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Opinion: North Korea’s Sea-Based Deterrent

A Soviet Golf II class ballistic missile submarine underway in 1985. North Korea is reportedly building its own sea-based nuclear deterrent based on the Golf II design. DoD Photo

A Soviet Golf II class ballistic missile submarine underway in 1985. North Korea is reportedly building its own sea-based nuclear deterrent based on the Golf II design. DoD Photo

Recent reports that North Korea is developing submarines based on obsolete Golf-II class Soviet-era submarines has gained worldwide attention. However obsolete, it is reported that North Korea had invested its time in “examining and replicating” the missile-launch system of the Soviet-era subs.

Hence, these submarines would be able to fire ballistic missiles. In fact, reports confirm that Pyongyang already is developing a vertical-launch system for submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). Raising further concerns about that is the fact that North Korean ballistic missiles could be armed with nuclear warheads.

Reports also have confirmed that Pyongyang does have the capability to miniaturize nuclear warheads, which could further enable them to fit nuclear-capable submarine launched ballistic missiles on those submarines. Hence, nuclear-capable ballistic missiles mounted on submarines on patrol could further jeopardize stability in the North East Asian region. Though the submarines at present may not be able to launch missiles that could hit targets in the United States, the missiles could possibly target forward-based U.S. forces in the Asia Pacific Region.

Just at the moment when China, the United States, South Korea and Japan are raising concerns over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program and vouching for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, this news comes surely as way to tell the world that Pyongyang is in no mood to give up its nuclear program, and that it is seeking a survivable nuclear force in order to enhance its nuclear deterrent capability. In 2013, Pyongyang, in a state run newspaper Rodong Sinmun also made it clear that denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is not a possibility unless the world is denuclearized.

Of course the most pertinent question now is whether the submarines can be made successfully operational. That definitely would remain a difficult jigsaw puzzle to solve. It is a known fact that any state that aspires to possess nuclear weapons also aspires to develop a sea-based nuclear deterrent capability in order to enhance counterstrike or second-strike ability. Thus Pyongyang’s desire to acquire a sea-based nuclear deterrent is not surprising.

However, the submarines are neither ship submersible ballistic nuclear (SSBN) submarine nor is it powered by air independent propulsion system (AIP); they are conventional diesel-powered boats. Because the submarines have been reverse-engineered from the obsolete Golf-class submarine, there is a chance that the submarine could be defeated by modern anti-submarine techniques, therefore reducing North Korea’s ability to retaliate.

Pyongyang has been developing both liquid- and solid-fuel propelled land-based ballistic missiles. Hence, the SLBM could either be solid-fuel propelled or liquid-fuel propelled. However, what should be of concern is whether North Korea can successfully fit nuclear-capable ballistic missiles on their submarines.

Kim Jong Un in the conning tower of what appears to be a Project 633 diesel submarine. KCNA Photo

Kim Jong Un in the conning tower of what appears to be a Project 633 diesel submarine. KCNA Photo

There are some issues worth pondering. First, there would be immense pressure on its own command and control system which definitely is not experienced enough to handle sea-based nuclear deterrence. Secondly, North Korea could tend to initiate a first-strike on its adversaries if there were an assurance that at least one counter-value target of the adversary could be put to threat; the zeal to launch a first-strike can be further strengthened if there were a capability to retaliate also.

Hence, a sea-based nuclear deterrent capable of reaching targets in the United States or capable of hitting U.S. forward bases also would enhance the deterrent capability of North Korea’s land-based ballistic missiles. That is because while the land based ballistic missiles can be used for a first strike, Pyongyang could preserve its sea based nuclear deterrent capability for a second strike. Even if Pyongyang does not adopt a first-use policy, sea-based nuclear deterrent capability would enhance its counter-strike capability and deter adversaries from launching any kind of attack whether conventional or nuclear.

Despite U.N. Security Council resolutions, Pyongyang has continued to develop ballistic missiles and also conducted nuclear tests. Not only that, Pyongyang has time and again threatened both Seoul and Washington with nuclear attack. Hence, there is minimal doubt that Pyongyang is sure to acquire long-range submarine launched missile capability to target the United States. That is more true given that it has already mastered the technology of developing land-based missile systems of 10,000 kilometers.

Still, when all is said and done, there is little doubt that it would take Pyongyang some years to develop a credible sea-based nuclear deterrence.

  • Curtis Conway

    The South Koreans should build two Aegis ashore facilities a quickly as they can be fabricated and installed. The Ballistic Missile Threat that currently exist is the primary threat that justifies the move. The new submarine missile capability exacerbates the necessity for this organic system on the South Korean peninsula. South Korea has the manufacturing capability to build their own SM-2/SM-3 missiles and should already be doing so under licence.

    • iamhe

      The military industrial war machine manufacturers along with their obscene profits love your way of thinking.

      Why not rely on the civilizing peace and security that only MND can bring forth?

      • Ctrot

        Kumbaya my Lord, kumbaya

        Kumbaya my Lord, kumbaya

        Kumbaya my Lord, kumbaya

        Oh Lord, kumbaya

        • The_Usual_Suspect61

          You forgot to tell them to join hands before singing.

