Jeffrey LewisWill North Korea Test Another SLBM?


Jeffrey Lewis and David Schmerler

January 2021

New satellite images show North Korea taking steps to prepare for an underwater launch of a new, longer-range solid-fueled ballistic missile. 

Outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been highlighting Kim Jong Un’s moratorium on testing intermediate- and  intercontinental-range ballistic missiles as a major achievement of the Trump Administration.

Kim, however, renounced that moratorium in 2020 and, one week ago, announced that North Korea would now “push ahead” with developing a new solid-propellant ICBM that could be fired from both a submarine or a land-based launcher.  A solid-propellant ICBM would provide North Korea with a more survivable capability to deliver nuclear weapons against  targets in the United States.

Satellite images taken by Maxar show that North Korea, starting in November, moved a barge used to conduct underwater launches of ballistics missiles to a location used for overhauling ships, indicating that  North Korea was modifying the barge for use with a new SLBM. Kim’s public declarations that missile testing will resume in the coming year appear to coincide with physical preparations to resume flight-tests of intermediate- and intercontinental-range ballistic missiles.

Nampo Navy Shipyard showing the prior and current location of the launch barge.
Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies.

North Korea has two barges to conduct underwater missile launches — one at the Sinpo South Naval Shipyard on the country’s east coast and a second barge at Nampo on the country’s west coast.  These barges visually resemble a Soviet towed underwater launch platform (TULP). North Korea’s underwater missile tests have all been conducted from the east coast.  Most of  these tests  are believed to  have  used the barge located at Sinpo, including the October 2019  test of the Pukguksong-3 SLBM.  North Korea is thought to have placed the second launch barge at Nampo so that it could test missiles launched from underwater at greater ranges than is possible from the east coast.

Soviet “towed underwater launch platform” for comparison. Source.

The launch barge at Nampo was first seen at Nampo in May 2017, sitting at a  dry fitting-out dock. The barge later completed its fitting-out in the water at a nearby quay.  It then remained unused in a secure boat basin since September 2018.

In November 2020, however, North Korea returned the launch barge to the fitting out dock where it is now undergoing some sort of maintenance or overhaul for the first time in more than two years. The barge is clearly visible in a satellite image taken by Maxar, dated December 31, 2020.  The overhaul would suggest that North Korea is preparing to use the barge for a launch in the near future. The choice of a west coast location would allow North Korea to test the SLBM to a greater range than in previous tests.

North Korean launch barge in a fitting out dock at Nampo on December 31, 2020.
Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies.

It is not yet clear when such a launch will occur or what sort of solid-propellant missile will be tested.  North Korea has displayed two submarine-launched ballistic missiles in parades held  in October 2020 and January 2021.  We also believe that North Korea could conduct a test of a solid-propellant ICBM as early as this year.

While it is too early to make precise inferences about the specifics of a future test, it is important to be clear that, as Trump leaves office, North Korea has been taking steps to abandon the moratorium that Kim renounced last year. Despite public references to the moratoria from outgoing senior Administration officials, the Biden Administration is inheriting a North Korea that is moving toward resuming flight-tests of intermediate- and intercontinental-range missiles.