By Seth Berman
North Korea (DPRK) announced in late April 2016 that it successfully launched a submersible missile – designated as KN-11 and based on Soviet and Russian technologies - from a submerged submarine or underwater barge (1). According to South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, the test missile traveled about 30km (19 miles) whereas the typical SLBM (Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile) has a range of about 300km (186 miles) (2). If true, this is a major shift in the balance of power that places South Korea, Japan, and the United States’ garrisons in the region at risk if this weapons program is able to mature. Should the DPRK be able to master missile launches from submarines, they will have a powerful weapon system that will be able to stealthily position conventional and potentially nuclear missiles around the region. As North Korea has proven itself to be an unreliable state, the ability to project its powers through submerged missiles is a great risk to the region’s security.
The most concerning aspect involved with a SLBM DPRK submarine force is the ability for North Korea to support a hidden “second-strike” platform – the ability to launch retaliatory (and potentially nuclear) strikes after a crippling attack that neutralizes its known land-based munitions. With the added difficulties in locating and neutralizing submersible threats, this weapon platform compliments the North Korean posture extremely well; it ensures there will be an amount of uncertainty about its strategic stockpiles even if there is a coordinated effort to attack its land-based missile sites. In past times of tension, the North has used it submarine fleet as leverage in negotiations with the South, such in August 2015 where an estimate 70% of the North’s submarines were scrambled out to sea. Kim Min Seok, the defense ministry spokesman for South Korea, illustrated the potential these submarines have when they are only armed with conventional weapons, said “We’ve said before the disappearance [of North Korean submarines] is a source of concern, and the fact is they are not easy to detect when they are submerged under water, no one knows whether the North will attack our warships or commercial vessels" (3). Should North Korea’s submarines be given the capacity to attack land-based targets as well, either on a tactical or strategic level, their ability to put pressure on Seoul in times of crisis is greatly increased.
North Korean’s Navy, the Korean People’s Navy (KPN) does face limitations on its effectiveness. As a brown-water navy, the KPN has limited capacity to venture out far beyond the Korean coastline. It does not have the logistical network available to field an extended submarine deployment. As the submarines in its inventory are of the deiseal-electric varieties they are also limited by their power supply; an extended trip away from their bases makes them extremely vulnerable to anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and hostile aviation when they are forced to surface. It may be possible for a submarine on a one-way mission to reach Japan to launch an attack – which, given the loyalty and patriotism that could be expected of the commanders and sailors onboard a submarine, would not be out of the question.
North Korea has two coastlines: to the east is the Sea of Japan and to the west is the Yellow Sea. However, the only connection between the two coasts is by traversing around South Korea – an option that would not be available wartime. Therefore there are essentially two separate navies as neither coast will be able to provide the other with support. Currently, the KPN’s limited capabilities make it subservient to the needs of the Army in times of conflict. A functional SLBM program would increase the threat posed by the navy as it would provide a weapon that can be used by either coast’s navy to threaten all of South Korea despite whatever coast the submarine is based.
The classic nuclear triad consists of three avenues of delivery: strategic bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and submarine launcher missiles. If the DPRK are able to master the technology to deploy ICBM and submarine based weapons the nation will have reached the two aspects of the triad that is realistically able to support. As the North perceives South Korea and Japan - with the large American garrisons those countries host - to be its biggest threat in the region, this missile duality strategy for its warheads would prove more than adequate for its needs as the regime could not hope to realistically compete against the anti-air defenses and air forces present in those areas.
A DRPK SLBM program is not something that is a threat for the short-term as it is clear that the program is still being developed. The international community should be concerned with how this technology will influence interactions and future negotiations with the Pyongyang. A concentrated and unified effort should be enacted to force the halt of all North Korean missiles programs. This comes with the caveat that all attempts to influence North Korea face – with an already limited ability to exert pressure on the nation due to its isolation, there is little that can be done that is not already being done as a result of its nuclear program. The one glimmer of hope may be that this program would rank second to the land based program; if pressed for resources or talent, the regime would likely cannibalize the SLBM program to support a traditional missile program. A land-based program offers better solutions for countering the threat presented and is easier to monitor. While land-based strategic missiles are the primary threat, the threat a maritime missile cannot be ignored – there simply is no peaceful justification for the development of such technology.
Seth Berman is a graduate of Marist College where he received his degree in Liberal Studies. He is also a Certified Associate of Project Management (CAPM), and currently works to support the Federal Government. Please feel free to contact him on LinkedIn.
1. Kim, Jack and Park, Ju-Min. North Korea says submarine ballistic missile test 'great success'. [Online] April 24, 2016. [Cited: April 24, 2016.] http://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-missile-idUSKCN0XK08U.
2. BBC News. North Korea 'fires submarine-launched ballistic missile'. [Online] BBC News, April 23, 2016. [Cited: April 24, 2016.] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-36119159.
3. Fox News. Off the grid: North Korean sub fleet's mystery mission. [Online] Fox news, August 2015, 2015. [Cited: April 24, 2016.] http://www.foxnews.com/world/2015/08/26/off-radar-north-korean-sub-fleet-mystery-mission.html.
 A brown-water navy is considered to only able to effectively project its influence approximately 50km (31 miles) from shore and is mostly comprised of small boats and attack craft.