Even as the World’s primary economic powers embodied in the G 20 are grappling with the issue of reference to the War in Ukraine in the Joint Communique in Delhi to be issued post the Summit deliberations on September 09 and 10, North Korea officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea [DPRK] claimed to have launched a tactical nuclear attack submarine indicating a second-strike capability.
“A new powerful entity has emerged to demonstrate the rapid development of the Juche-based naval force all over the world in the glorious journey of ushering in a new era of a great prosperous and powerful country with the world-renowned tremendous national defence capabilities, unprecedented in the nation-building history of the DPRK, under the outstanding leadership of the ever-victorious Workers' Party of Korea (WPK),” claimed a report on the website KCNA.KP which was carried by major North Korean media.
Simply stated this implied the launch of “a Korean-style tactical nuclear attack submarine….. for bolstering up the naval force of the DPRK….. to further strengthen the state nuclear deterrence both in quality and quantity and by leaps and bounds” ironically “for regional and global peace and security”.
The launch was on September 6 two days earlier but the public announcement to the World was made on September 8, on the eve of the G 20 Summit being held in India on September 09 and 10.
Kim Jong Un, general secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea and president of the State Affairs of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea was in attendance with leading officials of the Party, government and military, including Marshal Ri Pyong Chol, Marshal Pak Jong Chon, Premier of the Cabinet Kim Tok Hun and Admiral Kim Myong Si.
Marshal Ri Pyong Chol conveyed the order of the Central Military Commission of the WPK on the transfer of the tactical nuclear attack submarine No. 841 to the East Sea Fleet of the KPA Navy and named the "Hero Kim Kun Ok".
Marshal Ri Pyong Chol ordered the launching of the submarine after being informed by the manager of the factory that it was ready to be launched.
Earlier on September 7, Kim had inspected the tactical nuclear submarine "Hero Kim Kun Ok" preparing for a shakedown cruise.
Assessment of Submarine Capability
There is much scepticism amongst experts who have examined details of the submarine. "An analysis of the external features of the North Korean submarine so far shows that parts of it have been enlarged to carry a missile," an official at the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) told reporters as per South Korean News Agency Yonhap.
"But it is assessed that (the submarine) is not in the form of being capable of normal operation," the official added with likely signs of the North's possible exaggeration.
A Reuters report indicated that other analysts have also drawn similar conclusions given that the "Hero Kim Kun Ok" is, “a modified Soviet-era Romeo-class submarine, which North Korea acquired from China in the 1970s and began producing domestically. Its design, with 10 launch tube hatches, showed it was most likely armed with ballistic missiles and cruise missiles” The aging submarine fleet is said to be noisy and thus easy for detection.
At the same time there are concerns over developing military technical cooperation framework between North Korea and Russia which may extend to nuclear-powered submarine technology as the North Korean leader Kim Jong un is to meet with Russia President Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok. An ammunition for nuclear technology deal could lead to fresh concerns of stability in North East Asia.
The North Korean launch of the so called tactical nuclear attack submarine comes weeks ahead of the trilateral summit by leaders of the US, South Korea and Japan at Camp David reaffirming strong commitment to joint efforts at extended deterrence and sharing of information.
The launch also comes days after South Korea and the US conducted a major exercise spread over 11 days Ulchi Freedom Shield 2023 with some aggressive posturing.
Given the recent trends of escalatory moves by both sides – US and South Korea and the North- peace and stability will remain elusive on the Korean Peninsula even as the global space is contested in varied ways.
From the North Korean perspective, the tactical nuclear attack submarine, was launched just before the 75th founding anniversary of the DPRK, but globally all eyes are on what impact it would have on deliberations in the G 20 Summit starting in New Delhi the next day.
G 20 comprises 19 countries -Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Türkiye, United Kingdom and United States and the European Union. The G20 members represent around 85% of the global GDP, over 75% of the global trade, and about two-thirds of the world population.
The present Chair of G 20, India with a whole of government approach conducted large number of activities ranging from tourism to climate change apart from the core issues as economy, finance and trade.
What is of concern is that India’s stellar achievements in mobilising G 20 members on a host of economic issues may be overshadowed by the temper of geo and regional politics the War in Ukraine, India China Line of Actual Control standoff and now North Korea’s demonstration allegedly of a tactical nuclear submarine.
Will there be consensus on the last named issue as the US and South Korea will surely attempt to plug the same in the Joint Communique with possible resistance from China and Russia remains to be seen?