North Korea’s state news agency (KCNA) and South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo reported on November 4 that two North Korean ships sank only a few days apart in mid-October during military drills in the East Sea. With KCNA releasing several photos of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un visiting the newly erected gravestones for the approximately 15-30 perished sailors, the two naval accidents have become a political tool in Pyongyang’s domestic power games. While it is extremely rare for the state media to report on North Korean military accidents, the two separate incidents do beg the question: Is the DPRK’s navy finally falling apart?
Media reports have so far identified the two sunken ships as the 60-meter long, 375-ton Hainan-class Submarine Chaser No. 233, and an undisclosed 100 to 200-ton North Korean patrol boat.
The Hainan-class is a Chinese-built anti-submarine warfare vessel. Some 126 of these boats were assembled from the 1960s to the mid-1980s. According to IHS Jane’s, 26 of these vessels were fitted for export to countries like Bangladesh, Egypt, Myanmar, Pakistan and North Korea. Pyongyang received its Hainan delivery in three shipments during 1975 to 1978. While the Hainan was primarily conceptualized for coastal anti-submarine warfare, its operational range also includes scouting, mine-laying, and coastal rescue missions. Prior to the incident in October, the North Korean navy maintained six Hainan vessels, as reported in the IISS Military Balance 2013.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
But although KCNA clearly named the Submarine Chaser No. 233 as the vessel that sank in the East Sea, the South Korean military classification of a Hainan-class does not seem to be correct. According to IHS Jane’s fleet list there is no North Korean Hainan-class with the designated Number 233, nor does it seem likely that a Chinese-built vessel would defy the DPRKs geopolitical challenge and end up operating off its distant East Coast. Whether South Korea’s military intelligence or outside naval experts will be able to clarify these discrepancies remains to be seen.
The second undisclosed 100 to 200-ton patrol boat falls into a wider range of categories of North Korean military vessels. Three possible patrol boat types would fit the media description. The 130-ton Chinese-built Shanghai II, which was transferred to North Korea from 1967-1975; the 150-ton Chong-Ju-class, which was put into service somewhere during the 1990s; and the 190-ton modified Russian-model SO-1, which was assembled starting in 1957, and became infamous as the main vessel involved in the capture of the USS Pueblo in 1968. From here, it is pure speculation which model would be more prone to malfunctions that could sink it. However, the best guess would be the SO-1, given its advanced age and the fact that this vessel-type is primarily deployed on North Korea’s East Coast.
Most of the DPRK’s 700-800 strong green-water fleet is on average 30 to 50 years of age and does not operate more than 50 miles offshore. With seas on both sides and no chance of exchanging vessels between its Eastern and Western fleet, Pyongyang is forced to allocate scarce resources in a long-term and strategic manner to guarantee the operational readiness of both fleets.
North Korean patrol boats have been mostly involved in skirmishes surrounding the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the still-disputed maritime border between the two Koreas in the West Sea. Conditions in the West are ideal for North Korea’s small, fast and agile patrol boats, given the rugged coastal line and shallow waters. Conditions in the East, however, are much more favorable for North Korea’s large submarine fleet, which on numerous occasions during the 1990s conducted regular infiltration operations into the South, such as the infamous 1996 Gangneung and 1998 Sokcho incidents.