(WASHINGTON) — New satellite imagery seems to confirm North Korea’s recent claim that it has built a new submarine capable of launching ballistic missiles that could carry nuclear warheads. According to analysis by a Washington think tank the photos also indicate that North Korea may be preparing for a new test of a submarine launched ballistic missile.
On July 23 North Korean state media released photos of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspecting a “newly built submarine” and said that the new submarine’s “operational deployment is near at hand.”
New commercial satellite images of the Shinpo South Shipyard on Aug. 26 seem to provide confirmation of that claim as well as the readying of a new missile test.
Analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Beyond Parallel says the new submarine is likely a successor to North Korea’s existing experimental SINPO-class ballistic missile submarine.
That experimental submarine has a tube fixed to the top of its hull capable of carrying a ballistic missile. But that is a rudimentary capability when compared to a new submarine that would carry and launch the missiles from inside its hull.
Since 2015, with varying degrees of success, North Korea has carried out launch tests of ballistic missiles “ejected” from a submersible barge that then ignite above water. A significant development in 2017 was the successful firing of solid-fueled missiles that could be used in submarines. Solid-fueled missiles are more stable than liquid-fueled missiles making them easier to transport, particularly on submarines.
The new satellite images show support vessels and a crane, suggesting possible preparations for another test of a submarine launch test from a barge towed out to sea.
The new satellite imagery echoes similar analysis released in June by 38 North, another think tank that specializes in analysis of North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs.
The possibility of an additional submarine launched test later this year could be a complicating factor to the possibility of further U.S. and North Korean denuclearization talks.
President Donald Trump has downplayed the nine short-range ballistic missile tests that North Korea has carried out since May because they are not included in his agreement with Kim to not test long-range ballistic missiles or nuclear weapons.
“Obviously we are concerned about the short-range missile tests,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters on Wednesday at a Pentagon briefing.
But he added that, “on the other hand we’re not going to overreact.”
Esper said the administration did not want to “close the door to diplomacy.”
But some analysts believe the Trump administration is giving North Korea too much latitude to continue developing new weapons systems that indicate it may not be interested in a long-term deal to end its nuclear weapons program.
“These kinds of activities seem to suggest that the North Koreans are not really interested in blowing back their nuclear program,” said Tom Karako, who works at CSIS, but did not participate in the Beyond Parallel analysis of the new satellite photos.
“Unfortunately, we’re seeing too much patience from the Trump administration and North Korea is taking advantage of that,” said Karako.
Alluding to the maximum pressure campaign of sanctions targeting North Korea, Karako characterized the administration as exercising a strategy of “maximum patience.”
“We’re just being a little too tolerant, so long as they don’t launch ICBM’s,” said Karako.
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