The North Korean (KPA) navy, primarily a coastal defense force, is headquartered in Pyongyang.It has two fleets, the East Sea Fleet, headquartered at T’oejo-dong, and the West Sea Fleet, headquartered at Nampo. The East Sea Fleet has nine naval bases, and the West Sea Fleet has 10 naval bases. The CIA World Factbook reported in There are approximately 60,000 active members of the Navy out of 1.2 million in the armed forces.. [Source: Library of Congress, July 2007; CIA World Factbook, 2021]

The navy is a separate branch of the KPA. According to Associated Press: Divided into east and west fleets with about a dozen main bases, the navy is the smallest branch of the North Korean military. But it has some significant strengths, including hovercraft for amphibious landings and one of the largest submarine forces in the world. An estimated 70 attack, coastal or midget-type subs provide stealth and strongly bolster coastal defenses and possible special operations. It has no “blue water” — or long-range — naval forces and relies heavily on a large but aging armada of small coastal patrol craft. But it, too, is upgrading some of its surface ships and has made a show of its efforts to domestically develop a submarine capable of launching a ballistic missile. [Source: Associated Press, March 1, 2016]

Accidents involving the North Korean navy occur from time to time. In November 2013, Reuters reported: “At least 19 North Korean sailors were killed when a naval vessel sank during "combat duties" off the east coast last month, state media said, a rare admission by the impoverished and reclusive country. South Korean media said the ship sank during a drill killing "scores". North Korea's KCNA state news agency said: "Submarine chaser No. 233 fell while performing combat duties in mid-October." North Korean official media did not say how many died in the accident, but said that Kim had taken "measures to find all their bodies", suggesting a high death doll. South Korea's Choson Ilbo newspaper said the ship sank during a drill, killing scores of sailors, and that two vessels were involved, quoting an unnamed military source. [Source: Reuters, November 6, 2013]

North Korean Navy in the 1990s

In 1992 the 40,000 to 60,000-person brown-water navy was primarily a coastal defense force. The navy is capable of conducting inshore defensive operations, submarine operations against merchant shipping and unsophisticated naval combatants, offensive and defensive mining operations, and conventional raids. Because of the general imbalance of ship types, the navy has a limited capability to carry out missions such as sea control or denial and antisubmarine operations. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

The primary offensive mission of the navy is supporting army actions against South Korea, particularly by inserting smallscale amphibious operations — SOF units — along the coast. The navy also has a limited capability to conduct rocket and shore bombardment raids against selected coastal targets. However, any North Korean force attempting to engage in these operations would be at risk from both air and surface combatants because of limited air defense and detection capabilities.*

In mid-1993 the navy seldom operated outside the North Korean military exclusion zone, a zone extending some fifty kilometers off North Korea's coast from which it sought to exclude operations by any other navy. Although seaborne infiltration attempts into South Korea are believed to have been stopped by the 1990s, testimony of North Korean spies apprehended by South Korea in early 1992 indicated successful infiltration continues. Clashes with the South Korean navy and harassment of South Korean fishing boats once occurred with regularity, but such incidents were rare in as of mid-1993.*

The Naval Command has two separate fleets: the East Sea Fleet and Yellow Sea Fleet. The fleets do not exchange vessels, and their areas of operations and missions determine their organizational structure; mutual support is difficult at best. The Yellow Sea Fleet, made up of five squadrons and approximately 300 vessels, is headquartered at Nampo, with major bases at Pip'a-got and Sagot and smaller bases at Ch'o-do and Tasa-ri. The East Sea Fleet, with nine squadrons and approximately 400 vessels, is headquartered at T'oejo-dong, with major bases at Najin and Wnsan and lesser bases at Ch'aho, Ch'angjn, Mayangdo , and Puam-ni near the DMZ. There are many smaller bases along both coasts. The submarine force is decentralized. Submarines are stationed at Ch'aho, Mayang-do, Nampo, and Pip'a-got naval bases.*

In addition to naval units, there also are noncombatants in the North Korean merchant marine, including ten cargo ships operating directly under the KWP and the Ministry of People's Armed Forces. There are sixty-six other oceangoing vessels in the merchant marine operating under the flag of the Ministry of Sea Transportation.*

Capability of the North Korean Navy and Coastal Defense in the 1990s

The navy's main strengths are a modest number of cruisemissile -equipped vessels, large numbers of fast patrol craft, a mine warfare potential, and a large number of small, fast transports for special operations forces. Its weaknesses include inadequate air defense, a low level of technology, and aging platforms. Logistical support is complicated by the variety of Soviet and Chinese designs of its equipment and the inability of the force to conduct sustained operations. In the early 1990s, overall fleet strength was probably on the decline inasmuch as obsolete vessels were not being replaced on a one-for-one basis. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

