Although comprising mostly outdated and ageing vessels, North Korea’s submarine fleet will pose a threat, during a conflict, to ships operating close to the Korean coastline.
Outside of declared hostilities these boats provide Pyongyang with what it likely considers to be useful kinetic and non-kinetic options for diplomatic posturing. Recent verbal threats between Washington D.C. and Pyongyang have again highlighted the fragile situation on the Korean Peninsula, with tensions threatening to spill over into open hostilities.
The regime of Kim Jong Un, as had that of his father and grandfather before him, defines itself through an unending struggle against threats, from both inside and outside the country.
This has been used to justify economic deprivation for its citizens and vast expenditure on the Korean People’s Army (KPA) under the ideology of songun, or military-first.
Since the armistice that ended the Korean War 64 years ago, Pyongyang has used the KPA, and its submarine fleet, to take actions to provoke and coerce its neighbours, with the aim of gaining psychological advantages in diplomacy and winning limited political and economic concessions.
Despite North Korea’s small size, the KPA is estimated to be the world’s fourth largest military with over one million soldiers on active duty and an additional six to seven million reserve or paramilitary forces. Within this, the Korean People’s Navy (KPN) is the smallest of the three Services. However, the KPN has what is assessed to be one of the world’s largest submarine fleets, with an estimated 70 vessels.
North Korea’s submarines are probably one of the more capable parts of its military so Pyongyang likely sees the fleet as one of the few areas where it possesses a comparative advantage.