The role of the Korean People’s Navy’s submarines in North Korean nuclear policy*

Naval Ensign of North Korea (Wikipedia/Public Domain)

Although land based nuclear weapons have been most commonly referenced to in the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) nuclear strategy the potential, albeit not yet fully realised, utility of the Korean Peoples’ Navy (KPN) submarine force as a means for delivery of nuclear weapons appears an increasingly promising option for DPRK political and military elites.[1] A movement towards submarine launched nuclear weapons would be greatly to the DPRK’s military and strategic advantage because of the increased accuracy, and hence lethality, as well as secrecy surrounding their capabilities and launch points. The latter issue crucial in the context of the comparative challenges of tracking submerged submarines as opposed to fixed land based missile sites or mobile launchers.

The effectiveness of the DPRK’s submarine fleet in conventional military encounters appears to remain real — it is often assumed the South Korean corvette ROKS Cheonan was sunk in 2010 by a KPN submarine [2] — and major, if short term, deployments of up to fifty KPN submarines are possible, with this number at sea in August 2015 in response to alleged Republic of Korea (ROK) provocation.[3] Such large-scale deployments, however, coming in the context of attempts to influence contemporary foreign policy and as a show of strength than an endeavour to radically alter the military balance on and around the Korean peninsula. If some KPN submarines became capable of carrying nuclear weapons this would, if not reset the military status quo, substantially alter how both US and South Korean armed forces and strategists conceive of policy to counter these advancements.

Nuclear strategy as foreign policy

Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) the nuclear policy of the Cold War pursued by the USA and the USSR was a scenario in which outcomes were to an extent predictable and which set the tone for wider geopolitical engagements between the two superpowers in which proxy wars as opposed to direct conflict were pursued to further their agendas. That thousands of nuclear weapons were available was the paradoxical restriction on their use.

The DPRK by way of contrast may have up to twenty working devices but perhaps as few as one to two.[4] However, even with this low number the DPRK has an unpredictability factor it can use to its advantage in any future scenario. Such weapons are in essence the ‘best insurance policy’ against US and ROK attacks or invasion.[5] The “unpredictability” factor would markedly increase if the DPRK is able to sufficiently advance its naval and nuclear technologies to ensure its submarines can be relied upon as launch platforms. There remains a question of the likelihood of such an outcome given the resources and technological expertise which is required to move from testing the mechanisms designed for such weapons to actually making use of them in a combat scenario. Some suggestions indicate that merchant navy ships could alternatively be constructed as launching platforms for missiles. This is not ideal for the KPN and might only be useful in an emergency scenario. Nonetheless, it also serves as a stage in the development of KPN technology and a means for spreading experience amongst its personnel of use of nuclear related technologies.

This leads us to the question of what is the perceived rôle of nuclear weapons in DPRK defence and foreign policy. The apparent belligerence of the DPRK is what challenges external observers to respond to state proclamations on nuclear capabilities and as to their basis in reality. As the insurance policy du jour nuclear weapons and their use via submarines fulfils DPRK strategic needs, ideological interests and commitments to retaining a status as a regional power in the eyes of its citizens.

This can lead to a mixture of fear and alternative if unrealistic policy proposals to altering the current state of affairs on the peninsula. There may be some calls for a more robust policy towards the DPRK by South Korean leaders but on a pragmatic basis the reality of the collapse of the DPRK through war/military intervention or socio-economic collapse would have the affect of a massive refugee crisis with the flow split between Russia, PRC and ROK. None of these states necessarily has the capability or indeed the willingness to absorb such a population (c. 24 million people).

