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A photo released on July 23, 2019, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in front of a submarine that could potentially shoot nuclear weapons. | Korean Central News Agency
The revelation is clearly a message for Trump.
North Korea has released pictures of a new submarine that it could potentially use to launch nuclear weapons. If that’s the case, the country may have gained a very dangerous, stealthy ability to threaten the US and its allies — all in defiance of President Donald Trump.
Pyongyang released three images on Monday night showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un standing in front of a massive submarine inside a shipyard. Experts say it’s large enough that it could carry missiles equipped with nuclear bombs, allowing Kim to order nuclear strikes from unknown underwater locations.
While none of the photos definitively prove the vessel could shoot nuclear-tipped projectiles — they’re cropped so you can’t see the top part of the submarine where the weapons would go — analysts tell me North Korea would probably only be interested in developing a submarine if it had nuclear capability.
“Why waste the real estate?” MIT nuclear expert Vipin Narang said, noting that North Korea wouldn’t bother putting conventional bombs on one of its only two missile-carrying submarines.
This revelation is a potential game changer. Though experts believe the pictured submarine is an untested, still-in-construction prototype, it shows that North Korea is steadily improving its ability to threaten the US and its allies from harder-to-detect locations.
Which means in the unlikely event that the US and North Korea get into a nuclear war, it’d prove very hard for Washington to destroy the submarine before it could launch nukes at South Korea, Japan, or even the United States.
What’s more, recent satellite images captured by the private company Planet Labs revealed that North Korea has built what experts believe is a new training center for submarine operators near the shipyard holding the new submarine. That demonstrates just how much and how long the country has planned to operate beneath the waves.
Once North Korean submariners are fully trained and the vessel is ready to go — which could still be a long way off, experts say — the North Korean nuclear threat will become even more menacing than it already is.
The state-run Korean Central News Agency alluded to how excited Kim is to have this new weapon at his disposal.
“The submarine built under the meticulous guidance [of] Kim Jong Un will perform its duty in the operational waters of the East Sea of Korea and its operational deployment is near at hand,” a KCNA article on Kim’s visit to the shipyard reads.
“The Supreme Leader learned in detail about its operational and tactical data and combat weapon systems,” it continues. “He expressed great satisfaction … that the submarine was designed … implementing the military strategic intention of the Party.”
The word “strategic” in that last line is very important: It’s wonk-speak for “nuclear.” In other words, North Korea wants the world to know it may soon have this new provocative and deadly nuclear capability.
The big question, though, is why Kim has decided to reveal this new submarine now — in the middle of ongoing (albeit stalled) negotiations with the Trump administration over dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program, and before Kim even knows if the submarine actually works.
The answer, it seems, is that he’s trying to send a stern message to Trump: Make a deal with me soon — or else.
“He went out of his way to show this off”
Despite the warm personal feelings between the two countries’ leaders, nuclear talks between the US and North Korea have been at an impasse for months now.
Kim wants Trump to lift sanctions on his country before he gives up some of his weapons, and Trump wants Kim to give up nearly all of his weapons before he lifts the sanctions. As a result, the two sides remain locked in a stalemate.
The submarine pictures, experts say, are a way for Kim to vent his frustration about the stalemate.
“He didn’t need to exhibit the sub while it’s still in the construction hall. He could have waited until it was in the water,” Joshua Pollack, an expert on North Korea’s nuclear program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, told me.
“I think it’s fair to say he went out of his way to show this off,” he added. “And he did so in the presence of officials associated with the nuclear and missile programs, lest anyone miss the point.”
And as the Middlebury Institute’s Jamie Withorne also pointed out to me, this is the first time since February 2018 — during a large-scale military parade — that North Korea has shown off one of its nuclear-related weapons. The point, in other words, is evidence.
Though the Trump administration has been publicly silent so far about this new development, there’s no doubt that it has received the message loud and clear.
Experts will now be watching to see how it chooses to respond — and whether any of this will actually help break the impasse between the two countries.
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