North Korea's New Missile Submarine: Hero Kim Gun-ok


North Korea's New Missile Submarine: Hero Kim Gun-ok

Flag DPRK North Korea launched a modified ROMEO class submarine of September 6 2023 at Pongdae Submarine Factory, Sinpo. The submarine is distinctive with 10 missiles housed in an extended sail. The missiles are two different types, with four larger and 6 smaller launch tubes. It is likely that these contain both ballistic missiles and cruise missiles.

The four larger missiles tubes are approximately 1.2m - 1.5m in diameter. This suggests that they may carry the new short range submarine launched ballistic missile. The six smaller tubes are consistent with 533mm or 650mm weapons. This is typical of cruise missiles such as North Korea's Hwasal-2. No tests of submarine launched cruise missiles have been reported however.
North Korea's Missile Submarine: Hero Kim Gun-ok
The larger missile tubes may be for the weapon seen on the right in this image from October 2021.

7 ROMEO Class boats were imported from China (known as the Type-033) in 1973. This was followed by construction of the first 11 local versions at Sinpo shipyard on the East Coast from 1974 to 1979. Production resumed, probably without Chinese help, from 1985 to 1996. As many as 20 are reported in service although numbers are likely declining over time.

Analysis of available imagery confirms that the submarine has been lengthened. It is approximately 10 meters longer overall at around 86 meters. However the hull insert below the missile tubes is likely longer than this, but is offset by a radically reduced bow. The front of the submarine is now rounded, but appears rather blunt compared to other types. It may sacrifice its forward torpedo tubes in this rebuild, although that is not confirmed. It is possible that the forward compartmenmts are of completely new construction, and/or that some torpedo tubes are present.

North Korea's Missile Submarine: Hero Kim Gun-ok
Analysis-based outline. Missile silos and hull insert highlighted.

Despite the rounded bow, the bulky missile sail will greatly increase drag. Given that there is no indications, or room, for new propulsive machinery then we can expect speed to be greatly reduced.

Length: 86 meters (est)
Beam: 6.7 meters
Displacement: >1,830 tons submerged
Maximum Speed: Less than 13 knots surfaced or submerged
Armament: 4 x SLBMs, 6 x SLCMs, possibly torpedoes.

CLICK to Enlarge.

Slower & Less Stealthy

Objectively, the submarine is poor. It’s taking a less survivable submarine and adding compromises on top. But that isn’t the point, at least from North Korea’s perspective. This submarine is all about its missiles.

North Korea has is able to develop highly advanced, and we should assume effective, missiles. They have been testing a range of submarine launched ballistic missiles for several years from both test barges and the special Gorae Class submarine. The missiles mean that this submarine has to be taken seriously.

North Korea's Missile Submarine: Hero Kim Gun-ok
Edge detection helps see through bow cover.

Tactical Or Strategic Platform

Exactly how this new submarine fits into North Korea’s nuclear deterrent is unclear. It appears, and has been described in local media, as tactical. Its missiles only really threaten South Korea snd Japan, or other forces in the region. And at the same time there are a plethora of land launched missiles and new underwater drones seemingly with overlapping capabilities. Yet it is nuclear armed, or could be. That straight away gives it a strategic dimension.

Another question is how many of the new submarines the Hermit Kingdom will build. Could it be another one-off submarine, possibly too expensive to be repeated? If so its purpose is as much political as naval. But individually, it remains worthy of study.

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