The rôle of the PRC and Russia is especially key in this context as the de facto strongest allies of the DPRK. We do well to recall the historic precedent of the strong PRC commitment to maintaining the DPRK through military intervention. Up to 180,000 Chinese service men were killed and 350,000 wounded during the Korean War and for the PRC the war was as much their success in fighting UN forces to a stalemate as was it a North Korean campaign. That being said the extension of DPRK naval power into submarine launched nuclear weapons is likely to be considered as more challenging than merely a land based nuclear weapons programme to Chinese and Russian interests and opposed by both because of the noted “unpredictability’’ factor and the extension of capabilities of the DPRK nuclear weapons as maintained by the KPN to become a distinctive military actor beyond the boundaries of the peninsula.

Advanced technology of this type is at the cutting edge of military development and would also ensure that the DPRK is taken more seriously as a power on the regional stage. We do well to recall there are few states which are or have been capable of producing, maintaining and launching nuclear weapons.[6] Beyond the antagonistic rhetoric on both sides nuclear weapons are an ultimate guarantee for security. This could be compared with the state of Israel whose defence doctrine is based on the awareness that Israel cannot afford to lose a single war.[7] Nuclear weapons also act as the DPRK’s best means for balancing the relative technological inferiority of its conventional forces against the technological superiority of respective ROK and US conventional forces on the peninsula.

The capability, if it is proven, to launch missiles from submarines for combat scenarious would substantially enhance the KPN’s status within the hierarchy of the DPRK armed forces (by way of comparison in the USSR and Russian Federation the strategic rocket forces were and are considered an elite) and ensure a policy which keeps the USA and ROK in a position of having to develop and/or extend countermeasures in anti-submarine warfare. It would also raise the question of how the US and ROK decide to meet perceived threats from the DPRK more broadly.

It is possible a more punitive sanctions based approach could be taken in contrast with the major war footing which they maintain at present.[8] To deny the DPRK the ability to produce nuclear weapons and establishing some form of missile defence programme in the southern half of the peninsula might be more effective. If a conventional war were fought the US/ROK forces would likely emerge victors albeit after a substantial and intense struggle. In continuing to advance the nuclear paradigm and abilities the DPRK produces a bargaining tool and achieves its aims of maintaining the “defence of the realm” and continued resilience to change.

Such a change to punitive actions from the American perspective related to the diversity of challenges which the US faces in an emerging multipolar world and the lack of guaranteed capability to commit to war in Korea on such a large scale as would be required to comprehensively defeat conventional DPRK forces.

What can the DPRK realistically achieve in conventional and nuclear naval warfare?

The KPN is a navy in theory already biased towards submarine warfare by virtue of the size of its submarine force (c. 70 vessels) but severely restricted by the technological limitations, age and current knowhow to maintain a more than coastal patrol and defence force of its surface vessels. Challenges are further manifested by the geographical constraints of the Korean peninsula — — the eastern (Sea of Japan) and western (Yellow Sea) fleets into which the KPN is divided are for all intents and purposes unable to co-ordinate as they cannot sail around South Korea without likely interdiction.

The largest submarine force in the world is at present that of the United States Navy totalling seventy-five combat submarines. However, the KPN operates the largest number of “small” submarines of any state. This is to say submarines with a crew of less than fifty and with the purpose of local, tactical and special forces operations — — think something more like the Cockleshell Heroes [9] than The Hunt for Red October.[10] The KPN operates fifty submarines of 300 tons or less with twenty of 1,400 tonnes. If we compare with the latest Royal Navy Astute class submarines at 7,000 tonnes displacement or PLA Navy Submarine Force Type 091 (Han) class at 5,500 tonnes we can begin to realise the relative size and strength of other nations forces. These far larger submarines intended as submersible capital ships are not for delicate operations. Be that as it may, smaller submarines can affect short term tactical gains and even longer term strategic implications for security measures adopted by larger forces. We can note, for example, the success of a single small German submarine in sinking the Royal Navy battleship HMS Royal Oak at Scapa Flow (1939) [11] or the Italian raid against the Royal Navy at Alexandria (1941).[12] Submarine warfare since the Second World War has been limited in its extent largely due to the cost and technological expertise required to operate a submarine force.[13]

There remains, however, acknowledgement of the potential effectiveness of submarines and the rôle which they could have in determining naval battles. Furthermore, and especially in the case of the KPN it appears they are increasingly perceived as a means to effect a model of assymetric warfare which the ROK or USN may struggle to contend with and counteract. Any submarine based attack, for example, would be challenged to be maintained indefinitely but in the short term and if supported by missile boats could be initially devastating.

