North Korea may be preparing to launch ballistic missile submarine, images suggest

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Satellite imagery of the Sinpho South Shipyard - Airbus Defense & Space
Satellite imagery of the Sinpho South Shipyard - Airbus Defense & Space

North Korea may be preparing to launch a new submarine believed to be capable of carrying ballistic missiles, according to satellite imagery obtained by a US think tank.

Images of the Sinpo South Shipyard on the east coast of the country, from Sept 18, revealed six barges and vessels gathered around the construction hall quay, said 38 North, which monitors North Korea.

“While barges and a dry dock have been occasionally observed around the submarine launch quay at the main construction hall, the presence of six vessels and barges in this area has not been observed before,” said the report, which concluded that the activity suggests preparations to launch a submarine.

"There is also an apparent tow fixture on the launch quay roll-out rails that could be used to ensure the barges tow the submarine out along the rails," it added.

On Wednesday Joe Biden, the US president, accused North Korea of “blatantly violating UN sanctions” in a speech to the UN General Assembly.

Six barges and vessels have gathered around the construction hall quay - Airbus Defense & Space
Six barges and vessels have gathered around the construction hall quay - Airbus Defense & Space

Pyongyang began this year with an unprecedented flurry of ballistic missile tests, including a submarine-launched ballistic missile in May. Intelligence analysts have warned it is likely to trigger another nuclear test in the coming months.

This week the Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group will dock in South Korea for the first time in five years, before carrying out joint drills in what has been reported as a show of force to the North.

North Korea has a large submarine fleet but it is believed only one vessel is capable of carrying a ballistic missile.

Analysts first noticed signs that the construction of another new submarine may be under way in 2016.

Kim Jong-un, the country's leader, was later seen in 2019 inspecting a previously unreported submarine of a size capable of carrying missiles.

Experts have debated whether the new vessel is based on a new design or a modified Romeo Class originally acquired from China in the 1970s.

The 38 North noted that there had been no indications so far in state media about when the submarine might be launched.