Kim Rattles the Sabre: North Korea Unveils a Romeo Class SSB Mod and Conducts Two KN-23 SRBM Tests.

What an extraordinary week it was, with those of us following all things nucleus kept busy by one development after the next. As usual Kim Jong-un was front and centre, however there was more to it than North Korea this week. That said, this post is devoted to matters North Korean and hopefully we’ll have opportunity to catch up on the other stuff soon enough.

Of course, the two big developments were Kim Jong-un showing off a “new” submarine, a modification of the Soviet vintage (1950s origin) Romeo class which appears designed to give the vessel an ability to cold launch from two up to three Pukguksong-1 (KN-11 US designation) nuclear armed ballistic missiles. For more see Popular Mechanics here and The Drive here. But, really, you should see H.I. Sutton’s work which made both articles possible. The first two articles have good HD photos of the sub.

North Korea is reputed to be in possession of 20 Romeo class submarines. The new Mod, according to Pyongyang, is due to set sail soon. That claim further underscores the KN-11 centric aspect to the submarine, as North Korea has yet to test any other SLBM. The second was what appears to have been two test firings of the KN-23 solid propelled short range ballistic missile, whose pseudo ballistic flight profile is not unlike the Russian Iskander SRBM.

Both developments follow North Korea’s charge that the Trump administration had deceived Kim Jong-un at the recent impromptu (was it?) Kim-Trump summit at Panmunjom. We might recall from my last posting that Pyongyang alleges that Donald Trump directly pledged Kim Jong-un he would suspend US-ROK exercises, the upcoming Alliance 19-2 exercises, but then immediately reneged on that undertaking. Alliance 19-2 is planned to proceed. It also comes after Pyongyang angrily denounced South Korea after Seoul received a dispatch of two F-35A Joint Strike Fighters from the United States, which are important assets in Seoul’s Korea Air and Missile Defence (KAMD) and Kill Chain military strategies. Pyongyang regards the integrated nature of both as exhibiting a first strike strategic posture.

Should North Korea’s Panmunjom charge be correct, and thus far Pyongyang’s public pronouncements have more accurately reflected the diplomatic record than Washington’s, it would be the third time that Washington has misrepresented Trump’s direct engagements with Kim Jong-un. The week’s developments, therefore, I would submit underscore the analysis of my previous post and the prescience of its title; three strikes you’re right?

The week’s big two developments, I would argue, demonstrate the continued fraught nature of US-North Korea relations, which display the characteristics of a process of graduated escalation not too dissimilar to what we see in the Persian Gulf. They also show the need to pursue real diplomatic engagement directed at achieving strategic stability on the Korean peninsula. The latter is better facilitated by supporters of peace refusing the impulse to pat Trump on the back after he meets with Kim. It is far more important to help ensure there’s real diplomatic follow through by piling on the political pressure. One sees very little of this, I’m afraid.

At the moment, it is not clear that working level talks between US and North Korean officials will proceed. The prospect of such meetings was the major tangible achievement of the Panmunjom mini summit. They should have started in mid July. It is important that such talks proceed.

Right on the heels of the third Kim-Trump meeting at Panmunjom I had stated that on the day of the talks (I was enjoying the company of some nice and quite sane cows) I had the impression that Trump made Kim look like a sort of half idiotic, half exotic zoo exhibition. The ferocity of Kim’s response might be an indication that he has come to feel that way too.

Romeo Class SSB Mod Submarine

It would be an understatement to say that Kim’s showing off what KCNA declared to be a new submarine got everyone’s attention. The initial images of the submarine, with Kim by the side of the hull, had made the submarine look BIG. Boomer like.

Speculation quickly focused on the possibility of it being the long rumoured Sinpo-C class submarine, the successor to the Gorae (Sinpo-B US designation, see below) class submarine.

Previous satellite image analysis of the Sinpo shipworks facility by 38North earlier in the year suggested that something big was potentially in the works, and leaks of purported US intelligence assessments had North Korea working on a new submarine, with a beam of 11 metres (i.e. the rumoured Sinpo-C), for launching ballistic missiles.

North Korea has one Gorae class submarine (see above), and H.I. Sutton of the Covert Shores blog was the first independent submarine warfare analyst to have discovered it (2014). According to Sutton’s analysis the Gorae has one missile launch tube, inserted into the sail like early Soviet designed SSBs (ballistic missile launching submarines). Hence it “should be regarded as a test platform with limited operational capability.” Analysis naturally then focused on the KN-11 SLBM as the designated missile for the Sinpo-C.