The quality of the navy remains unknown. Joint exercises are not common. Although the navy conducted a few rudimentary exercises with Soviet naval forces in the late 1980s and is believed to have conducted a number of exercises related to command, control, and communications, there is little by which to judge the force's overall performance.*

Despite its size, the submarine force also is an unknown quantity. It is difficult to ascertain whether the submarine force is intended primarily for coastal barrier defense or for offensive operations. Some submarines are assigned defensive patrols. The submarines dedicated to offensive operations probably are targeted along South Korea's coastlines near its harbors, in the Yellow Sea, and in the Sea of Japan to interdict sea lines of communication. Offensive mining is another possible mission for some of the minisubmarines.*

The surface force is suited for inshore defense and harassment. The smaller craft, although dated, are capable of using Korea's rough coastal topography to mount harassing attacks against larger naval craft. Operations are limited to within fifty nautical miles of the coast.*

Many North Korean navy bases have hardened berths and other passive defenses. There is an extensive antiship missile and gun defense network along the coastline. Antiship cruise missile sites were installed in the late 1960s using Soviet-supplied SSC2b (Samlet) SSMs. Newer and longer-range SSMs entered the inventory in the mid-1980s, most probably the HY-2 (Silkworm), a modification of the Styx system. In all, some six sites are reported, covering both coasts with overlapping antiship cruise missile systems.*

Weapons, Ships and Equipment of the North Korean Navy

In the mid 2010s the North Korean navy, according to Associated Press, had 430 patrol combatant ships, 260 amphibious landing craft, 20 mine warfare vessels, about 70 submarines, 40 support ships. In the mid 2000s it had 92 submarines, three frigates, six corvettes, 43 missile craft, 158 large patrol craft, 103 fast torpedo craft, more than 334 patrol force craft, 10 amphibious ships, two coastal defense missile batteries, 130 hovercraft, 23 minesweepers, one depot ship, eight midget ships, and four survey vessels. North Korea completed a naval base for “attack hovercraft” in the early 2010s. [Source: Associated Press, March 1, 2016; Library of Congress, July 2007, The Telegraph]

In the 1990s, it was estimated the North Korea navy was comprised of 46,000 sea personnel, and about 413 ships including 25 submarines (20 of then Soviet Romeo-class vessels), three frigates and 198 torpedo crafts. The naval inventory varies widely. North Korean surface combatants have dual missions of coastal defense and limited offensive missions under a "small navy" doctrine. Aside from special craft and submarines, most other North Korean naval vessels are small combatants; they include torpedo boats, patrol boats and ships, and fast attack craft. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

North Korea has a variety of special craft. There are a number of steel-hulled high speed, semi-submersible infiltration craft, several of which have been engaged by South Korean naval forces during the 1970s and 1980s; one has been recovered. A class of air cushioned vehicles (ACVs) derived from technology most probably acquired from Britain also is believed dedicated to amphibious operations. These craft will be well suited to use on the mud flats, seasonal frozen coastal waters, and areas of great tidal variance prevalent along Korea's west coast. Hovercraft are credited with being able to carry about a platoon each. The extent and pace of the hovercraft production program is unknown but more than 100 vessels had been built by mid-1993. Reflecting Soviet influence, most surface craft and submarines are capable of laying mines, and some vessels probably are dedicated to mine detection and sweeping. Approximately twenty-three ships are dedicated to mine warfare.*

In addition to conventional submarines, North Korea has between thirty and sixty minisubmarines in service. Details of the minisubmarine fleet are sketchy. North Korea apparently has acquired minisubmarine technology from both Yugoslavia and the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany). In the early 1970s, China helped North Korea start its own Romeo construction program, which produced new units into the early 1990s. The Romeo and Whiskey classes of conventional diesel-electric attack submarines employ technology, weapons, and sonar dating from the 1950s and 1960s. Their relatively high noise levels make them, by modern submarine standards, relatively easy to detect. This liability is mitigated to some degree by the South Korean navy's use of similar era systems for detection and attack.*

North Korea’s New Hovercraft Base

North Korea has built a hovercraft base near the disputed Yellow Sea border that would allow it to launch a quick invasion of South Korean islands. In the early 2010s, when it was in the final stages of construction AFP reported: The base is just 50-60 kilometres (30-35 miles) from Baengnyeong, the closest South Korean island to the North Korean coast, government sources said. The reports came just over two months after the North shelled one of the border islands. [Source: Muhammad Iqbal, AFP February 1, 2011]

A government source told Chosun Ilbo that South Korean and US intelligence detected construction for the base at Koampo in Hwanghae province in late 2010. It could apparently accommodate up to 70 hovercrafts which could each carry a platoon of commandos and travel up to 90 kilometres per hour across the sea and tidal mudflats, the daily said. Once the base is completed, North Korean troops would be able to land on the South's strategically important frontier islands in 30 to 40 minutes, it said.

