Ballistic Missiles, Military

Sinpo South Shipyard Update: Submersible Missile Test Stand Barge and General Status

Key Findings

  • The recent repositioning of the submersible missile test stand barge was not an isolated event, but the latest in a series of small naval movements at the shipyard during the past several weeks.
  • It is unclear if these movements portend preparations for a forthcoming submarine launched ballistic missile test (potentially of a Pukkuksong-4 or -5), the need for maintenance, repairs, and/or installation of new equipment, or the launching of North Korea’s long-anticipate first true ballistic missile submarine (SSB).
  • 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 observed at the pop-up test stand and there are no indications of either a recent SLBM ‘pop-up’ test or preparations for an upcoming test. However, small construction activity is noted immediately north of the test stand.
  • No significant activity is observed elsewhere at the shipyard.
  • The launching of the new SSB or testing of an SLBM (at sea or from the pop-up test stand) would present significant challenges to the new U.S. administration of President Biden.

Satellite imagery of the Sinpo South Shipyard and its environs acquired on April 6 and 7, 2021 shows not only the recent movement of the submersible missile test stand barge, but also provides a general status update of the facility.

Overview of the Sinpo South Shipyard and its environs, April 7, 2021. (Copyright © 2021 by Maxar Technologies)

As noted in our previous report, the most dramatic activity at the Sinpo South Shipyard that was noted in imagery acquired on April 6, 2021 was the repositioning of the submersible missile test stand barge. This, however, was not an isolated event, but the latest in a series of small naval movements at the shipyard during the past several weeks, including:

  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 on 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. 
  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 on the south side of the slipway at the second construction hall and in front of a floating dry-dock.
A close-up view of the test stand barge being towed by a small vessel. This is not only the first commercial satellite image showing the movement and confirming the absence of a missile canister aboard, but it is also an example of Maxar’s new HD image enhancing technology and how it works even with hazing conditions, April 6, 2021. (Copyright © 2021 by Maxar Technologies)

While the precise reason(s) for this movement are unclear, the most probable appear to be any combination of the following:

  • Long-term preparations for a forthcoming submarine launched ballistic missile test (potentially of a Pukkuksong-4 or -5).
  • Preparations for maintenance, repairs, and/or installation of new equipment. 
  • While minor maintenance or repair can be accomplished at the Sinpo South Shipyard itself, if major repairs or maintenance is required, it is conceivable that the test stand barge could be loaded onto the floating dry-dock for shipment to the Hambuk Shipyard at Chongjin or the No. 28 Shipyard at Najin.
  • A precursor to the launching of North Korea’s long-anticipated first true ballistic missile submarine (SSB).1
  • A component of a grand strategy that includes deception or an attempt to increase pressure on the new U.S. administration of President Biden and/or the administration of South Korean President Moon.
A close-up view of the construction halls slipways showing the submersible test stand barge and floating dry-dock positioned on the south side of the slipway at the second construction hall, April 7, 2021. (Copyright © 2021 by Maxar Technologies)

Secure Boat Basin

Now that the submersible missile test stand barge has been repositioned, the only activity visible within the secure boat basin are the presence of a “mothership” (used for infiltration operations)2 and what is presumed to be the Korean People’s Navy sole SINPO-class experimental ballistic missile submarine (SSBA) positioned beneath the approximately 102-meter-by-13-meter removable canopy.3

A view of the secure boat basin showing a “mothership” and what is presumed to be the sole SINPO-class experimental ballistic missile submarine (SSBA) positioned beneath the removable canopy, April 7, 2021. (Copyright © 2021 by Maxar Technologies)

Construction Halls, Fabrication, and Machine Shops 

No significant activity is observed at the large open-air parts yard, gas plant, inclined repair way, and administration, engineering, and support buildings throughout the shipyard. 

Pop-up Test Stand

At the pop-up test stand, with the exception of the presence of a small unidentified object on the pad, no significant activity is observed that indicates either a recent SLBM ‘pop-up’ test or preparations for an upcoming test. The construction activity approximately 100 meters north of the test stand noted in our March 19 report now consists of at least three buildings, two of which have been roofed and the third remains just walls. It remains unclear how, or if, this activity will be in support of future test stand operations.

The pop-up test stand with a small unidentified object, and the new construction activity approximately 100 meters to the north, April 7, 2021. (Copyright © 2021 by Maxar Technologies)

New Maintenance Hall and Housing Complex

Nothing of significance is observed at the unfinished maintenance hall and L-shaped pier at the southern end of the Yuktaeso Peninsula, or the small housing project on the east side of the peninsula.

Sinpo Shipyard

The ROMEO-class submarine observed in our March 19 report within the graving dock at the Sinpo Shipyard is no longer present, likely returning to the Mayang-do naval shipyard across the bay, its place being taken by five fishing vessels.

The graving dock at the Sinpo Shipyard showing five fishing vessels undergoing maintenance, April 7, 2021. (Copyright © 2021 by Maxar Technologies)

References

Show 3 Footnotes
  1. The existing submarine is actually an experiment ballistic missile submarine (SSBA).
  2. Since its establishment, the Sinpo South Shipyard has not only been the primary assembler/manufacturer of North Korean submarines of several classes, but has also constructed, modified, or maintained numerous classes of infiltration and hovercraft. It is not unusual to see different infiltration craft at various locations within the shipyard.
  3. This overhead canopy was installed as a denial procedure during September 2019 to restrict overhead observation of any submarine or other vessels beneath it.