North Korea’s Ballistic Mischief Submarine

October 7, 2019 Updated: October 8, 2019


On Oct. 1, North Korea for the first time tested, successfully, its new Pukuksong-3 solid-fueled submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). The very next day, Venezuela and North Korea “signed a series of agreements pledging military and technological cooperation,” according to a report that day by South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.

Is it over-the-top threat-mongering to even consider that North Korea’s Kim Jong Un would tread where Nikita Khrushchev failed; selling strategic missiles, perhaps even nuclear missiles in submarines, to socialist dictators in Latin America?

For a beleaguered dictator such as Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro who would like nothing better than to wave a ballistic missile “cape” at the Toros-Americanos, and a desperate cash-poor despot like Kim, it could be the beginning of a marriage of military convenience.

North Korea’s prototype large conventionally powered ballistic missile submarine (SSB) is close to launching. It is apparently based on the hull of the 1950s vintage Soviet Project 633 (NATO code: Romeo), modified by China as the Type-033. North Korea released images this past July showing that the prototype has been equipped with a new larger “sail” that can carry two or three SLBMs.

In 1993, North Korea obtained 10 larger Soviet Project 629 Golf class submarines in a deal to purchase “scrap metal.” These did have a large sail, able to launch three liquid-fueled SLBMs, but access to their design has likely helped Pyongyang immensely in developing their version.

In addition, for over 30 years the Chinese Navy operated a copy of a Golf class as a SLBM test platform, meaning China could have offered comprehensive “consulting” for North Korea’s SSB.

North Korea has about 20 Type-033 submarine hulls that could support the production of a small number of SSBs. Reports in early April this year that North Korea tried to sell an air-independent propulsion (AIP) system to Taiwan indicate that it could also be used by North Korea’s SSB, giving it a potential underwater endurance of one to a few weeks.

North Korea’s Pukuksong-3 SLBM may be a modified version of the Pukuksong-2 land-based two-stage missile with a range of at least 2,000 kilometers. But on Oct. 3, Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kano said the Pukuksong-3 could fly to 2,500 kilometers.

It features a blunt warhead shape, consistent with carriage of multiple warheads or decoys. Indian sources have disclosed their assessment that China provided Pakistan with multiple warhead or decoy technology used in their Ababeel medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) in January 2017. Given their longstanding missile technology relationship, Pakistan could have sold China’s multiple warhead technology to North Korea.

With a diameter of 1.4 meters, the Pukuksong-3 is also about the same size as China’s first-generation SLBM, the JL-1. This missile was then modified into the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation’s (CASIC) solid-fuel DF-21 1,500 to 2,000 km range MRBM.

But the real kicker was North Korea’s revelation in its April 15, 2017, military parade of a new truck-based transporter erector launcher (TEL) that was almost a direct copy of CASIC’s TEL for the early DF-21. This means that North Korea may be working on a larger version of its Pukuksong-3, and that North Korea and China don’t mind the former’s flaunting of their likely deeper missile technology relationship.

North Korea’s ballistic missile submarine could offer a cheaper alternative to China’s new Type 032 SSB, potentially attractive to countries like Pakistan, Iran, and even Bangladesh. Should Nicolas Maduro decide to purchase a submarine-based missile force to deter the Americans, he would have the option of basing it in Lake Maracaibo. This is a very large inland lake with a maximum depth of about 80 meters and very difficult for the U.S. Navy to enter.

Portions of this lake could be defended with the Venezuelan Air Force’s modern anti-missile capable Russian S-300V surface-to-air missiles. From the northern parts of this lake, the Pukuksong-3 may be able to reach the U.S. Navy’s major nuclear ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) base at Kings Bay, Georgia.

China or Russia could opt to clandestinely fund such a deal, or the sale of less expensive North Korean “DF-21” MRBMs. Beijing and Moscow could benefit greatly from creating another strategic crisis for Washington.

They understand well that a Latin American military crisis involving large scale U.S. military strikes might inflame Latin opinion enough to favor future Chinese and Russia military bases in the Western Hemisphere.

Such mischief could create strategic opportunities in Asia for China and Russia. A diversion of U.S. forces into a Latin American conflict might tempt both to mount attacks against democratic Taiwan.

But there are also risks. What if Kim managed to get his submarine close to Russia’s major SSBN base at Petropavlovsk, on the Kamchatka Peninsula? From there, his Pukuksong-3 SLBM could still hit Tokyo. Might Japan and the United States blame Russia for the strike, prompting U.S. nuclear retaliation against Russia? Might China pay to make that happen?

China and Russia apparently care little about the dangers of North Korean proliferation of nuclear weapons, missiles, and soon, nuclear missile submarines. China wants the world to know that its large 16- and 18-wheel TELs carry the North Korean nuclear missiles that could incinerate American cities.

If North Korea is to be disarmed then it must be compelled to do so by the assurance of immediate nuclear retaliation by multiples of the numbers of theater missiles it could fire at the democracies. The Trump Administration has made an excellent start by removing the shackles of the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, and by working to rebuild the U.S. theater missile and nuclear missile arsenal.

Washington must also expose Russia’s, but more so, China’s role in the construction of the North Korean nuclear missile threat. It is their subterfuge that makes possible North Korea’s nuclear and missile mischief.

Rick Fisher is a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.