JoongAng Ilbo said the North already has a hovercraft base at Cholsan near the border with China. "The new base in Koampo represents the forward deployment of North Korean hovercraft capable of infiltrating commandos into South Korea," a military source was quoted as saying. Cross-border tensions have been acute since a South Korean warship sank in March 2010 near the Yellow Sea border after what the South said was a torpedo attack, a charge denied by Pyongyang. The sinking cost 46 lives.

North Korea’s High-Speed Infiltration Boat

North Korean has developed a Very Slender Vessel (VSV), which can move over 100 kilometer per hour through ocean waves with a small number of special forces aboard. The Korea Times reported: The cylindrical vessel is about 10-15 meters long with a small-cross section that can pierce straight through waves. [Source: Korea Times, March 23, 2014]

“The VSV is much faster than air-cushion vehicles deployed by North Korea, which can move at speeds of up to 96 kilometers per hour. The communist state has deployed about 70 air-cushion vehicles on its west coast and 60 of the amphibious vehicles in the east at its four hovercraft bases, according to a report by the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff. "North Korea has been constructing the very slender vessel since last year to enhance its commandos' maritime infiltration capability," the source said, asking for anonymity. "This is believed to be ready for deployment."

“The ship was first spotted in satellite imagery last year when Pyongyang conducted its first test run in the East Sea, the source said. Seoul officials consider the high-speed craft as a big threat to front-line islands, especially after the North torpedoed South Korean Navy's Cheonan warship in the tensely guarded western sea three years ago, killing 46 sailors on board. "North Korea has continuously stepped up its maritime infiltration capability since the Cheonan sinking, and production of the high-speed craft is believed to be part of its plans to build up its capability," a senior military official said, asking not to be named. "If the VSV is deployed, it will be a big threat (to South Korea) along with the midget submarines that have already been in operation."

“The new vessels are expected to be forward deployed in the eastern coast, the official said, raising the possibility that the North may paint them with stealth paint to camouflage its warships. The communist nation has regularly carried out landing operations using amphibious vehicles, which Seoul officials believe are aimed at infiltrating the inter-Korean sea boundary to quickly occupy South Korean border islands in case of war.

North Korea's Submarines

In the mid 2010s the North Korean navy had about 70 submarines, according to Associated Press, In the mid 2000s it had 92 submarines according to the Library of Congress. Many of its submarines are mini-submarines. North Korea is developing bigger ones capable of carrying missiles tipped with nuclear warheads. That way it can deploy nuclear warheads right off the coast of the United States.

Jeremy Bender wrote in Business Insider: Age and obsolescence might also explain why the vessels have returned to port. The Diplomat notes that Pyongyang's fleet of rusting diesel submarines is capable of little more than coastal defense and has limited offensive capabilities. North Korea has approximately 70 submarines in its fleet, but 20 are Romeo-class submarines built with 1950s technology. Another 40 are North Korean domestically developed Sang-O-class subs that were specially developed for the insertion of special forces into South Korea, along with mine deployment. The rest of the fleet is thought to be comprised of Yono-class midget submarines with limited range, firepower, and operating depth. [Source: Jeremy Bender, Business Insider, August 31, 2015]

“All of these submarines are diesel-electric and extremely old. As such, the submarines can submerge for only a few days at a time — and once they surface, it would easy for South Korea to be able to pinpoint their location. Even with many of the subs still missing, their operational limitations lend credence to the idea that at least a portion of the submarines have returned to their pens in North Korea or are continuing to hide out in secluded coves and inlets throughout the North Korean shoreline.

“But despite the submarines' age and relative technological inferiority, the vessels could still cause substantial damage to South Korean vessels and disrupt shipping throughout the peninsula. In 2010, a North Korean submarine destroyed the Cheonon, a South Korean naval vessel. The attack killed 46 South Korean sailors. The sinking of the Cheonon is a stark reminder of the asymmetrical challenges that North Korea's massive — albeit rotting — diesel submarine fleet presents.

“They even has some tactical advantages over more advanced submersibles. Diesel submarines are significantly quieter than any other seaborne vessel. Although they cannot operate all that well in the open ocean, North Korea could still plant its submarines along major coastal transport and trade routes without Seoul being able to detect them. “Picking up the quiet hum of a battery-powered, diesel-electric submarine in busy coastal waters is like trying to identify the sound of a single car engine in the din of a major city,” US Rear Admiral Frank Drennan warned in March 2015. For this reason alone, North Korea's submarine fleet remains a major threat — however decrepit it may be.

