North Korea’s Kim inspects new submarine, signals possible ballistic missile development

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SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspected a large newly built submarine, state news agency KCNA reported on Tuesday, potentially signaling continued development of a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) program.

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits a submarine factory in an undisclosed location, North Korea, in this undated picture released by North Korea’s Central News Agency (KCNA) on July 23, 2019. KCNA via REUTERS

Kim inspected the operational and tactical data and combat weapon systems of the new submarine which was built under “his special attention” and will be operational in the waters off the east coast, KCNA said.

KCNA said the submarine’s operational deployment was near.

“The operational capacity of a submarine is an important component in national defense of our country bounded on its east and west by sea,” Kim said.

KCNA did not describe the kind of weapons systems the submarine contained or where and when the inspection took place.

North Korea has a large submarine fleet but only one known experimental submarine capable of carrying a ballistic missile.

Analysts said that based on the apparent size of the new submarine it appears designed to eventually carry missiles.

“We can clearly see that it is a massive submarine – much larger than the existing one that’s been well known since 2014,” said Ankit Panda, senior fellow at the U.S.-based Federation of American Scientists.

“What I find significant about the political messaging here is that this is the first time since a February 2018 military parade that he has inspected a military system clearly designed to carry and deliver nuclear weapons.”

“I take that as an ominous signal that we should be taking Kim Jong Un’s end-of-year deadline for the implementation of a change in U.S. policy with the utmost seriousness.”

North Korea has made rapid progress in the SLBM program and in 2016, after a few years of development, successfully test-fired a ballistic missile from a submarine, while pursuing an intercontinental ballistic missile program (ICBM).

Kim has declared a moratorium on testing ICBMs and nuclear weapons while engaging in denuclearization talks with the United States and South Korea.

The North’s submarine report comes amid another delay in dialogue between the United States and North Korea after Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump agreed at a meeting at the Panmunjom Korean border on June 30 to working-level nuclear talks.

Trump said such talks could come in the following two to three weeks. His national security advisor, John Bolton, arrives in South Korea on Tuesday to meet security officials.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits a submarine factory in an undisclosed location, North Korea, in this undated picture released by North Korea’s Central News Agency (KCNA) on July 23, 2019. KCNA via REUTERS

During the submarine inspection Kim was accompanied by officials who have played a major role in missile development, and probably nuclear weapons.

U.S.-based monitoring group 38 North said in June 2018 that North Korea appeared to be continuing submarine construction at its Sinpo Shipyard, of possibly another Sinpo-class ballistic missile submarine, based on commercial satellite imagery.

“This, to my eye, is the submarine that the U.S. intelligence community has been calling the Sinpo-C, a successor to North Korea’s only known ballistic missile submarine,” Panda said.

Reporting by Joyce Lee and Josh Smith; Editing by Jack Kim, Paul Tait and Michael Perry