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.
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.
From the limited media information available the most feasible explanation for the two naval accidents in the East Sea is a lack of strategic prioritization and funding from Pyongyang to properly maintain its underused patrol boats in the East. If Pyongyang has truly been pressed to make this military trade-off, it will reflect the naval strategies employed by other East Asian countries when it comes to choosing between naval assets covering territorial disputes and those responsible for military warfare. While the former – essentially patrol boats – focus on policing and constabulary, the latter are geared towards eliminating enemy combatants and conducting clandestine naval operations, which in North Korea’s case is the job of its submarine force. In short, patrol boats are not made to take the fight to the enemy, but merely to safeguard and protect coastal lines, which the territorial dispute makes more challenging off North Korea’s western coast, despite the easier waters.
But despite the two naval accidents in quick succession and a possible change in naval strategy to accommodate resource constraints, there is little evidence to suggest that the North Korean navy is in rapid decline. Surely it will lose more vessels if they are highly stressed in military exercises or forced into outright combat missions. North Korean patrol boats in particular are highly unsuitable for active frontline duty, and in most skirmishes with South Korean naval forces they have invariably ended up either on fire, highly damaged or at the bottom of the sea.
North Korean submarines are, however, an entirely different story, as evidenced by the sinking of the South Korean Cheonan corvette in early 2010. According to IHS Jane’s, the DPRK maintains around 40 mid-size Sang-O-class submarines built between 1995 and 2003, and some 20 large Romeo-class vessels which were built between 1976 and 1995. Additionally, Pyongyang has been churning out midget submarines of the Yono-class since the 1990s, and has some 20 outdated midget Yugo-submarines in reserve. All in all, the numbers for North Korea’s relatively modern submarine fleet vary between 70 and 90 vessels, making it the largest submarine fleet in the world.
But being the smallest branch within the vast North Korean armed forces (with 1.2 million personnel) naturally imposes its own budget constraints at a time when the upper echelons in Pyongyang are focusing on ballistic missile programs, nuclear enrichment, the expansion of the Special Forces, and enhancements to frontline artillery. But to discount North Korea’s navy due to the loss of two insignificant patrol boats would be the wrong lesson to take away here.
While the DPRK’s navy may well still be seaworthy, these latest two incidents could press Pyongyang to modernize its naval force at the expense of other programs. Especially when looking to the South, which is already determined to establish itself as a naval power with its three billion-dollar Aegis destroyers and plans to build three more, the two accidents and Kim Jong-Un’s subsequent visit to the graves of the fallen sailors may end up being the first step in an asymmetric challenge to South Korea’s naval ambitions.
Stefan Soesanto is a non-resident James A. Kelly Fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS.