Is China Helping North Korea Build Ballistic Missile Submarines?

Dave Majumdar

Security, Asia

Everything you need to know about North Korea’s new Sinpo submarines. 

Is China Helping North Korea Build Ballistic Missile Submarines?

North Korea may be receiving technical assistance from outside powers to develop its submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM) technology. Pyongyang currently has one experimental Sinpo-B diesel electric ballistic missile submarine (SSB) that it uses for testing while a more advanced Sinpo-C is currently thought to be under construction.

As two prominent U.S. experts on submarine technology note, developing the launch mechanisms for ballistic missile submarines is extraordinarily difficult. However, Pyongyang is making extremely rapid technological progress compared to much more sophisticated states that have developed such technologies in the past. That suggests there might be an outside hand involved in providing technical expertise.  

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“Building an SLBM and SSB (or SSBN) is very technically challenging – launch system, proper navigation inputs to missile prior to launch, proper depth-keeping for submarine, etc.,” retired U.S. Navy submariner Thomas Callender, currently a senior research fellow for defense programs at the Heritage Foundation and former director of capabilities at the Office of the Deputy Under Secretary of the Navy (Policy) told The National Interest.

“From the short time between failed missile ejection and successful ejection (Nov 2015-July 2016), it would appear that North Korea is receiving technical help from the Chinese. If you look at how long it took the Chinese and Indians to develop their indigenous SLBMs and SSBNs (15-20 years), North Korea is progressing much more rapidly especially in correcting issues after failures.”

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Bryan Clark, a retired U.S. Navy undersea warfare officer and analyst the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, suggested that while the requisite missile ejection technologies are difficult to master, it is probably not beyond the capabilities of North Korean engineers.

“Since they have ballistic missiles and submarines the technically-challenging part is the launch mechanisms,” Clark told The National Interest.

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“It needs to eject the missile from the ship and into the air without damaging the…

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