Jeffrey LewisDPRK Moves Launch Barge

Dave Schmerler and I observe that North Korea just moved the launch barge it keeps at the Sinpo South Shipyard to test submarine-launched ballistic missiles. On April 6, North Korean towed the barge from the secure boat basin where it is normally docked to the boat launch in front of the shipyard’s main construction hall.

Maxar actually has an image of the barge being toward outside of the basin at 11:09 am local time (2:09 UTC) on April 6. One might have thought it was heading out to sea to perform a test launch, but at 3:40 pm local (6:40 UTC) Planet imaged the barge sitting next to the boat launch. It was still there when Planet imaged it again, twenty five minutes later, at 4:05 pm local (7:05 UTC). That’s the last image I have.

It is possible that North Korea plans to pull the barge out of the water for an overhaul. Late last year, we observed that North Korea did this with the launch barge it keeps at Nampo — they towed it ashore for what seems to be a refit. North Korea has shown us a bunch of untested variants of its solid-propellant submarine-launched ballistic missile and Kim Jong Un has even mentioned an intercontinental-range solid propellant ballistic missile that could be launched from a submarine. So North Korea might be upgrading its test assets.

It is also possible that the barge at Sinpo is about to head out to sea to perform a missile test, although that’s less likely. It’s nearly four o’clock in the morning in North Korea as I write this so if there is a test, I expect we’ll know within a few hours. Oh, and did I mention I am on vacation in Cape Cod? Not kidding.

Vacation or not, a refit for the launch barge is probably more likely than a missile test. Still, this is yet another sign of continuing activity at sites associated with North Korea’s strategic weapons programs. North Korea keeps moving people and things around. While it’s not as easy as saying that a test of such-and-such will happen at this place and at this time, we are seeing elevated levels of activity across many sites that suggests, to me at least, sooner or later we’ll get more tests. But whether that’s sooner, later, or much later, we can’t say.