Military

Sinpo Update: Significant Concealment Activity after Pukguksong Launch

Key Findings

  • The October 2, 2019 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) test launch of the Pukguksong-3 has raised concerns over the forthcoming launch of North Korea’s first true ballistic missile submarine (SSB) as described in the Beyond Parallel Snapshot, which was published the same day.
  • There is no evidence yet of the new SSB, and imagery may not be able to detect the SSB’s launch given a large canopy constructed during late-August and early-September that conceals much of the submarine dock.
  • An October 9 image shows the submersible test stand barge believed to have been used to conduct the recent Pukguksong-3 SLBM test launch event is partially covered by the new canopy.
  • This test launch signals clearly North Korea’s intention to incorporate this leg of the triad in their nuclear and missile portfolio, even though the threat is still emerging rather than imminent.
  • The SLBM launch is a violation of standing UNSC resolutions and North Korea’s commitment to suspend ballistic missile tests in the aftermath of the Singapore summit with Donald Trump.
  • SLBMs should be part of any denuclearization agreement. Thus, it should complicate already difficult ongoing U.S.-North Korea denuclearization negotiations.
  • On one hand, it remains unclear whether the SSB has been deployed due to concealment activity at the dock.
  • On the other hand, if the SLBM launch was the announcement of the Pukguksong-3, within that context the shrouding activity could be a precursor to the unveiling of the new SSB.
Overview of the Sinpo South Shipyard as of October 9, 2019 (Copyright © 2019 Airbus)

Sinpo South Shipyard

Satellite imagery of the Sinpo South Shipyard, and the general Sinpo-Mayang-do area, since 2015 has yet to provide conclusive evidence of the construction of the new SSB here. There is, however, substantial circumstantial evidence including,

  • The development of new infrastructure suited to support the deployment of an SSB
  • Upgrades to the shipyard’s construction capabilities
  • Movement of parts in and out of the construction halls and parts yards
  • Associated activities in the Sinpo area

While satellite imagery collected on August 26, 2019 does not show a new SSB present it does provide an update to the activities at and around the shipyard.

Secure Ship Basin

Despite growing anticipation, satellite imagery of the Sinpo South Shipyard collected on October 9, 2019 does not provide any clear indication that the much anticipated “newly built submarine” has been launched. Photographs of this new submarine were first seen on July 23, 2019 when North Korean media reported on Kim Jong-un’s inspection of the boat.1

Kim Jong-un during his July 2019 inspection of the “newly built submarine” at what is believed to be the Sinpo South Shipyard (Rodong Sinmun)

This new submarine is the follow-on to the Korean People’s Navy’s (KPN’s) existing Sinpo-class experimental ballistic missile submarine (SSBA) and will be the nation’s first true ballistic missile submarine (SSB).2 The challenge with identifying when the new SSB has been launched—barring North Korea’s announcement of such an event—is that during late-August and early-September an approximately 102-meter-by-13-meter removable camouflaged net canopy had been erected along the submarine dock in the secure basin. This canopy significantly restricts observation of activity or vessels present underneath it.

In the current satellite image only a small portion of the submersible test stand barge, used in the October 2, 2019 Pukguksong-3 SLBM test launch, is visible sticking out from the north end of the canopy. The use of a removable camouflaged net canopy, while frustrating to imagery analysis, is actually not an uncommon practice at KPN naval bases. This is especially true when the service wants to both conceal important activity from overhead observation but also provide some better working conditions for workers and sailors undertaking that activity.

Close-up view of the removable camouflaged net canopy and a portion of the submersible test stand barge that can be seen under it. ((Copyright © 2019 Airbus)
The October 2, 2019 test launch of a Pukguksong-3 from a submersible test stand barge (Rodong Sinmun)

When the new SSB is launched it is likely that the existing Sinpo-class SSBA will be either moved into one of the construction halls or elsewhere at the shipyard or to a nearby submarine base for use in training—the Mayang-do submarine base is just across the bay.

Elsewhere at the Shipyard

During the past two months the support area on the north side of the shipyard shows only a level of activity that is typical of what has been observed here in the past. Similar minor activity is noted at the parts yards adjacent to the construction halls where there has been some minor movement of parts and components into and out of the parts yards.

Close-up view of the construction halls and parts yards where minor activity has been observed. ((Copyright © 2019 Airbus)

No changes of significance are noted in the current image at the test stand facility and the support structure remains positioned over the test stand. There are no indications of a recent, or preparations for a new, ejection test.

Close-up view of the test stand and support buildings in the Sinpo South Shipyard. (Copyright © 2019 Airbus)

Construction of the construction/maintenance hall and 245-meter-long L-shaped pier at the southern tip of the Yuktaeso-ri (Sinpo) Peninsula appears to have been temporarily halted. When completed, the approximately 120-meter-long main hall will likely be covered with earth to provide for a modest degree of protection of attack.3 During the past two months construction of what appears to be a new barracks area has been undertaken on the road between the main shipyard and the construction/maintenance hall. This area encompasses approximately 8,600 square meters and consists of approximately 13 structures under construction. Its location and size suggest both that it could be used to house workers at the new hall when it is complete or support personnel, and not for crewmembers of the new SSB whom are likely to be house in better accommodations nearby or later at the Mayang-do submarine base when the boat becomes operational.

Close-up view of what appears to be a new barracks area on the road between the main shipyard and the construction/maintenance hall. (Copyright © 2019 Airbus)
Close-up view of the L-shaped pier where construction seems to have halted. (Copyright © 2019 Airbus)

References

Show 3 Footnotes
  1. “Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un Inspects Newly Built Submarine,” Rodong Sinmun, July 23, 2019.
  2. The Sinpo-class SSBA is identified by some sources as the GORAE-class or SINPO-B-class SSBA in open source reports. New purported SSB is sometimes identified as the SINPO-C-class SSB in open source reports.
  3. This hall is likely large enough to house foreseeable submarines built at the Sinpo South Shipyard.