WASHINGTON (AP) — North Korea has built a new testing facility that is probably intended to research how to launch ballistic missiles from submarines or ships, according to a U.S. research institute.
The North is still likely years away from fielding such missiles, but the finding will add to concern over its weapons development.
The analysis is based on recent satellite imagery at the east coast site of Sinpo, where the institute says North Korea has a naval shipyard and research institute. It shows a 12-meter (39-foot) -high stand on a 30-meter (98-foot) -wide concrete base that is the right size and design for testing how a missile would eject from a launch tube as on a submarine or surface combat ship, according to the analysis published by 38 North, the website of the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
Nearby the test stand are support buildings protected by berms and what looks like the entrance to an underground facility.
"This may be an early indication that North Korea is considering basing ballistic missiles armed with nuclear weapons on submarines in order to hide them and make them more survivable," said Joel Wit, a former State Department official and editor of 38 North.
"However, Pyongyang would still have a number of difficult technical hurdles to jump before actually fielding an operational weapon. It remains unclear whether it will be able to do so," he said.
North Korea's development of nuclear weapons and land-based missiles is a growing concern to Washington.
Last week, Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of U.S. forces in Korea, said Pyongyang may already have the capability to miniaturize a nuclear device and potentially to deliver one on a missile fired from a road-mobile launcher. Although the missile is thought to have the range to reach America, Scaparrotti said North Korea hasn't tested it and the chances of it being effective are low.
A Congressional Research Service report in 2009 said there were indications that North Korea may be pursuing a sea-based ballistic missile capability, after reportedly obtaining some of the necessary technology when in 1993 it bought 12 decommissioned Russian submarines for scrap.
The 38 North analysis is written by Joe Bermudez, who is an expert on satellite imagery and North Korea's military. He says that naval construction and modernization programs by the North since the early 2000's appear to have accelerated under current leader Kim Jong Un.
However, he notes that despite recent reports that North Korea may have equipped a submarine with a missile launch tube, commercial satellite imagery of North Korea's submarine bases and shipyards since 2010 hasn't turned up evidence that the North has done so.
Bermudez says that in the event North Korea were to take such a step, it would be easier technically to start with Scud or short-range ballistic missiles, rather than its medium- or intermediate-range missiles, which are capable of traveling several hundred miles (kilometers) or more.
Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corp., said while the shorter-range missiles would not give North Korea much capacity to strike targets even in neighboring countries, it would still be a significant capability if it then built longer-range missiles to fit in the same launch tube.
He questioned, however, the capability of North Korea's current fleet of submarines for that job, as the vessels tend to be small and old, and relatively easy to find via anti-submarine warfare.
"Unless the submarine is hard to find, it is not a very good platform on which to put a ballistic missile," Bennett said.