imagery and the angle from which it was taken, however, make it impractical to derive precise details or confirm that the object is a launch tube.

Overview of the Nampo Navy Shipyard showing the construction/repair ways where the submersible missile test stand barge is located, April 19, 2021. Click image to enlarge. (Copyright 2021 © by Maxar Technologies)

The image collected on April 13 provides the best view of the central position available this month. It appears to consist of the previously observed low circular base upon which there is a tall tube-like structure with a larger diameter ring at the top or suspended slightly above it.3 This ring may be used to support the tarp that is visible in subsequent images. While all this suggests a mounted submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM) launch tube, this cannot be confirmed and must remain speculative until better resolution imagery becomes available. Also visible are the barge’s support structures on the four corners, equipment and parts distributed around the northern end of the construction/repair way (in front of the test stand barge), and the various portal and gantry cranes.4

Close-up view of the submersible missile test stand barge showing the support structures on the four corners, central mounting position and equipment and parts distributed around the northern end of the construction/repair way, April 13, 2021. Click image to enlarge. (Copyright 2021 © by Maxar Technologies)

A second image collected the following day, on April 14, shows what appears to be a tarp suspended over the center section of the barge—likely secured from the support structures on the four corners—concealing the central mounting position of the barge. The various cranes, equipment, and parts are clearly visible.

Close-up view of the submersible missile test stand barge showing the barge’s support structures, tarp-covered central mounting position, and equipment and parts distributed on the construction/repair way, April 13, 2021. Click image to enlarge. (Copyright 2021 © by Maxar Technologies)

A third image providing a more direct overhead view, collected on April 19, provides no significant additional details, although it appears that the tarp covering the central mounting position has been somewhat repositioned. 

An image acquired on April 19, 2021 providing a close-up view of the submersible missile test stand barge showing no significant changes, although the tarp covering the central mounting position appears to have been repositioned. Click image to enlarge. (Copyright 2021 © by Maxar Technologies)

The significance of these activities involving the Nampo submersible missile test stand barge are unclear at this time. Reasonably, these activities could be for any, or a combination of any, of the following5:

  • Preparation for an SLBM test to support research institutes, design bureaus, and factories (a number of which are in the general Pyongyang area); to refine existing SLBM systems; or to design new ones. 
  • Extended repairs.
  • Upgrades or modifications to the test stand barge and its operating systems.
  • Training of operating crews.
  • A component of a strategic deception or misinformation operation.

References

Show 5 Footnotes
  1. This report updates and expands upon the image posted on Twitter on April 19, 2021
  2. The submersible missile test stand barge was moved from the nearby secure boast basin to the construction/repair ways during December 2020.
  3. This circular base ring has been observed at both Sinpo and Nampo.
  4. Only one of the two ways is fully functional.
  5.  The activity observed is not indicative of the scrapping of the barge.