North Korea has launched its first “tactical nuclear attack submarine” during a ceremony attended by the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un.
The submarine, named “Hero Kim Kun Ok” would be assigned to the fleet that patrols the waters between the Korean peninsula and Japan, state media said on Friday.
It will “perform its combat mission as one of the core underwater offensives means of the naval force,” said state newswire KCNA on Friday, heralding a “new chapter” for the Navy.
Kim, who wore a beige suit and matching panama hat for the ceremony at the east coast Sinpho shipyard, told officers the rapid development of the naval force was the “top priority” for national defence to meet geopolitical challenges, as well as “recent aggressive attempts by the enemies.”
Analysts said the vessel appears to be a modified Soviet-era Romeo-class submarine, which North Korea acquired from China in the 1970s and began producing domestically. Its design, with 10 launch tube hatches, showed it was most likely armed with ballistic missiles and cruise missiles, analysts said.
Kim said there was “no room to step back” and he urged the swift transfer of “underwater and surface vessels equipped with tactical nuclear weapons” to the navy.
Tactical nuclear weapons are typically for short-range use, as opposed to strategic weapons which can strike as far as the US.
Over the past year North Korea has moved to boost its navy with new nuclear weapons, including an underwater drone, warships, and its first operational missile submarine.
North Korea’s navy has historically been dwarfed by the country’s land forces, and overshadowed by its rapidly advancing ballistic missile programme.
Kim boasted that the new vessel was capable of “both preemptive and retaliatory strike” and experts told NK News it can likely carry nuclear submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and smaller missiles.
It “can carry a combination of SLBMs and cruise missiles, both equipped with nuclear warheads,” said Tal Inbar, an Israel-based missile researcher.
The submarine was unveiled as North Korea gears up to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the country’s founding on Saturday, which is expected to be marked with a military parade in Pyongyang, attended by a high-level Chinese delegation.
Last weekend, Pyongyang staged a “simulated tactical nuclear attack” drill with mock atomic warheads attached to two long-range cruise missiles that were test-fired into the ocean.
KCNA said the exercise was to warn enemies of the “actual nuclear war danger” in response to joint military drills by the United States and South Korea.
The allies said their live-fire exercises were based on a counterattack against invading forces, stressing their activities are defensive in nature, but Pyongyang has accused Seoul and Washington of escalating tensions in the region.
Last month, the US, South Korea and Japan pledged to step up their military cooperation and leaders’ summits.
This week, US officials warned Kim may travel to Russia to meet with President Vladimir Putin to seek help with advanced technology for satellites and nuclear-powered submarines, in exchange for offering him access to North Korea’s stocks of artillery shells for his Ukraine war.
South Korea’s military said that the submarine didn’t appear ready for normal operations, and that there were signs North Korea was attempting to exaggerate its capabilities.
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