A boat only a missile could love

Now that we are all looking at Sinpo for signs of further activity involving the TULP (Towed Underwater Launch Platform) and the collocated floating drydock at the semi-refurbished construction hall, I wanted to bring your attention to an interesting vessel I have been following for a few months.  Its purpose is not entirely understood and it has been moving between at least three different naval bases on North Korea’s east coast since September 2020. While this is a bit speculative, I think we might be looking at a target ship for future cruise missile testing.

This boat is strange in three ways. First is the tall hollow structure added to its middle in May 2020. Second is that it has been partaking in a tour of sorts of east coast naval bases. Third it….just looks weird.

The ship has been moving around over the past year.  The earliest I pinned the ship on satellite imagery was between September and October 2020 at the Chaho Naval base just north of Sinpo.  It was near this location where Kim Jong Un observed an SLBM test in April 2016, and at the naval base where he received the submariners after the test. Sometime before November 20th, 2020, the ship moved to the Yoho-ri Naval Base. Then it stayed until it was caught in a Planet Labs SkySat image on December 22nd being brought to the shipyard at Mayang-do, opposite the Sinpo South Naval Shipyard. Tarao Goo has identified the construction location at Chongjin, where the vessel was modified sometime after May 1st 2020.

What makes this ship unique is its long, tall rectangular superstructure, which appears to be hollow. Reflecting on what purpose a refurbished ship with a tall superstructure might fit, it popped in my mind that Kim Jong Un promised to further develop cruise missiles this year.

Target ships aren’t new. In a previous cruise missile test in June 2017, North Korea took a whack or two at the ship pictured above.  It’s a simple ship outfitted with metal scaffolding and white panels that probably helped the coastal defense system acquire its target. This ship’s fate is unknown to me. But other countries that do conduct cruise missile tests at sea generally settle on targets that look more like the new mystery vessel.

In this video of a Tomahawk cruise missile test, we can see that the target ship has a tall center section, composed of empty shipping containers. This sort of target notionally can be reused, as shipping containers are easily replaceable and hitting them shouldn’t damage the ship.  This type of target ship can also be seen being used by the Iranians in this Soumar cruise missile test footage.  This doesn’t mean that the US, Iranians, and North Koreans are working together to corner the cruise missile test target market, but points to a convergence in testing equipment.

North Korea’s new ship, as best I can tell, is not composed of shipping containers, but rather a tall, narrow, and hollow structure, whose true purpose remains unknown. Based on last month’s cruise missile tests on the west coast, and Kim Jong Un’s Party Congress address in January, cruise missiles could be a recurring theme in this year’s missile test cycle. It’s possible this ship may play a role in North Korea’s efforts to diversify their missile arsenal.