Sinpo South Shipyard Update: Regression of Activity

Key Findings

  • Latest observations of the Sinpo South Shipyard show a return to its status quo of low-level activity.
  • Notable vessels and objects have returned to, or remain at, their usual positions.
  • There are three likely possibilities that explain why the anomalous September 2020 activity did not transpire into an actual SLBM launch: maintenance of the SINPO-class SSBA or submersible test stand barge; camouflage, concealment, and deception (CCD) efforts; or an inexplicable cancellation of a planned launch.

A satellite image of the Sinpo South Shipyard acquired on October 27, 2020 shows a return to what has become typical activity within the facility’s secure boat basin that includes,  

  • The presence of a support vessel or infiltration “mothership” along the quay where the submersible test stand barge is normally positioned;
  • The submersible test stand barge itself has been repositioned along the north side of the secure boat basin and; 
  • While not visible it is presumed that the North’s existing SINPO-class experimental ballistic missile submarine (SSBA) remains berthed along the dock under the approximately 102-meter-by-13-meter removable canopy—installed to restrict overhead observation.  
Overview of the secure boat basin at the Sinpo South Shipyard as of October 27, 2020. (Copyright © 2020 by Airbus)

There are no visible indications in the current image that the highly anticipated “newly built submarine”—North Korea’s first true ballistic missile submarine—has been launched. 

The September activity (e.g., presence of large crane and trailer, presence of vehicles at the pop-up test stand, etc.) that was suggestive, but not conclusive, of preparations for an upcoming test of a Pukkuksong-3 submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM) from the submersible test stand barge is no longer observed. The explanations for why the previously observed activity didn’t result in an actual SLBM test launch are numerous. However, the following appear to be among the more likely, 

  • The previously observed activity was related to maintenance of the existing SINPO-class SSBA or submersible test stand barge rather than a test launch; 
  • The activity was a component of a strategic camouflage, concealment, and deception effort designed to heighten foreign estimates of the North’s SLBM and ballistic missile capabilities and coincide with the planned display of new systems at the October 10th military parade or; 
  • A SLBM test was planned, but subsequently cancelled for reasons unknown outside North Korea.

At the pop-up test stand on the south side of the Sinpo South Shipyard, no significant activity is observed with the rail-mounted service stand and launch pad strong arm (used to raise a launch tube or missile into the vertical position for testing), which are in the same positions as previously observed. 

Little other activity is noted elsewhere in the area of the Sinpo South Shipyard. 

Overview of the rail-mounted service stand and test stand strong arm at the south side of the Sinpo South Shipyard. (Copyright © 2020 by Airbus)