Bermudez on the North Korean Navy

According to

Experts claim North Korea’s submarine fleet is technologically backward, prone to sinking or running aground and all but useless outside its own coastal waters.

And yet many are asking: Could it have been responsible for the explosion that sank a South Korean warship in March? And, if so, how could a submarine have slipped through the defences of South Korea, which maintains a fleet far more sophisticated than its northern neighbours?

Evidence collected thus far indicates a torpedo hit the Cheonan, killing 46 sailors, and suspicion is growing that it was launched from a small North Korean submarine. That would make it the most serious attack on the South Korean military since the peninsula’s war ended in a truce in 1953.

“While the North Korean submarine force reflects dated technology by Western standards, North Korean submarines during wartime would present significant challenges, particularly in coastal areas,” according to the Arlington, Virginia-based Global Security think-tank.

“North Korea has placed high priority on submarine construction programmes, which are ongoing despite its economic hardships.”

Without witnesses or communications traffic to use as evidence, proving North Korea was behind the attack is difficult. Still, teams conducting an intensive salvage and analysis mission are beginning to put the pieces together.

Officials say they know the 1,200-ton warship – a small, lightly armed frigate that split in half while on patrol in waters near the Koreas’ tense western maritime border – sank after a powerful external blast created a shock wave of the sort normally associated with a torpedo or mine.

South Korean media has reported that traces of the high explosive RDX have been found in the wreckage, which would also be consistent with a torpedo attack.

“It is plausible that the ship was hit by a torpedo,” Joseph Bermudez, a North Korea military expert and senior analyst for the London-based Jane’s Information Group, said.

North Korean submarines are not state-of-the-art. Instead, they underscore impoverished North Korea’s focus on “asymmetric” warfare – the use of stealthy, relatively low-cost weapons that many a ragtag fighting force has proved can open up big holes in conventional defences.

The “vast majority” operated by the North Korean navy and intelligence agencies are capable of carrying torpedoes and sea mines, as are some of the intelligence agencies’ semi-submersible infiltration landing craft, Mr Bermudez said.

“If the sinking was caused by a torpedo, then I would say this was a deliberate act of aggression,” he added.

Investigation results are expected within weeks, reports say, and Seoul has been extremely cautious in its comments on the sinking. It initially said there was no indication the North was to blame, and publicly fingering the North appears to hold little upside for Seoul, at any rate. Pyongyang has denied any role in the disaster.

But the idea that a North Korean submersible may have slid so close to the Cheonan undetected has been a wake-up call for the South, which has vowed to strengthen its defences against low-tech, asymmetric warfare. This weekend, Seoul set up a task force to review and revamp its defences.

Many South Korean experts had previously thought that such subs were unable to launch effective attacks, and were of more use for simply crossing the border.

“It shows that both the South Korean and US surveillance and reconnaissance missions either failed or were not in operation in the area where the incident took place,” Tong Kim, a visiting professor at Korea University in Seoul, said. “Apparently there was no signal or geospatial intelligence on the movement of a North Korea submarine, if it was involved in the incident. The Cheonan’s submarine detector must have failed.”

It would not be the first time North Korean submarines have been used to harass or spy on the South.

In 1996, a North Korean submarine ran aground on underwater rocks north-east of Seoul. The 26 commandos aboard tried to flee overland back to the North, but after several skirmishes all but one were killed, along with 17 South Koreans.

Two years later, another submarine was entangled in South Korean fishing nets.


2 Responses to “Bermudez on the North Korean Navy”

  1. Benoit says:

    Any pictures of these small submarines?