Military

Sinpo South Shipyard Update

Key Findings

  • No significant activity is observed that indicates preparations for the launching of the much-anticipated new ballistic missile submarine (SSB) or preparations for a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) test. 
  • Additionally, there are no indications of either a recent SLBM test or preparations for an upcoming test at the pop-up test stand.
  • No significant activity is observed elsewhere at the shipyard. 
  • North Korea retains the capability and resources to launch the new SSB or conduct additional SLBM tests at any time of its choosing. 
  • The launching of the new SSB or testing of an SLBM (at sea or from the static test stand) would be seen by the Biden administration as a significant provocation. 

Thirteen satellite images of the Sinpo South Shipyard and its environs collected between April 21 and September 1, 2021, provide an opportunity to update the status of the facility.1 While no indications were observed in the imagery suggesting preparations for the launching of the much-anticipated new ballistic missile submarine or preparations for a submarine-launched ballistic missile test, it is important to note that North Korea maintains the capability to undertake any of these on short notice should Kim Jong-un decide to do so. This capability must be kept in mind, particularly as South Korean reports during the past month describing their development and launching of a new class of ballistic missile submarine and reported testing of a submarine-launched ballistic missile have likely placed considerable pressure on Kim Jong-un to finally authorize the launching of North Korea’s much-anticipated first true SSB.2 Any such launch would not only have practical benefits but would also be aimed at nullifying the South’s recent propaganda successes in conducting joint exercises with the U.S. The launch would also allow North Korea to capitalize on any perceived weaknesses of the U.S. administration of President Biden as it is struggling with the fallout from the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the ongoing Covid-19 crisis.

Overview of the Sinpo South Shipyard and its environs, September 1, 2021. Click image to enlarge

Secure Boat Basin

While there have been occasional dockside activities observed at the secure boat basin, none of these appear to be related to a recently launched SSB or preparations for a new SLBM test from either the submersible missile test stand barge or SINPO-class experimental ballistic missile submarine (SSBA). The latter is still assessed as being positioned beneath the approximately 102-meter-by-13-meter removable canopy installed as a denial procedure during September 2019 to restrict overhead observation of any submarine or vessel beneath it. The “mothership” (used for infiltration operations) that was moved into the secure boat basin earlier this year remains berthed alongside the south pier of the basin.3

A view of the secure boat basin showing details of the submersible missile test stand barge, the removable canopy under which the SINPO-class SSBA is assessed as being positioned, and an infiltration “mothership,” September 1, 2021. Click image to enlarge.
Closeup view of the submersible missile test barge showing the mounting point for an SLBM launch canister and four support towers, September 1, 2021. Click image to enlarge.

Construction Halls, Fabrication Halls, and Machine Shops 

No significant activity was observed at the two construction halls, large fabrication hall, open-air parts yard, inclined repair way, gas plant, or the administration, engineering, and support buildings throughout the shipyard. 

In general, the small maritime movements observed around the construction hall and its associated pier earlier this year have continued. While these have not been related to the launch of a new SSB or an SLBM test, they do provide clear indications of both a low level of continuing activity at the fabrication halls and a basis upon which to judge future movements. Typical movements observed during the past six months were:

  1. A small infiltration-type vessel was loaded onto the shipyard’s floating dry-dock on May 6. This was subsequently moved to the south side of the second construction hall’s slipway by May 11 and was joined by a small vessel (likely a harbor tug). These craft remained here until at least May 31, but were not present in June imagery.
  2. A crane/dredger barge was observed alongside the south side of the second construction hall’s slipway on July 5. By July 16 it was repositioned to the east side of the slipway, and during July 17-23 it was working just east of the slipway. It remained here until at least August 3 and was no longer present in September.
  3. The loading of a small vessel onto the shipyard’s floating dry-dock was observed during September 1-2.4
A view of the construction halls, large fabrication hall, open-air parts yard, inclined repair way, and gas plant, September 1, 2021. Click image to enlarge.
The Sinpo South Shipyard’s floating dry-dock position alongside the pier associated with the construction halls, September 1, 2021. Click image to enlarge.

Pop-up Test Stand

No significant activity was observed at the pop-up test stand and there are no indications of recent or pending SLBM pop-up tests. The construction activity approximately 100 meters north of the test stand first noted in our March 19 report now consists of at least three buildings. Two of these buildings have been roofed and the third now appears to be a greenhouse. Additionally, two circular gardens—typical of those seen at larger facilities—have been erected. Just how, or if, this activity will be in support of future test stand operations is unclear.

The pop-up test stand and new construction activity, approximately 100 meters to the north, September 1, 2021. Click image to enlarge.

New Maintenance Hall and Housing Complex

While nothing of significance was observed at the unfinished maintenance hall at the southern end of the Yuktaeso Peninsula, the associated L-shaped pier, which was damaged during this year’s typhoon season, has been undergoing repair since May 2021. Typically, there have been 4-6 vessels, including a crane/dredger barge, and 1-3 hopper barges present undertaking repairs. 

Repair work being undertaken on the L-shaped pier that was damaged during this year’s typhoon season, September 1, 2021. Click image to enlarge.

Sometime during late April or early May, work was observed at the small, abandoned housing project on the east side of the Yuktaeso Peninsula. Given the timing and presence of construction-type vehicles, it is likely to be associated with the repair work on the L-shaped pier. Potentially, it might be an indicator that work on the unfinished maintenance hall may resume in 2022.

Renewed activity at the small, abandoned housing project on the east side of the Yuktaeso Peninsula, September 1, 2021. Click image to enlarge.

Sinpo Shipyard Graving Dock

During the past six months, the graving dock at the Sinpo Shipyard has remained active with vessels, warships, and submarines being present for varying lengths of time. Most recently, a ROMEO-class submarine has entered the graving dock.

The graving dock at the Sinpo Shipyard showing a recently arrived ROMEO-class submarine, September 1, 2021. Click image to enlarge.

References

Show 4 Footnotes
  1. For a unique high off-nadir look at the Sinpo South Shipyard, Sinpo Shipyard, and Mayang-do naval facilities, see our reports from earlier this year: Sharp Focus: A Unique View of North Korea’s Sinpo South ShipyardSharp Focus: A Unique View of the Sinpo Shipyard, and Sharp Focus: A Unique View of the Mayang-do Submarine Base.
  2. The existing SINPO-class submarine is more accurately identified as an experimental ballistic missile submarine (SSBA).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.