After what was seemingly a three week march toward war between North and South Korea, which ended in an agreement followed by handshakes, smiles and supposedly a draw-down in both sides war-time footing, one question still remains — where is the majority of North Korea’s submarine fleet?
More than 50 submarines of North Korea’s fleet, about 70% of its total, left their pens as tensions hit a high-note last Friday, and many of them have still have not returned. This has caused great concern to South Korea’s government and military, who have straight up admitted even North Korea’s mix of less than cutting edge Sang-O class and nearly antique Romeo Class diesel submarines are hard to track once they have submerged. Currently, South Korean Navy vessels, anti-submarine warfare helicopters and P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft are working overtime trying to locate and track them. Yet knowing their location is only part of the issue; the bigger question is why haven’t the vast majority of them returned to port after deploying in what South Korea calls an “unprecedented” manner?
Not only do these vessels pose a serious threat to shipping traffic around the Korean Peninsula, as well as major ports and South Korean Navy vessels, but they also have the very ominous secondary role of inserting North Korea’s notoriously hardened, if not suicidal, special forces and agents deep behind enemy lines during a time of war or to support ongoing espionage missions.
At first the disappearance of North Korea’s sub fleet was seen as a sign that they had abruptly returned to port, a move that would make sense logistically and be in spirit of the agreement between the two countries made on Monday. Although there have been some reports that a few of the submarines may have returned to their pens, South Korea is highly alert of North’s subsurface warfare capability. In an echo of last year’s “Red October” submarine hunt off Sweden, a sighting of a strange object off the coast if Uljin put local and federal police and defense units on high alert. The object ended up being a Russian fishing vessel.
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Maybe Kim Jong Un and his cadre are keeping their submarine fleet dispersed for as long as as a reminder to the South that North Korea can do great damage even if stuck first. Think of it as a poor-man’s conventional second strike capability. Then again, deploying 70% of its submarine force is also an almost suspect display of readiness, not just for North Korea’s geriatric naval force, but for any. In fact, fielding 70% of a submarine force on the fly is such an eyebrow raising figure that it is almost hard not to believe that some planning didn’t go into making it happen well in advance. This would put the whole course of events leading up to their deployment into question.
In the end, the rest of North Korea’s submarine fleet will most likely reappear in the not so distant future, as they are limited in range and can only stay submerged for hours up to a few days, not weeks. But above all else, this fairly incredible display of North Korean naval capability will surely change the way the south views the force in the future and it also goes to show how relevant even a rusting submarine force can be.
Contact the author at Tyler@jalopnik.com.