The sinking of ROKS Cheonan (PCC-772) in 2010 was a stark reminder that, although obsolete, North Korean Navy still has teeth and isn’t afraid to use them.
Mini-submarines, like the one that sunk Cheonan, a Pohang class corvette, could play a significant role in an eventual conflict between North Korea and the United States and its allies. Armed with CHT-02D wake-homing, they can easily take out larger surface combatants. However, many experts agree that the threat they pose is manageable.
“[It’s] a risk that could be mitigated by, one, taking them out pre-emptively—if not already at sea—or, two, not coming in close,” says Bryan McGrath, of the FerryBridge Group naval consultancy. “They are a manageable threat.”
Apart from mini-submarines, the North Korean navy also has in its arsenal a large number of conventional subs, mostly old Soviet Romeo class boats. These will be a tougher nut to crack but still aren’t considered a serious threat. They must be taken seriously, though, as they could prove to be devastating, if used properly, according to the white paper issued by South Korea’s Defense Ministry in 2014.
“Underwater forces are composed of about 70 Romeo-class submarines and submersibles,” it is said in the paper. “The mission of these underwater forces is to disrupt sea lanes of communication, lay mines, attack surface vessels, and support the infiltration of special operation forces. In particular, North Korea is improving its capability for underwater attacks, as it appears to be building new types of submarines and submersibles, including a new submarine that can carry ballistic missiles, following the development of new torpedoes.”
If proper actions are taken, the threat of North Korean navy’s submarines could be easily eliminated. The surface fleet of the North Korean navy is designed to defend the country’s coastline and prevent invasions. “Surface forces are mainly composed of small, high-speed vessels such as guided missile boats, torpedo boats, patrol boats, and fire support patrol craft that will carry out missions supporting Ground Force advancement in connection with ground operations, as well as coastal defense missions,” according to the South Korean white paper. “In particular, North Korea has built new mid- and large-size vessels and various kinds of Very Slender Vessels (VSVs), enhancing its strike capability on the surface of the sea.”
Finally, North Korean navy possess some limited amphibious capabilities, but it is aimed mostly at special forces insertion, rather than large-scale invasions.
“Amphibious forces are composed of about 260 vessels, including LCACs and high-speed landing craft,” the South Korean document reads. “Their mission is to infiltrate special operation forces into rear areas to strike major military and strategic facilities and secure crucial spots in coastal areas for landing.”
While not a factor that could hope to stop any serious U.S. Navy or even South Korea’s navy force deployed against it, North Korean navy can easily inflict some losses, if not taken seriously.