More broadly and if some analysts are correct the KPN’s rôle in the DPRK’s nuclear strategy will become more significant. Such a change in policy and of determination to utilise larger and more technologically advanced subs would substantially alter the ability of the USN/ROKN to inhibit KPN activity and what the DPRK could seek to achieve in its foreign policy goals.


Few states or leaders it would appear are desirous of actually using nuclear weapons outside of a few extreme scenarios. In the DPRK context we might regard the propaganda claims around this issue as meeting the needs of the political leadership to demonstrate potential capabilites to foreign powers as well as to reinforce the notion to North Koreans that the DPRK can deliver in terms of technological advancement.[14] The rhetoric and claims serve these purposes but the nuclear option is one which would, it appears, only be used in countering an existential threat to the state. It is not clear what influence the PRC and Russia could have over new directions in DPRK nuclear policy and strategy — — neither is desirous of seeing the DPRK’s collapse from a humanitarian perspective nor the prospect of the potential for such a strong American ally as the ROK extending a land border to both states. Both largely value maintaining a balance of power in North East Asia and Russia especially supports the multipolar world concept under President Putin insofar as he seeks a realist/pragmatic approach in foreign affairs and not an idealist endeavour to drive for change and un-necessary antagonism. The implications of this, however, are for the DPRK to develop according to its own socio-economic agenda. Nonetheless, this is a state of affairs with which many external powers would take issue.

*NB this article was originally published on my blog in July 2016. However, as of April 2017 the DPRK appears to have gained the ability to launch nuclear weapons via submarine. As such, this analysis may serve as a useful point of reflection on events as they develop further.

[1] Asmolov, Konstantin. ‘On a Missile Launched from North Korean Submarine’. New Eastern Outlook, 10 December 2015.

[2] Sang-Han, Choe. ‘Ship Attack Shows South Korean Quandary Over How to Respond to North’. New York Times. 25 April 2010.

[3] Kosaka, Tetsuro. ‘North Korea Plays a Dangerous Game with Latest Military Tactic’. Nikkei Asian Review, 5 October 2015.; Usually the DPRK has c. five — seven submarines deployed at any one time.

[4] Page, Jeremy. ‘Just How Many Nuclear Weapons Does North Korea Have? A Look at the Numbers’. Wall Street Journal, 23 April 2015.

[5] Scobell, Andrew, and John M Sanford. North Korea’s Military Threat: Pyongyang’s Conventional Forces, Weapons of Mass Destruction, and Ballistic Missiles. Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2007.

[6] India, Pakistan, UK, USA, PRC, Russia, Israel (assumed), France and previously South Africa.

[7] ‘IDF Doctrine’. Israeli Defense Forces. Accessed 24 July 2016.

[8] Asmolov, Konstantin. ‘North Korea in New US Subversion Plans’. New Eastern Outlook, 10 November 2015.




[12] Zimmerman, Dwight Jon. ‘Decima Flottiglia Mas and Operazione EA3: The Raid on Alexandria — Italian David vs. British Goliath’. DefenseMediaNetwork, 16 December 2014.

[13] In terms of actual conventional ship-to-ship combat we can note the most recent example since 1945 was the HMS Conqueror’s sinking of the ARA Belgrano during the 1982 Falklands War. However, the use of cruise missiles launched from submarines has been a component of, for example, US Navy actions in Iraq and Afghanistan but submarines as submarines are popularly known for their rôle in nuclear deterrence.

[14] ‘North Korea Makes Nuclear Threat’. Fox News, 4 March 2016.