N Korea heralds ‘new chapter’ with ‘tactical nuclear attack’ submarine

North Korea has launched its first operational “tactical nuclear attack submarine”, a key part of leader Kim Jong Un’s plan to develop a nuclear-armed navy to counter the United States and its Asian allies.

Submarine No 841 – named Hero Kim Kun Ok after a prominent North Korean historical figure – was launched on Wednesday with Kim overseeing the event, according to the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

The submarine was designed to launch tactical nuclear weapons from underwater, KCNA said, and “heralded the beginning of a new chapter” for North Korea’s navy.

It did not specify the number of missiles the vessel could carry and fire, but after analysing the state media photos some experts suggested it would have the ability to carry 10 of North Korea’s Pukgoksong-3 weapons, and fire them from underwater.

Analysts said much remained unknown.

“This is pretty new,” said Robert Kelly, a professor of international relations, at Pusan University in South Korea. “The core issue is the propulsion system; the louder it is, the easier it is to find. It’s not really clear if North Korea’s long range missiles have good guidance to land at a specific target so the submarine would probably not be able to go that far away.”

Official photos suggested the launch was a festive occasion with colourful balloons, and confetti. Kim was shown being greeted by hundreds of people gathered on the dock with women dressed in traditional Korean hanbok and waving flowers and flags. Sailors clapped in unison as he walked past on a red carpet with senior officers following behind.

The Hero Kim Kun Ok, which state media said would be deployed to the waters between the Korean peninsula and Japan, will perform its combat mission as “one of the core underwater offensive means of the naval force” of North Korea, Kim said, saying the country plans to turn its existing submarines into nuclear-armed attack submarines and accelerate its push to develop nuclear-powered submarines.

The submarine slips into the water. Kim Jong Un is standing on the dock watching.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un stressed the need for the ‘rapid development’ of North Korea’s navy [KCNA via Reuters]
“Achieving a rapid development of our naval forces … is a priority that cannot be delayed given … the enemies’ recent aggressive moves and military acts,” the North Korean leader said in a speech, apparently referring to the United States and South Korea.

Kim stressed the need to “push forward with the nuclear weaponisation of the navy”, KCNA said.