According to reports from the Korean peninsula, construction is already underway on a new diesel-electric ballistic missile submarine Kim Jong Un hopes will ferry his newly developed nuclear missiles closer to their intended targets, marking yet another significant increase the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Once complete, the new sub will be significantly smaller than U.S. Ohio class ballistic missile submarines, with an estimated displacement of around 2,000 tons and a beam (or width) of around 36 feet.  For comparison, the USS Michigan, a Ohio-class sub commissioned as far back as 1982, has a displacement of nearly 17,000 tons.  Of course, the size difference isn’t the only thing separating American ballistic missile submarines from North Korea’s new endeavor – Kim’s new sub will undoubtedly be generations behind in terms of technology, making it far easier to locate and track than American or near-peer competitors.

That doesn’t mean the new submarine being built in North Korea’s shipyard doesn’t pose a threat, however.  The ocean is an awfully big place, and a few subs equipped with nuclear tipped missiles could wreak havoc on American allies and military installations throughout the Pacific.  Despite North Korea’s efforts to establish their long-range ballistic missile platforms, firing from a submerged vessel that’s closer to a potential target not only increases chances for success, but dramatically decreases the window for intercepting an offensive launch.

This new platform is likely intended to be the successor to North Korea’s single (similarly sized) Gorae-class submarine, which has never entered operational use, but is technically capable of launching KN11/Pukguksong-1 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM).  It has been rumored that their Gorae sub (which translates to “Whale”) received a light refit earlier this year, including a new launch tube that may be intended to accommodate larger missile platforms.  North Korea has hinted at the development of a new SLBM in recent months, and experts believe it may be a solid fueled platform Kim’s regime has dubbed the Pukguksong-3, though there’s been no confirmation that the North Korean propaganda photos indicating its development are actually reflective of reality, rather than bravado.

North Korea’s Gorae submarine, with Kim Jong Un on board. (Courtesy of KCNA)

The new submarine platform appears to be capable of carrying one or potentially two SLBMs, which may not sound very serious, until you consider the potential nuclear armament that can be expected within.  Although little more is known about North Korea’s new design, it does represent an important step in Kim’s nuclear aspirations.  Most nuclear-capable nations employ multiple delivery platforms (akin to America’s nuclear triad) to ensure a single strike could not wipe out the nation’s ability to respond in kind.  If all of America’s ICBM silos were destroyed, it could still employ air and sea based launch platforms.  Similarly, once fielded, this new submarine would mean North Korea could maintain a least one launch platform, even if all land-based units were compromised.

In order for this new submarine platform to be an effective offensive weapon or strategic deterrent, it will need to prove more capable and reliable than its predecessor, and a shift in the strategy employed by North Korea’s Navy would be integral.  North Korea’s single missile submarine is a well-known quantity and the port in Sinpo that it resides is one of few within the nation that can support it.  Kim will need multiple submarines deployed throughout the region, and the means by which to resupply and refit them without making them as vulnerable as the Gorae is as we speak, docked and easy to locate.

If Kim decides to devote his limited resources to making that a reality, however, he’ll be facing some steep competition.  A bevy of anti-submarine specialized equipment is already in play in the region, including South Korean Navy P-3C Orion anti-submarine warfare aircraft, Japanese Soryu-class diesel electric attack submarines, and U.S. Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers – all of which are well versed in tracking down and sinking much more advanced subs than North Korea hopes to deploy.

Nonetheless, when nuclear weapons are in play, one can never underestimate an opponent, and North Korea’s decision to field a new ballistic missile submarine is a dangerous new development as the threat of war between North Korea and the United States looms on the horizon.