North Korea 'has built two large warships', think tank's satellite photos show

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 May, 2014, 11:33am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 May, 2014, 11:34am

Satellite images have picked out two new North Korean warships, the largest it has constructed in 25 years, a US think tank said today.

Recent commercial satellite pictures showed two new helicopter-carrying frigates separately berthed at shipyards in Nampo in the west and Najin in the far northeast. The think tank said it was an important “wake-up call” on the effectiveness of sanctions against Pyongyang.

The vessels can be seen in commercial satellite images from December and January. It is unclear whether the frigates are yet ready for service.

The US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, posting on its website 38 North, says the frigates are designed to carry one helicopter each and appear to be designed to counter South Korean submarines and protect fisheries. The vessels appear to be equipped with anti-submarine rocket launchers.

Launched sometime in 2011-12, the two vessels were primarily designed to counter what Pyongyang sees as a growing threat from South Korea’s acquisition of submarines that began in the early 1990s, the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University said.

But they may also be destined for a role in patrolling regional fishing zones – with security implications for South Korea, Japan and China, the institute said in an analysis on its website 38 North.

The analysis is by Joseph Bermudez, an expert in satellite imagery analysis and North Korea’s military.

While it might still take several years to fully integrate the frigates into fleet operations, the institute said their introduction suggested an “evolutionary step” in the North’s naval strategy to include helicopter anti-submarine operations.

The analysis notes that North Korea has been able to construct the vessels and other naval combat ships over the past decade despite international economic sanctions and reported industrial and economic stagnation.

Adding these two ships will not cause North Korea to have a very strong navy. ... The US and South Korean navies and air forces could pretty quickly sink these ships
Bruce Bennett, analyst

“North Korea’s deployment of new helicopter frigates may be an important wake-up call about the overall effectiveness of sanctions and the need to carefully and realistically re-evaluate reports of its conventional military decline,” it said.

Bruce Bennett, a senior defence analyst at the Rand Corporation, said the two new frigates would be bigger and more capable than the rest of North Korea’s surface fleet, which is viewed by many in the region as weak.

While North Korea has a large submarine force and many patrol craft, it has little in the way of higher-end surface ships like frigates and destroyers, he said.

“Adding these two ships will not cause North Korea to have a very strong navy. If involved in a big conflict, the US and South Korean navies and air forces could pretty quickly sink these ships,” Bennett said.

Bennett said that by investing in the frigates, the North’s authoritarian regime may be seeking to consolidate the internal support among naval personnel.

The US has nearly 30,000 troops across the North’s border, in South Korea, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean war that ended without a formal peace treaty.

The development of the North’s conventional weaponry has largely been overshadowed by concerns over its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programmes.

This includes speculation it may be readying its fourth nuclear test. But with tensions between the two Koreas running high, many analysts say the greatest risk of conflict lies in the North provoking the South with a conventional attack.

In 2010, South Korea accused North Korea of using a submarine to torpedo the South Korean ship Cheonan, killing 46 sailors.