- In October, North Korea claimed that it had launched an underwater ballistic missile from a lake.
- It may have been a stunt, but it reflects Pyongyang’s long history of underground activity.
- That underground focus is meant to hide North Korea’s military advances from the US and its allies.
North Korea’s recent missile tests could have borrowed from the plot of a James Bond film.
In October, North Korea claimed that it had launched an underwater ballistic missile from a lake. Photos released by North Korea appeared to show a missile rising from a lake or reservoir.
State media reported that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was personally supervising a series of missile tests, including a missile reportedly launched from an inland body of water in the northwestern part of the country.
The utility of an underwater-launched ICBM is questionable, but whether it was a test of an actual technology or a propaganda stunt, it is the latest in North Korea’s long obsession with hiding its weapons underground — or, in this case, under water.
Bruce Bennett, an expert on North Korea at the RAND Corporation think tank, believes that rather some kind of underwater missile silo, Pyongyang might actually have used a barge.
“For a long time, North Korea has had a barge used for ballistic-missile test launches at sea when an appropriate submarine was not available and the North wanted to test a submarine-launched ballistic missile,” Bennett told Insider. “While we do not know for sure what the North did to launch a missile from a lake, I suspect that they built a similar barge and used it for the lake launch.”
An underwater missile launcher in an inland lake does offer advantages. It would complicate planning for any US and South Korean strike. The exact location of the launcher must be pinpointed and then the attacker “would need a warhead that could penetrate through the atmosphere and then into the water, which would be another difficult task,” Bennett said.
But the challenges of building an underwater missile base “would be a difficult and costly effort,” Bennett added. North Korea would have to build the site and a launcher and send a ship to lower the missile into it, all without being detected.
Maintenance would also be a nightmare. “The North would need to be able to make electrical and communications connections in the water and maintain the missile in the water, unless the North developed some procedure for pumping the silo dry,” Bennett said.
Underwater missile sites may be a boondoggle and may not exist outside of North Korean propaganda, but Pyongyang has a history of underground projects, from subterranean factories for building missiles and nuclear bombs to tunnels under the Demilitarized Zone wide enough to send tanks to pop up behind South Korean lines.
The North Koreans have good reason for turning into moles. During the Korean War, UN forces used airpower to relentlessly pound North Korean troops, emplacements, and supply lines.
Should war erupt today, US and South Korean forces would hammer the North with precision-guided munitions, including huge bunker-buster bombs. While the North does have an enormous, if old, arsenal of Cold War-era artillery and tanks, it can’t win a straight-up firepower battle with its much more technologically advanced foes.
But what North Korea can do is dig … and dig.
Its artillery is concealed in caves, from which it emerges to fire and then ducks back under cover. Its ballistic missiles, perhaps armed with nuclear warheads, are protected inside mountain tunnels from which their mobile launchers can roll out and fire. Its nuclear weapons development and test sites are shielded behind thick rock.
Add in tunnels for troops and civil defense and the nation of North Korea seems to be one big underground facility, or UGF, as the Pentagon calls them.
Their size and sophistication range from small tunnels only large enough for people or a few vehicles to large, complex UGFs for command and control, missiles, and other strategic assets, according to the US Defense Intelligence Agency’s 2021 report on North Korean military power.
Bennett suspects Pyongyang is bluffing about underwater missile bases: “We know from the past that the North will occasionally falsely claim some new capability, trying to appear to be more capable or less vulnerable than it really is.”
But such bluffing has worked before. North Korea — which is so poor and so isolated that its people have eaten grass to avoid starvation and its regime survives on peddling narcotics overseas and on cybertheft — continues to threaten its neighbors, vowing to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire” with artillery and launching scores of missiles into nearby waters, including 23 on a single day in November.
One reason the Kim regime is still around, unlike despots in Iraq or Libya, is that the world doesn’t quite know how many weapons of mass destruction it has or where it keeps them. That makes an invasion or preemptive strike chance, which is exactly what Pyongyang wants. It may be a crazy dictatorship, but it’s not totally irrational.
Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds a master’s in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.