Go to contents

Nuclear-powered submarines: A timely necessity for S. Korea

Nuclear-powered submarines: A timely necessity for S. Korea

Posted September. 09, 2023 08:14,   

Updated September. 09, 2023 08:14


North Korea declared through its state media on Friday that it had successfully deployed its first "tactical nuclear attack submarine," capable of undersea attack operations. This submarine, their largest to date at an estimated 3,000 tons, boasts four large and six small launch tubes. Some experts speculate that these tubes could accommodate both submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and tactical nuclear cruise missiles. South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff expressed doubts about the submarine's operational capabilities based on its exterior analysis.

The submarine's claimed capacity to carry tactical nuclear weapons remains unverified. It remained largely unseen since its initial partial display in 2019, with unconfirmed capabilities due to the absence of SLBM test firings. However, it suddenly reappeared for a launch ceremony, coinciding with a military parade marking the 75th anniversary of the regime’s founding. Many speculate that this unveiling aims to demonstrate military strength, possibly to secure nuclear-powered submarine technology from Russia, whose President is expected to visit Pyongyang next week. South Korean military authorities suggest this move may involve deception or overstatement of capabilities.

North Korea has explicitly stated its intent to accelerate the development of its nuclear capabilities in undersea warfare. Unlike land-based nuclear missiles, SLBMs or nuclear torpedoes can stealthily ambush their targets, potentially undermining South Korean defenses. The advancement of North Korea's nuclear capabilities could pose a massive threat, especially if they obtain nuclear-powered submarine technologies from Russia. Consequently, South Korea urgently needs to formulate emergency response plans.

South Korea has developed SLBMs and incorporated them into combat readiness. However, our capabilities are notably limited compared to North Korea's undersea warfare potential, backed by nuclear warheads. To address this disparity, South Korea has been striving to acquire nuclear-powered submarines with advanced underwater navigation capabilities. Although we possess submarine construction and small nuclear reactor development expertise, securing nuclear fuel has been a challenge. Attempts to circumvent the Republic of Korea-U.S. Atomic Energy Agreement, which bans military use of nuclear materials, have been consistently denied by the U.S.

In 2021, the U.S. entered the AUKUS agreement with Australia and the U.K. to supply nuclear-powered submarine technology. While this pact claims to be a unique exemption to non-proliferation rules, there may arise a need for the U.S. to grant South Korea access to this technology in the future to counter North Korean nuclear provocations, a global threat. We must pursue revisions to the Atomic Energy Agreement in the long run while swiftly exploring ways to secure nuclear fuel for our own development of nuclear-powered submarine technology.