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North Korea’s Navy Is Starting to Look Like a True Threat

The North Korean navy has grown even more dangerous over the last few years, creating more problems for the U.S. in the Indo-Pacific region.

North Korea's Mini Submarines. Image: Creative Commons.
Image: Creative Commons.

China’s never-ending acts of saber-rattling in the Pacific Rim – including its most recent shenanigans in the South China Sea – have the United States and her allies and partners in the region justifiably concerned. This in turn underscores the importance of America bolstering her ties with those partners, from Japan to South Korea to Australia –  embodied most prominently in the AUKUS pact – to even former adversaries like Vietnam

But it should not be forgotten that there is another tyrannical, totalitarian Communist nation-state in the region (and critical ally to China) that’s looking to expand its own naval power and prestige in the region. That nation-state, of course, is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), better known as simply North Korea.

The Basics 

The latest news comes from reporter Andrew Salmon of The Washington Times, in a 31 August 2023 article titled “North Korea’s Kim Jong-un signals a new focus on beefing up navy.” To wit: 

“North Korean leader Kim Jong-un staged war games this week that culminated in tactical nuclear strikes and the conquest of South Korea, the country’s state-controlled media reported, while also calling for an unexpected upgrade of the country’s naval capabilities…But analysts question whether poverty-struck North Korea, already saddled with heavy investments in its nuclear and missile forces, can afford the stronger navy its leader covets…Even so, Pyongyang has good reasons to improve maritime capabilities, which could make its nuclear deterrent more secure and possibly open up opportunities to drill with Russian warships.” 

Mr. Salmon concludes his article by discussing the frightening prospect of North Korea deploying its nuclear weapons arsenal at sea, which “makes it harder for adversaries to take out Pyongyang’s nuclear programs, while potentially extending their range in a crisis.” 

This in turn merits an examination of what the current Korean People’s Navy [KPN] – which boasts roughly approximately 870 vessels and 60,000 personnel – brings to the table. 

Current North Korean Naval Capabilities Part I: The Submarine Fleet  

This arguably represents North Korea’s greatest threat to the navies of the U.S, South Korea, and Japan.

As I stated in the concluding paragraph of my 19FortyFive article titled “North Korea’s Submarine Fleet: Could It ‘Sink’ The Navy In A War?”: “The KPN submarine fleet may not have the numbers or technological capabilities that PRC’s PLA Navy does. But the Hermit Kingdom’s subs are still quite lethal, and any USINDOPACOM naval war planner who chooses to take them lightly does so at his/her own peril.”  

The largest and newest submarine in Comrade Kim’s submersible arsenal is the Sinpo-C/Gorae (신포급 잠수함/고래급; “Whale) class diesel-electric submarine, which boasts a top speed of 10 knots, a hull length of 219 feet, a beam width of 22 feet, and a surfaced displacement of 1,455 tons. The sub lacks the Air-Independent Propulsion (AIP) system that is a significant booster to the overall survivability and endurance of diesel-electric subs.  Nonetheless, the “Whale” showed its mettle back on 22 October 2021, when it successfully launched a KN-23 short-range ballistic missile (SRBM), thus scoring prodigious political propaganda points for the KPN

Meanwhile, the most numerous boat type in the North Korean submarine fleet is the Sang-O diesel-electric coastal submarine; it is estimated that the North Koreans have a total of 40 of these warships. The original Sang-O variant is of 1991 vintage, whilst the longest, faster, and heavier Sang-O II debuted in 2005. There are also approximately 20 of the Romeo-class Type 033 diesel-electric boats – which would presumably be the sub of choice for transporting North Korean Special Forces on maritime infiltration missions – and anywhere from five to 20 of the Yugo and Yono-class diesel-electric midget submarine. One of these midgets subs is the prime suspect in the 26 March 2010 sinking of the South Korean Navy Pohang-class corvette Cheonan

Current North Korean Naval Capabilities Part II: The Surface Fleet   

That surface fleet is no slouch either, its comparative lack of technological sophistication vis-à-vis the U.S. and her Pacific allies notwithstanding. 

As I noted last week in my 19FortyFive article titled “Why The U.S. Marines Love (And Purchased) Iron Dome,” the DPRK revealed a new cruise missile-armed corvette in August 2023, the Amnok class. This vessel recently put on a demonstration for the so-called “Supreme Leader,” during those war games described by Mr. Salmon. According to the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA; the official North Korean news agency), “The ship rapidly hit target without even an error.” 

According to Dmitros Mitsopoulos of Naval News, “This type of warship is by far the most modern main surface combatant in the DPRK inventory we have ever seen…At first glance, this 2,000-ton (?) vessel features many of the attributes of a modern warship. There is a serious effort to reduce radar cross section (RCS) as much as possible and to add the most modern weapons and sensors available in North Korea. However, despite the fact that the majority of the weapons and sensors on board are severely obsolete in comparison with western or Asian designs, it is a major step forward for North Korea…This new vessel has been spotted under construction for the first time in 2011 but was identified as new naval ship in late 2016.” 

The KPN also has an estimated 43 guided missile patrol boats such as the Osa-class and Soju-class; these wield fearsome weapons systems such as the Soviet-designed P-15 Termit (Термит; “Termite;” Western reporting name SS-N-2  or “Styx”) and the Chinese-made “Silkworm” missile.        

Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security.

Written By

Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon).