North Korea's Submarine Force: A Threat to the Navy or Paper Tiger?
North Korea’s submarine fleet, while smaller and less well funded than the other armed services, has generated an outsized number of international incidents. On September 18, 1996, a Sang-O SSC operated by the Reconnaissance Bureau ran aground near Gangneung, South Korea. The submarine, which had set a three-man party of commandos ashore two days before to reconnoiter a South Korean naval base, had failed to pick up the party the the previous night. On its second attempt, the submarine ran aground and became hopelessly stuck within sight of the shoreline.
Aboard the submarine were twenty-one crew and and the director and vice director of the Maritime Department. South Korean airborne and special-forces troops embarked on a forty-nine-day manhunt that saw all of the North Koreans except for one killed or captured. Many committed suicide or were murdered by their superior officers to prevent capture. The remaining North Korean sailor, or agent, is believed to have made his way back across the DMZ. Eight ROK troops were killed, as were four South Korean civilians.
In 1998, a Yugo-class midget submarine, predecessor to the Yono class, was snared in the nets of a South Korean fishing boat and towed back to a naval base. Inside was a macabre sight: five submarine crewmen and four Reconnaissance Bureau agents, all dead of gunshot wounds. The crew had been murdered by the agents, who promptly committed suicide. The submarine was thought to have become entangled in the fishing boat’s net on its way back home to North Korea, after picking up a party of agents who had completed a mission ashore.
In March 2010 the corvette ROKS Cheonan, operating in the Yellow Sea near the Northern Limit Line, was struck in the stern by an undetected torpedo. The 1,500-ton Cheonan, a Pohang-class general-purpose corvette, broke into two halves and sank. Forty-six South Korean sailors were killed and fifty-six were wounded. An international commision set up to investigate the incident pinned the blame on North Korea, in large part due to the remains of a North Korean CHT-02D heavyweight acoustic wake-homing torpedo found at the location of the sinking. The submarine responsible is thought to have been a Yono-class midget sub.
North Korea’s latest submarine is a step in a different direction, the so-called Sinpo or Gorae (“Whale”) class ballistic-missile submarine (SSB). The SSB appears to blend submarine know-how from previous classes with launch technology from the Soviet Cold War–era Golf-class ballistic-missile submarines; North Korea imported several Golf-class subs in the 1990s, ostensibly for scrapping purposes. Both the Golf and Gorae classes feature missile tubes in the submarine’s sail. The tubes are believed to be meant for the Pukkuksong-1 (“Polaris”) submarine-launched ballistic missiles currently under development. If successful, a small force of Gorae subs could provide a crude but effective second-strike capability, giving the regime the opportunity to retaliate even in the face of a massive preemptive attack.
North Korea’s reliance on submarines exposes a harsh reality for the country: U.S. and South Korean naval and air forces are now so overwhelmingly superior that the only viable way for Pyongyang’s navy to survive is to go underwater. While minimally capable versus the submarine fleets of other countries, North Korea does get a great deal of use out of them. Although old and obsolete, North Korea’s submarines have the advantage of numbers and, in peacetime, surprise. Pyongyang’s history of armed provocations means the world hasn’t seen the last of her submarine force.
Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national-security writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in the Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and the Daily Beast. In 2009, he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami.
This first appeared in April of last year.