Ballistic Missiles

Sinpo South Shipyard Update: Continued Activity

Key Findings

  • The recent repositioning of the submersible missile test stand barge and floating dry-dock were not isolated events, but components of a series of small naval movements at the shipyard during the past four weeks.
  • These activities have both practical and conspicuously political motivations as North Korea prepares to launch its new ballistic missile submarine (SSB) and Kim Jong-un apparently undertakes a policy of gradually increasing provocative military actions.
  • The launching of the new ballistic missile submarine (SSB) or testing of a submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM) would present significant domestic and international challenges to the new U.S. administration of President Biden and the Governments of South Korea and Japan.
  • North Korea retains the capability and resources to launch the new SSB or conduct additional SLBM tests at any time of its choosing.
  • No significant activity is recently observed elsewhere at the shipyard.

Satellite imagery of the Sinpo South Shipyard and its environs acquired on April 13 and 14, 2021 show several additional small naval movements as the submersible missile test stand barge and floating dry-dock have been moved back to their former locations.

The Sinpo South Shipyard and its environs, April 13, 2021. Click to enlarge. (Copyright © 2021 by Planet)
The Sinpo South Shipyard and its environs, April 14, 2021. Click to enlarge. (Copyright © 2021 by Planet)

As noted in our recent report, the movements of the submersible missile test stand barge and floating dry-dock were not isolated events, but parts of a series of small naval movements at the shipyard during the past four weeks. Sequentially, these included:

  1. The repositioning of a floating dry-dock during March 14 and 24 from the nearby pier where it had been previously berthed to a position on the south side of the slipway at the second construction hall. A floating dry-dock has been a fixture at the Sinpo South Shipyard since at least 2012. And since about 2014, it has been berthed at the pier adjacent to the second construction hall.
  2. The arrival of a crane barge on March 30. This was positioned on the north side of the slipway at the second construction hall opposite the floating dry-dock. It remained here until sometime between March 31 and April 5.  It is unknown what activities it undertook during its stay.
  3. The repositioning on April 6 of the submersible missile test stand barge by a small support-type vessel (probably a yard tug) from the secure boat basin where it has been berthed since October 2019 to a position in front of the floating dry-dock on the south side of the slipway at the second construction hall.
  4. The repositioning of the submersible missile test stand barge between April 10 and 13 back to its former location within the secure boat basin.
The submersible missile test stand barge has been moved back to its most recent position within the secure boat basin, April 14, 2021. Click to enlarge. (Copyright © 2021 by Planet)
  1. During April 13 or 14, the loading of a small vessel onto the floating dry-dock and its subsequent movement from the south side of the second construction hall’s slipway back to the nearby pier where it is usually berthed.
The floating dry-dock has been moved back to its former location alongside the nearby pier where it is usually berthed. A small vessel can be seen loaded onto the dry-dock, April 14, 2021. Click to enlarge. (Copyright © 2021 by Planet)
The slipway of the second construction hall as seen on April 14, 2021, now with vessels alongside. Click to enlarge. (Copyright © 2021 by Planet)

Referencing these movements, recent media accounts attributed to “both South Korea and U.S. intelligence authorities” state that construction of North Korea’s first true ballistic missile submarine “is finished based on comprehensive sources including the recent activities at North Korea’s Sinpo [South] Shipyard and various signals intelligence like SIGINT [sic].”1

This assessment, while undoubtedly accurate, must be tempered by the fact that almost all the minor naval movements observed at the shipyard during the past four weeks have no apparent direct bearing on the actual process of launching North Korea’s long-anticipated first true ballistic missile submarine (SSB).2 The minor movements of the submersible missile test stand barge, however, could be a potential indicator of preparations for a forthcoming launch of a submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM) to accompany the launching of the new submarine. 

These same media reports further state that “South Korea assesses that North Korea is waiting for the right timing to have a launching ceremony to aim for strategic effect, including maximizing pressure against the United States, [and that] North Korea could reveal the 3,000-ton submarine at a launching ceremony and actually launch an SLBM, such as the Pukguksong-3, from the submarine.”3 While these reports are doubtlessly accurate in attributing a strong political component to the timing of the launching of the new SSB, it would be highly unusual—not to mention extraordinarily risky—to conduct a test of a Pukguksong-3, or any SLBM, from the newly launched submarine before it has undergone what are broadly understood as manufacturer’s and navy acceptance trials. It is during such trials that a vessel’s sea-handling capabilities, crew training, and a host of other technical issues attendant with the launch of a submarine (new or rebuilt) are explored and addressed. The successful completion of all these elements is essential to successful SLBM operations. North Korea, however, could easily accompany the launch of the new SSB with tests of the Pukguksong-3, -4, or -5 on land from the static test stand at the Sinpo South Shipyard, or at sea employing the submersible test stand barge.

With the exception of continuing construction activity 100-meters north of the shipyard’s static test stand, no significant activity has been observed elsewhere at the Sinpo South Shipyard since our last report.


References

Show 3 Footnotes
  1.  See: Kim Kui-Kun. “North Korea Has Completed Construction of a 3,000-ton Class Submarine,” Yonhap, April 11, 2021, https://www.yna.co.kr/view/AKR20210409079700504?section=nk/news/all; “North Korea’s SLBM threat looms large Posted,” Korea Times, April 11, 2021, http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2021/04/103_306962.html; Choi Si-young “N. Korea preparing to launch ballistic missile submarine,” Korea Herald, April 11, 2021, http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php; and Colin Zwirko “Kim Jong Un’s record of April missile tests raises prospect of launches, reveals North Korea could use April 15 holiday to reveal new ballistic-missile submarine or test weapons,” NK  News, April 13, 2021, https://www.nknews.org/2021/04/kim-jong-uns-record-of-april-missile-tests-raises-prospect-of-launches-reveals/.
  2. The existing submarine is actually an experiment ballistic missile submarine (SSBA).
  3. See footnote 1.