North Korea’s new sea-launched, nuclear-capable ballistic missile and the submarine that fires it are both technologically backward, unreliable, and wickedly unsafe for the unfortunate souls tasked with operating them.
In short, Pyongyang’s new undersea nuke—which the hermit regime test-launched off the country’s eastern coast on April 23—is a dud by any normal standard.
But that doesn’t matter, because normal standards of atomic safety and effectiveness don’t apply to North Korea’s totalitarian regime. Pyongyang has nuclear weapons plus at least one submarine that, however unreliably, can launch them. That rudimentary atomic capability is probably all the regime needs to deter the rest of the world... while also bending the international system’s rules for its own benefit.
Call it the nuclear crazy standard. The only standard that matters to a government that would rather spend billions of dollars on unsafe subs and nukes than even attempt to feed its own starving people.
The submarine in question, apparently built in secrecy some time before 2010, appears to be a modified version of a Yugoslavian sub design from the mid-1970s.
Approximately 220 feet long and displacing around 1,500 tons of water, the North Korean vessel is ancient and tiny compared to the latest U.S. and Russian ballistic-missile submarines, which can stretch 500 feet or more from bow to stern and displace 18,000 tons of water.
And the North Korean Pongdae-class sub—named for the boiler plant that serves as the official cover for the shipyard that reportedly built the vessel—is surely no less accident-prone than Pyongyang’s other submarines, one of which went missing and presumably sank while on patrol in early March.
“I certainly wouldn’t want to be on a North Korean submarine,” Eric Wertheim, an independent U.S. naval analyst and author of Combat Fleets of the World, told The Daily Beast. “They’re not the safest of underwater platforms.”
Likewise, Pyongyang’s undersea rocket is practically child’s play—unsafe child’s play, that is—relative to American and Russian rocketry. The U.S. Navy’s Trident sub-launched ballistic missile can travel no less than 7,000 miles while carrying several nuclear warheads. The Navy has successfully tested the Trident more than a hundred times.
The rocket that the North Korean submarine launched in April flew just 18 miles before plummeting back into the ocean, according to South Korean officials who remotely monitored the test. Four years ago, a land-based rocket Pyongyang was testing actually exploded just a few seconds after liftoff.
For all its limitations, the April sub-launched rocket test was a long time coming. “They’ve been working toward this, enhancing their nuclear capabilities and launch methods,” Wertheim said.
North Korea tested its first nuclear weapon in 2006, triggering the roughly kiloton-yield device underground and setting off seismic detectors all over the world.
Three years later, Pyongyang announced it possessed a small stockpile of working atomic bombs. At least three more tests followed, the latest in January this year. The regime claimed that test involved a hydrogen bomb—a much more powerful weapon than a “normal” fission device—but experts were skeptical of the claim, instead insisting that the North Koreans had triggered a kind of enhanced fission warhead that’s less destructive than a true hydrogen bomb.
In parallel with the warhead-developments, Pyongyang improved its means of delivering the warheads to its targets, testing an increasingly sophisticated series of land-launched ballistic missiles with greater and greater range. The latest test in March this year involved a rocket that some analysts believe could reach Japan.
In December 2015, the North Koreans launched a rocket from a submerged barge, a baby-step toward the April ocean test that, for the countries in the North Korean regime’s crosshairs, was arguably the most startling of Pyongyang’s atomic trials. That’s because a submarine is harder to detect, and thus harder to destroy, than any land-based missile. And it gives Pyongyang more options for launching a surprise attack.
And make no mistake, a surprise attack is clearly part of North Korea’s strategy. If a conventional war on the Korean peninsula seemed likely—a war the North probably could not win by non-nuclear means—Pyongyang might just pull the atomic trigger. “Their plan is to nuke the bejesus out of Seoul, Busan, various ports and U.S. forces in the region to shock the U.S. and thwart an invasion,” Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear expert who blogs at Arms Control Wonk, told The Daily Beast.
The United States, South Korea, Japan, and other world powers know that’s the plan. And for good measure, North Korea regularly reminds foreign governments of its willingness to use force up to, and including, wiping out entire cities.
Hence Pyongyang’s regular artillery attacks on South Korean outposts. Hence its apparent sinking of a South Korean patrol boat in 2010. Hence threats such as the one North Korean state media issued in mid-March, when it described lobbing a hydrogen bomb at Manhattan and burning the borough “down to ashes.”
This messaging is critical. The regime in Pyongyang wants the world to believe it’s crazy enough to fire off a nuke ... so that it doesn’t actually have to do so.
“I do not think North Korea needs to be able to execute such a plan to achieve most of the available deterrence,” Lewis explained. With just a handful of relatively low-tech warheads and a lot of apocalyptic moxie, North Korea can keep the rest of the world at bay.
To achieve the same effect relative to each other, the United States and Russia both deploy thousands of nuclear weapons and cutting-edge rockets, bombers, and submarines to carry them. That’s because, compared to the North Korean regime, U.S. and Russian leaders at least appear sane. “This has always been the issue with the North Koreans,” Wertheim said. “They’re so unpredictable.”
But there’s an, ahem, predictability to Pyongyang’s unpredictability—that’s one of the rich ironies surrounding the hermit regime. “The North Koreans present their logic very clearly and always describe their actions as proportional responses to U.S. and allied actions,” Lewis said.
And that “proportional response” will likely include increasingly sophisticated nukes. North Korea’s warhead test and rocket trials surely won’t end with April’s submarine launch. “I don’t think they’re ever going to reach a point where they’re going to say, ‘We can stop now,’” Wertheim said of the North Koreans and their nukes. “And that’s the scary thing.”