      • Curtis Conway

        You live on the River in Egypt. If the North Koreans, Chinese, and Russians won’t go there, we can’t either.

        • otter357

          i got that

      • JoeOvercoat

        A: Because wishful thinking won’t work.

        • iamhe

          But, it has been working, and so far has never failed..

          NK got nukes, and have not nuked anyone. And now the US can not, dares not attack for fear and danger of setting off a Nuke in the Biosphere.

          a few nukes can deter the entire US Military.

          • JoeOvercoat

            The USA clearly has first strike capability over the North Koreans. So, we are not in a MAD arrangement with North Korea. Neither a conventional nor nuclear war in the region is in America’s interest, and that’s what has been working. ‘MAD’ only works when both powerhouses are sane: North Korea does not qualify.

  • iamhe

    deterrence: inaction caused by the perception of danger

    Mutual Nuclear Deterrence -MND-: deterrence enjoyed by two nuclear armed governments.

    a few nukes can deter many nukes.

    a few nukes can deter a conventional military

    a few nukes can deter the entire US military

    Mutual Nuclear Deterrence is Civil Deterrence, Civilized Deterrence, Civilizing Deterrence

    Nukes make venues unsafe for war.

    MND cost less than standing military forces…

    MND works better than any treaty, politician, or sanctions….

    • The_Usual_Suspect61

      Your argument rests on the perception that those who control the DPRK are rational in the Western sense of the word. I would say that that is too big of a risk to accept. I think that our position should be AD – Assured Destruction, if the DPRK ever uses or threatens to use their weapons. And let them know that AD is not a threat, it is a promise.

      • iamhe

        NK has a few Nukes… and has clearly deterred the entire US military.

        Do I trust NK and Iran with Nukes…. yes I do, if they use them as first strike aggressive weapons of mass destruction it will be the end of them, they may as well Nuke themselves…. and they are not going to do that…. if I were you I would worry more about Netanyahu… he demonstrates clear sociopathy….

        • SteveInFL

          What size Che t-shirt do you wear?

    • Curtis Conway

      “Perception of Danger”? Who in this equation is CONSTANTLY RATTLING THE SWORD?!?!?!?!?!? To talk about North Korean forces within the context of Deterrence is more than laughable. This person has obviously never been to the Korean DMZ. It’s not like the US Southern Border, and people are not trying to ‘flee to the North’.

      • iamhe

        Deterrence: inaction caused by the perception of danger.

        Might be a bit more than you can understand…

        • Curtis Conway

          George Washington had a different PERCEPTION and that PERCEPTION Modus Operandi kept us safe for over 200 years. How’s your track record?!

          • iamhe

            if only you knew what you were talking about.

          • SteveInFL

            you sure don’t

          • iamhe

            NK has achieved Mutual Nuclear Deterrence with the US period.

            cold hard fact

            no opinion, just fact!

            Deterrence: in action caused by the perception of danger.

            NK is not a safe place for the US to make war.

          • SteveInFL

            War is not a safe place for the NK to be. It will be the end of the despot Kim dynasty and they know it

          • RElgin

            The deliberate unpredictibility of the DPRK is a greater worry than any weapon that they currently have since it means they are a bit more like the cruel and stealthy Spartans of old than being merely deranged, as quite a few people think. This audaciousness is what worries other countries – not their nuclear weapons. They have no “mutual” anything and are years away from such, baring an excess of audacity that actually kills all of them before such time.

          • iamhe

            you “know” only the propaganda about NK

          • RElgin

            Unless you work or have been in the DPRK, I seriously doubt you know more about that country than I do.

          • iamhe

            sociopaths see conscience -social conscience- as the enemy. People who have a social conscience see those without a social conscience -sociopaths- as the enemy.

            It is clear to the educated that not having a social conscience and a corresponding sense of social responsibility is psychosocial pathology.. a sickness.. a social disease…. that can spread…

            sociopaths hate anyone with a social conscience….. a social conscience says NO to them and holds them in contempt for being sick and spreading their sickness.

            1-4 % of the population are sociopaths in one degree or another.

    • Chesapeakeguy

      I think we have a genuine admirer of North Korea’s ‘Lil Kim. Might ‘iamhe’ really be Dennis Rodnam? Who knew he took part on “Proceedings” forums?

      • iamhe

        I only post as iamhe and very rarely as whyfret. you are projecting what your true character is capable of,,,

      • RElgin

        I don’t know.
        If we can get him to sing, then, maybe we can tell.

  • NofDen

    I know what kim jung un is thinking while he stands in the conning tower of the sub.
    Gee look at all this water, maybe I will see a fish, what’s that bright light in the sky?

    • Curtis Conway

      Looks to me like he’s wondering if its going to sink!

  • The_Universal_Curmudgeon

    A weapon that works is NOT “obsolete”.

    Diesel/Electric submarines have consistently defeated NATO navies unless the ROE for the war games were structures such that it was almost impossible for them to do so – and even then they sometimes succeeded.

    “Pingers” HATE Diesel/Electrics.