In March 2014, about 70 percent of North Korea’s submarine fleet disappeared from South Korea's radar. This meant that North Korea had deployed only 50 vessels and this worried South Korea. "The number is nearly 10 times the normal level … we take the situation very seriously," a South Korean government spokesman told the AFP. It was widely thought the vessels had been recalled but some were concerned that an attack might be imminent.

Kim Min-seok, a defense ministry spokesman for South Korea, said “We’ve said before the disappearance [of North Korean submarines] is a source of concern, and the fact is they are not easy to detect when they are submerged under water,” Kim said. "No one knows whether the North will attack our warships or commercial vessels," the unnamed defense ministry official added.

New Large North Korean Sub with Nuclear Ballistic Missiles Capabilities?

Satellite imagery from 2016 suggested that North Korea was building a new, larger submarine for ballistic missiles, a US think tank has said. AFP reported: The news comes after the North in August test-fired a submarine-launched missile (SLBM) 500 kilometres (around 300 miles) towards Japan, which leader Kim Jong-Un said put the U.S. mainland and the Pacific within striking range. "Commercial satellite imagery strongly suggests that a naval construction program is underway at North Korea's Sinpo South Shipyard, possibly to build a new submarine," the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University said on its closely-watched website, 38 North. [Source: AFP, October 1, 2016]

Undated photo released in August 2016, showed a test-fire of strategic submarine-launched ballistic missile at an undisclosed location "If this activity is indeed to build a new submarine, it would appear to be larger than North Korea's GORAE-class experimental ballistic missile submarine, which has a beam of approximately 7 meters."

Analysts say that while Pyongyang has made faster progress in its SLBM system than originally expected, it is still years away from deployment. A proven SLBM system would take North Korea's nuclear strike threat to a new level, allowing deployment far beyond the Korean peninsula and a "second-strike" capability in the event of an attack on its military bases. South Korea's military authorities believe Pyongyang is eyeing a submarine capable of carrying multiple SLBMs, to replace an existing experimental submarine used for the August test, according to Seoul's Yonhap news agency.

North Korea’s Sub-Based Nuclear Ballistic Missiles?

In August 2016, North Korea conducted what many experts believe was its first successful submarine missile launch. The missile traveled 500 kilometers (311 miles) and was the first projectile ever fired by North Korea to reach Japan's air defense identification zone. "While this was a substantial improvement in North Korea's demonstrated capabilities, it does not likely represent an operational submarine launched ballistic missile capability at this time," John Schilling, an aerospace engineer and contributor to 38 North, told CNN. [Source: Joshua Berlinger, CNN, September 26, 2016]

"The question that some experts are raising is whether or not the North Koreans can actually mate a miniaturized nuclear warhead onto such a missile," Alexander Neill, a North Korea expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies Asia," told CNN. "If there's evidence that they can do that — or they have done that — than this is major concern for the region."

“But even the possibility of an underwater missile launch poses a new set of problems for North Korea's neighbors — it's a wild-card factor that introduces "a new, complex dimension of threat for the ROK [Republic of Korea], the US, Japan and others ... the ability to keep an adversary guessing, or at least to absorb an adversary's resources in tackling a new threat," says Neill. "This new capability will demand a response from the U.S. and its allies," he said. "It has introduced a new dynamic into the threat matrix on the Korean peninsula."

“Based on pictures that were released by North Korea, the submarine is believed to be its more modern, Gorae-class sub — North Korea reportedly only has one — according to an analysis by IHS Jane's. It's also likely the only sub they have that can fire a ballistic missile. The Gorae submarine is largely shrouded in mystery — it's not clear if the North Koreans are planning to use it as an experimental vehicle or whether it will be replicated and reproduced, Jane's says. And the test itself was an audacious and risky move, Schilling says."

“The missile fired from a sub appeared to be a solid fuel KN-11 — "basically a new design," Schilling said. The missile is typically nine meters (30 feet) long. It's not clear what its range is. Testing from a submarine shows great confidence from the North Koreans, almost recklessly so," he said. "The solid-fuel KN-11 is basically a new design, and North Korean missiles almost never work right on their first try. They took a big risk of damaging or sinking their only ballistic missile submarine, something we wouldn't have expected this soon, and it paid off for them (this time)." The rest of North Korea's fleet is mostly older, Soviet-era submarine equipment.

“Though the North Koreans are getting closer, most experts believe they are still a ways away from having a viable submarine-based missile launch system. "We would expect the first deployment of an operational system to occur in about two years, with full capability involving multiple submarines a year or so after that," Schilling said. "They might be able to put to sea with the one experimental submarine they presently have, some time next year, but that would be a risky move that would give only a very limited and unreliable capability."

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, Daily NK, NK News, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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