It was fitting that it was Sutton whose analysis first demonstrated (see link in the intro) that Kim’s new submarine was in fact not a bigger Gorae or something entirely new (the Sinpo-C), but rather a modified Romeo class submarine fitted for launching ballistic missiles, likely the KN-11. His evidence is compelling. Like with the Romeo the submarine displayed by Kim has a twin propeller configuration on either side of the hull toward the stern, an angular bow, and a bulbous section at the bottom of the bow for the sonar. The draught or draft of the sub, which measures the height of the waterline to the keel, using Kim’s height of 1.7m as a reference, is analysed at about 5 metres as with the Romeo. That all makes for solid evidence for a Romeo Mod. The key modification appears to be an enlarged deck, or top side, to accommodate a larger sail, both of length and width, to accommodate missile launch tubes. It is not clear whether the Romeo Mod has incorporated Air Independent Propulsion technology, although it is unlikely. The rumoured Sinpo-C class was reported to be designed to incorporate AIP, which allows a diesel powered submarine to stay underwater for longer without surfacing to recharge its batteries.

Where all this leaves the Sinpo-C isn’t clear. As stated above, the Sinpo-C was reported to have a hull with an 11 metre beam, almost twice the size of the Romeo (6.7m beam). Does the Romeo SSB Mod mean that the Sinpo-C was mischaracterised? Or is the Romeo for the KN-11 SLBM, and the Sinpo-C for the Pukguksong-3 ballistic missile? Recall that in 2017 Kim Jong-un paid a high profile visit to the Chemical Materials Institute of the Academy of Defence Sciences where a poster of a Pukguksong-3 missile was on display. The poster appeared to depict a submarine cold launch tube. The Pukguksong-3 could be a multi stage intermediate range ballistic missile, which brings us a step closer to a solid fuelled ICBM. Thus far all that is currently known publicly is that the Pukguksong-3 is a missile on a poster, although surely it is much more than a mere poster ornament. A Sinpo-C SSB with AIP technology armed with Pukguksong-3 IRBM range missiles would be able to engage in more extended deterrence patrols, typical of something akin to a boomer, than a Romeo class SSB mod armed with the KN-11. David Schmerler had published satellite images this week of a training facility at Sinpo for training crews in extended submarine operations.

What we saw this week evoked a boomer, but I don’t think (from what’s currently known and understood) it’s meant to emulate one. One of the drivers behind the KN-11 SLBM was South Korea’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, a key part of KAMD. The THAAD radar is vulnerable to an all azimuth attack from the seas surrounding South Korea, because it points directly into North Korea thus leaving gaping holes in radar coverage from attacks launched by submarine.

KCNA quoted Kim Jong-un as stating that the Romeo class Mod “will perform its duty in the operational waters of the East Sea of Korea and its operational deployment is near at hand.” The Romeo class is a vintage, hence relatively noisy, submarine. Just look at the metalwork on the hull of the Romeo Mod showed off by North Korea. The Yellow Sea, on the east coast of the Korean peninsula, is shallow (mean depth 44m), making it difficult for Anti Submarine Warfare assets to distinguish and detect a submarine, even a Romeo class, from large background noise. The United States Navy was geared to detect Soviet blue water submarines during the Cold War. The Sea of Japan, i.e. the East Sea, has an average depth of 1,667 metres. The East Sea does have significantly shallower areas than the average in the Yamato Bank (toward the centre) and the Tsushima Basin although not as shallow as the Yellow Sea.

The Romeo class Mod has, predictably, been characterised in media reports as “threatening,” “menacing,” “a game changer,” all of which raises the spectre of a nuclear first strike yet it’s clear that ballistic missile defence and the felt need to ensure a survivable strategic deterrent is driving the submarine programme. North Korean strategic planners fear a disarming or decapitating or both US-ROK first strike. Generally, especially in the western arms control theory literature, strategic submarines are seen as stabilising to the extent they provide for a survivable second strike capability. So it’s interesting that in this case the mere fact of a North Korean missile launching submarine is regarded as threatening and menacing, with the liberal arms control community particularly exercised by it, whereas those of the established nuclear weapon states are considered stabilising (even when armed with MIRVed SLBMs able to be launched on depressed trajectories). Back in the day this would’ve been called nuclear apartheid. The implication is clear; the theory that underpins liberal arms control is taken as an ideological construct rather than a matter of principle.  One doesn’t adhere to Ohm’s law when it suits one’s interests, but then disregard it when one’s interests change. Theory in the social sciences can be quite the supple art.

That said, North Korea’s strategic submarine programme is destabilising although not on first strike grounds. Rather, North Korean nuclear missiles at sea add a layer of command and control complexity. We shall wait and see how the Romeo class Mod will be deployed, but one imagines that they would be surged out to sea in a crisis rather than regularly sent out to sea on deterrence patrols fully armed and ready to launch, especially in the absence of AIP technology. How will Pyongyang ensure the integrity of the chain of command? How will Pyongyang ensure uninterrupted communication with its nuclear armed submarines at sea? Will nuclear missile submarines possess predelegation orders? These and other questions are not pretty ones to contemplate. In a crisis nuclear armed North Korean submarines could be dangerous because Kim may have less control over them than land based missiles, or even lose control over them. This poses what Thomas Schelling would have called “the threat that leaves something to chance.” This shit we just don’t need.

