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North Korea claims it has built a nuclear attack submarine to counter US Navy

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea said Friday it has christened a purported nuclear attack submarine it has been developing for years, a step which leader Kim Jong Un described as crucial in his efforts to build a nuclear-armed navy to counter the United States and its Asian allies.

The North’s official Korean Central News Agency said the vessel – named “Hero Kim Kun Ok” – is designed to launch tactical nuclear weapons from underwater but did not specify the number of missiles it could carry and fire.

South Korean officials were skeptical that the submarine would work as North Korea described, and said it likely wasn’t ready for operational duty. Still, the vessel’s development underscored how the North continues to potentially extend the range of its nuclear arsenal with systems that are harder to defect in advance.

Based on Kim Jong Un’s comments and photos by North Korean state media, it’s likely the submarine is the same one Kim inspected in 2019 while it was under construction, which experts then assessed as an effort to convert an existing Romeo-class submarine. The submarine appears to have at least 10 launch tubes – four of them apparently larger than the other six – that are possibly designed for missiles.

“This submarine, though heavily modified, is based on 1950s Soviet-origin technology and will have inherent limitations. Nevertheless, in terms of complicating the targeting challenges that the US and its allies will face, the submarine will serve North Korea’s purposes,” said Ankit Panda, an expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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North Korea previously had been testing a variety of missiles designed to be fired from submarines as it pursued the ability to conduct nuclear strikes from underwater, which in theory would bolster its deterrent by ensuring a survivable capability to retaliate after absorbing a nuclear attack on land.

In this photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korea leader Kim Jong Un, foreground, attends a launching ceremony of what is says a new nuclear attack submarine “Hero Kim Kun Ok” at an unspecified place in North Korea Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2023. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)

Ballistic missile submarines would also add a maritime threat to the North’s growing collection of solid-fuel weapons fired from land vehicles that are designed to overwhelm missile defenses in South Korea and Japan.

Still, it would take considerable time, resources and technological improvements for the heavily sanctioned nation to build a fleet of at least several submarines that could travel quietly and reliably execute attacks, analysts say.

In speeches at the vessel’s launching ceremony on Wednesday and an onboard inspection on Thursday at a military shipyard, Kim expressed satisfaction the country has acquired its own nuclear attack submarine to counter the advanced naval assets of the US, KCNA said. In July, the US docked a nuclear-capable ballistic missile submarine in South Korea for the first time since the 1980s.

Kim said the country is also pursuing a nuclear-propelled submarine and plans to remodel its existing submarines and surface vessels so they can handle nuclear weapons, describing the building of a nuclear-capable army as an “urgent task.”

In this photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korea leader Kim Jong Un delivers a speech during a launching ceremony of what is says a new nuclear attack submarine “Hero Kim Kun Ok” at an unspecified place in North Korea Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2023. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)

South Korea’s military insisted North Korea was exaggerating the submarine’s capabilities. The South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the North had to increase the size of the bridge and other parts of the original vessel to accommodate missile launch systems but that the appearance of the new submarine suggested that it could “not be operated normally.”

“There are signs of deception or exaggeration,” the Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement, without elaborating.

Kim in recent weeks has been emphasizing the need to strengthen the country’s navy, a focus that some analysts say could be driven by a desire to expand military cooperation with Russia, which has suggested the possibility of combined military exercises between the countries.

There’s also speculation that Kim is preparing to visit Russia soon for a meeting with President Vladimir Putin for discussions on North Korean arms sales to refill Russian reserves drained by its war on Ukraine.

In this photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korea leader Kim Jong Un, front left, attends a launching ceremony of what is says a new nuclear attack submarine “Hero Kim Kun Ok” at an unspecified place in North Korea Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2023. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)

In exchange for providing Russia with artillery shells and other ammunition, North Korea could seek badly needed economic aid and also advanced weapons technologies, including those related to submarine-launched ballistic missile systems, intercontinental ballistic missiles and military spy satellites, analysts say.

But it’s unclear whether Russia, which has always closely guarded its most important weapons technologies, even from key allies like China, would be willing to provide North Korea major technology transfers in exchange for what’s likely to be limited war supplies.

Nuclear-propelled submarines, which can quietly travel long distances and approach enemy shores to deliver strikes, are among a long list of advanced weapons systems Kim has been openly pursuing as he attempts to build a nuclear arsenal that could viably threaten the US mainland. But such vessels are going to be largely unfeasible for the North without external assistance in the near-term, Panda said.

“Russian assistance could be quite helpful here, but it’s unclear if Moscow would be willing to share this sensitive technology,” he said.

Kim insisted that the submarine revealed this week would be just as “daunting” to his enemies as the nuclear-propelled submarine North Korea plans to acquire in the future.

FILE – This photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks during his visit to the navy headquarter in North Korea, on Aug. 27, 2023. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP, File)

“The nuclear attack submarine, for decades a symbol of aggression against our republic, has now become a symbol of our revolutionary power to strike fear into the hearts of our despicable enemies,” KCNA quoted Kim as saying.

North Korea previously had only one known submarine capable of firing a missile, but that vessel has a single launch tube and analysts had considered it a test platform.

North Korea has an estimated about 70-90 diesel-powered submarines in one of the world’s largest submarine fleets. But they are mostly aging subs capable of launching only torpedoes and mines, not missiles.

Kim Inae, a spokesperson at South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, said during a briefing it was “deplorable” that North Korea was continuing to channel its limited resources into developing weapons while ignoring the struggles of its deeply impoverished people.

She didn’t provide a specific answer when asked whether Seoul believes Russia might have provided technological assistance to the North on its new submarine.

KCNA said the launching of the submarine was timed for the 75th anniversary of the country’s founding, which falls on Saturday and was to be marked by festivities, including a paramilitary parade.