A still from the 1990 movie Hunt for Red October.
A still from the 1990 movie Hunt for Red October.

North Korea’s efforts to develop a fleet of ballistic-missile submarines could signal a return to the Cold War anti-submarine warfare that featured in Tom Clancy’s 1984 spy thriller, The Hunt for Red October.

If the US, South Korea and Japan don’t opt for war with North Korea in the current nuclear crisis and settle for some type of detente with Pyongyang, some say this leaves the latter free to develop more advanced ballistic missile subs. 

This would create a challenge at sea that resembled the competition between US and Soviet submarines during the Cold War. Improved North Korean submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM) subs, in theory, could move close to the US coast and fire a barrage of nuke-tipped missiles at US cities and facilities.

The North’s ability to construct viable missile subs is at an early stage. But it can’t be ruled out that Pyongyang will eventually construct blue-water underwater vessels that can hide in the vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean – much like their Soviet predecessors did. This would put more pressure on an understrength US Navy that tracks Russian and Chinese submarines.

Could North Korea develop nuclear-powered subs? 

Nuclear-powered North Korean subs are another possibility. Pyongyang has shattered earlier pronouncements by Western analysts that it couldn’t develop working ICBMs. Its submarine fleet, which is already testing sub-launched missiles, is also getting better.

But military analyst Richard Bitzinger says nuclear-powered North Korean subs won’t happen soon.

“It would take decades. Building safe, small nuclear reactors in a sub is really difficult,” Bitzinger, a senior fellow and coordinator of the Military Transformations Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, told Asia Times.

He notes Pyongyang could just fit ballistic missiles on diesel-electric subs, as they seem to be doing, to meet their requirements. The advanced diesel propulsion systems used by various navies are quiet and sufficient for long-range submarine missions, according to the defense expert.

“Diesel subs can go a long ways. Especially the ones with the new lithium batteries,” Bitzinger said.

In seeking to destroy North Korean subs as they sprint from their bases to the deep ocean, South Korean subs and anti-submarine units will be following in the footsteps of their Cold War predecessors in the US and Japanese navies.

In Japan’s case, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force was charged by the Pentagon in the 1980s with intercepting and destroying Soviet nuclear subs in a war if they moved from their bases in Russia’s Far East and tried to run the narrow Soya Strait between Hokkaido and Sakhalin Island to reach the Pacific.

North’s SLBM program advances

Pyongyang’s last test of an SLBM, in August 2016, appears to have been a success, though some Western and South Korean analysts have questioned the results. Performance details for the missile, known as the Pukkŭksŏng-1 or Bukgeukseong-1, are unknown. But it’s believed to have a range of at least 500 km.

38 North, a Johns Hopkins University website that analyzes North Korean affairs, recently reported that North Korea’s SLBM program is making progress.

Commercial satellite imagery from the second half of November shows that a second submersible ballistic missile test stand barge (a platform that allows for underwater missile launches outside submarines) at the North’s Nampo Navy Shipyard is being readied for service.

38 North analyst Joseph S. Bermudez said in a December 1 assessment  that this is “a strong indicator that Pyongyang is advancing its SLBM program.”

Doug Tsuruoka is Editor-at-Large of Asia Times

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