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North Korea launches its first ‘tactical nuclear attack submarine’

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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, second from left, attends a ceremony to launch a newly built ″tactical nuclear attack submarine” on Wednesday in a photo released by its official Korean Central News Agency on Friday. [YONHAP]
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, second from left, attends a ceremony to launch a newly built ″tactical nuclear attack submarine” on Wednesday in a photo released by its official Korean Central News Agency on Friday. [YONHAP]

North Korea launched its first “tactical nuclear attack submarine” capable of carrying out an underwater nuclear attack, its state-run media said Friday.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un attended the launching ceremony for the newly built submarine ahead of the country’s 75th founding anniversary on Saturday, said its official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

However, South Korea’s military immediately raised doubts on the capabilities of North’s purported new tactical nuclear attack submarine.
The ceremony “heralded the beginning of a new chapter for bolstering up the naval force” and “made clearer the steadfast will” of the North Korean government to “further strengthen the state nuclear deterrence both in quality and quantity and by leaps and bounds for regional and global peace and security,” according to the KCNA in an English-language report.

Submarine No. 841, named Hero Kim Kun Ok after a historic North Korean naval commanding officer, is “the first of its kind” and transferred to a submarine squadron under the East Sea Fleet of the North Korean Navy.

The submarine will perform its combat mission as “one of core underwater offensive means of the naval force” of North Korea, Kim said.

He called to prioritize expanding the naval vessel-building industry and stressed the “strategic and tactical plan to continuously enhance the modernity of underwater and surface forces and push forward with the nuclear weaponization of the Navy in the future.”

Kim entered the new “Korean-style” nuclear submarine to “acquaint himself with its weapon system and underwater operation capability,” the KCNA said.

Photos released by the KCNA appear to show that the ship is equipped with launch tubes for submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM). There appears to be six small launch tubes and four large launch tubes.

Military observers believe North Korea’s newly built tactical nuclear attack submarine to be an upgraded version of its Romeo class submarine, which is not capable of carrying an SLBM launcher.

The new submarine could be capable of launching the “Haeil,” its first nuclear-capable underwater attack drone revealed in April, and SLBMs capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

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Kim said that nuclear attack submarines have “for decades symbolized aggression,” apparently in reference to the United States, saying that now North Korea has the capabilities to “strike fear” in the hearts of its enemies.

The KCNA said the ceremony had historic significance in “building the state nuclear force” in the era of Kim Jong-un and as an “occasion that solemnly declared the start of the advance toward the attainment of the grandiose goal for turning the country into an advanced maritime power.”

South Korean military officials in turn expressed skepticism that the North’s new tactical nuclear attack submarine was “capable of normal operation,” also raising the possibility of “exaggeration or deception.”

A Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) official told reporters Friday that the South Korean military assesses that North Korea held the submarine launch ceremony under the supervision of leader Kim at the Sinpo shipyard in South Hamgyong Province on Wednesday. Sinpo is where the North’s main submarine shipyard is located.

“As a result of analyzing the external appearance of North Korean submarines to date, it appears that the exterior and size of some parts, such as the bridge, have been expanded in order to load missiles,” the official said, adding that the military is however doubtful that it could be “operated normally.”

The JCS said it is closely cooperating with U.S. intelligence authorities to “track North Korea’s submarine launch activities using joint surveillance assets” and maintain a solid readiness posture.

North Korea unveils a newly built ″tactical nuclear attack submarine” at a launching ceremony on Wednesday in a photo released by its official Korean Central News Agency on Friday. [YONHAP]
North Korea unveils a newly built ″tactical nuclear attack submarine” at a launching ceremony on Wednesday in a photo released by its official Korean Central News Agency on Friday. [YONHAP]

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]