The Return of the KN-23

Just as Jaws showed off his big, bad, teeth Kim Jong-un gave us another rerun of the KN-23 SRBM.  Two test launches were reported, both with a 50km apogee (as per the KN-23), and a range of 430km and 680km respectively. The second range is large, certainly larger than initial assessments of the KN-23 range. These figures come from South Korea, so it’s unclear whether the 680km range cited is accurate. I shall leave that aside for another day. The images of the tests clearly show KN-23 SRBMs, and the telemetry visible (Not shown here. See the released KCNA) pictures demonstrates a pseudo ballistic flight profile.

The KCNA statement accompanying the tests lacked subtlety. Kim Jong-un is cited as saying they were;

“part of the power demonstration to send a solemn warning to the south Korean military warmongers who are running high fever in their moves to introduce the ultramodern offensive weapons into south Korea and hold military exercise in defiance of the repeated warnings from the DPRK.”

That demonstrates the KN-23 has been developed with KAMD and Kill Chain in mind, and the timing of the test is related to the perceived lack of follow through from the Trump White House on its, alleged, Panmunjom pledges. The same, I suggest, should apply to the Romeo class Mod SSB. Both developments are integrated, and the timing of the photo release and the KN-23 tests should be viewed as connected too. KCNA goes on;

“Saying that he was gratified by the direct confirmation and conviction of the rapid anti-firepower capability of the tactical guided weapon system and the specific features of the low-altitude gliding and leaping flight orbit of the tactical guided missile, which would be hard to intercept, and its combat power, he noted that the fact about the development and possession of such state-of-the-art weaponry system is of huge eventful significance in developing our armed forces and guaranteeing the security of the country by military force.”

Note the “hard to intercept” part. We also have Kim paraphrased as saying;

“that the ultra-modern weapons and equipment which the bellicose forces of the south Korean military are introducing with desperate efforts are definitely offensive weapons and their purpose is absolutely clear. He stressed it is a work of top priority and a must activity for the security of the country to steadily develop powerful physical means and conduct the tests for their deployment for neutralizing those weapons posing undeniable threats to the security of the country immediately and turning them to scrap iron at an early stage when it is considered necessary.”

KAMD and Kill Chain are seen by North Korean strategic planners as reflective of a broader US-ROK first strike strategic posture, and both the Romeo Mod SSB and KN-23 have been developed to counter them early in a developing strategic crisis on the Korean peninsula.

What This Means for Denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula

The week’s developments once again touched off a debate about whether North Korea should be recognised as a nuclear power. The reality, of course, is that North Korea is a nuclear power. There are many ways we might not recognise this, the most pertinent example for our purposes being refusing to recognise the reality of mutual deterrence. By seeking to present North Korea with a credible first strike threat, which would include missile defences, we would be refusing to recognise North Korea as a nuclear power. There’s something intrinsic about North Korea that makes it an illegitimate nuclear custodian hence we ought not recognise it as a nuclear armed state, whatever the reality of the situation. By contrast, accepting North Korea as a nuclear power means accepting that strategically destabilising weapon systems and strategic postures need to be foregone in the interests of collective security. This provides a useful way, then, to think of what North Korea might be referring to when it speaks of “the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.” This could mean both sides accepting a stable deterrence relationship, requiring both sides forgoing destabilising first strike capabilities, and shifting the pivot of international relations on the Korean peninsula away from the nuclear dimension hence “denuclearisation.”

Should that be taken up? We saw this week what the alternative entails, namely a graduated process of escalation that continues to add layers of strategic instability. My own view is that strategic stability should be the first step in a developing, multifaceted, diplomatic process on the Korean peninsula.  Further news this week, I would hold, underscored the case for this approach. According to the central bank of South Korea, North Korea’s economy shrank by 4.1% last year, the largest decline in 27 years, the second successive year of estimated GDP decline. North Korea’s economy continues to be squeezed by sanctions and we have ourselves the gradual development of destabilising strategic nuclear postures. This is a risky, and potentially combustible, mix. The more hold the nuclear dimension has on US-North Korean relations, the more Pyongyang perceives regime change, not nuclear security, to be at the centre of Washington’s policy. So, at the core the approach of the hawks, like John Bolton, is a type of denuclearisation where considerations of power, not nuclear security, drive policy.

The real lesson for this week, then, is this. The more we emphasise nuclear disarmament, the less likely we are to see it.

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