North Korea tests new nuclear-capable underwater drone

Analysts say isolated country trying to show off its increasingly diverse nuclear threats to Washington and Seoul

North Korea has tested a new nuclear-capable underwater attack drone, state media reported on Friday, as leader Kim Jong Un warned that joint military drills by South Korea and the US should stop.

During the test, the drone cruised underwater at a depth of 80 to 150 metres for more than 59 hours and detonated a non-nuclear payload in waters off its east coast on Thursday, North Korean state news agency KCNA said.

Analysts say North Korea is showing off its increasingly diverse nuclear threats to Washington and Seoul, though they are sceptical whether the underwater device is ready for deployment.

North Korea intends to signal “to the United States and South Korea that in a war, the potential vectors of nuclear weapons delivery that the allies would have to worry about and target would be vast,” said Ankit Panda, senior fellow at the US-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.


“There would be silos, railcars, submarines and road mobile missile launchers. And now they’re adding this underwater torpedo to the mix.”

Sneak attacks

On Monday, the isolated country flew a short-range missile from a buried silo, a departure from usual methods.

Dubbed "Haeil", or tsunami, the new drone system is intended to make sneak attacks in enemy waters and destroy naval strike groups and major operational ports by creating a large radioactive wave through an underwater explosion, the KCNA said.

“This nuclear underwater attack drone can be deployed at any coast and port or towed by a surface ship for operation,” the news agency said, adding that Mr Kim oversaw the test.

A South Korean military official said they were analysing North Korea’s claims. A US official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said there was no indication of a nuclear test.

It is unclear whether North Korea has fully developed miniaturised nuclear warheads needed to fit on its smaller weapons. Analysts say perfecting such warheads would most likely be a key goal if the North resumes nuclear testing.

Visible blasts

A photo released by state media showed Kim smiling next to a large torpedo-shaped object, but did not identify it as the new drone. Other photos showed tracks of the object’s underwater trajectory, and blasts visible on the sea surface.

Mr Panda said the weapon’s operational concept was similar to Russia’s Poseidon nuclear torpedoes, a new category of retaliatory weapon meant to create destructive, radioactive blasts in coastal areas.

South Korean president Yoon Suk Yeol said on Friday that he would make sure North Korea paid for its “reckless provocations”. He was making a speech to commemorate service members who died in clashes with North Korea in western waters, including a 2010 sinking of a navy ship that South Korea said was struck by a North Korean torpedo.

North Korea also said it had fired cruise missiles on Wednesday to practice carrying out tactical nuclear attacks, confirming earlier reports from the South Korean military. The cruise missiles were tipped with a “test warhead simulating a nuclear warhead,” and flew 1,500-1,800km, according to KCNA.

The latest tests took place as South Korean and US troops launched their largest amphibious landing drills in years, involving a US assault ship, on Monday.

North Korea said military exercises by the United States and South Korea require its forces to "gird themselves for an all-out war and bolster up its nuclear force both in quality and quantity on a priority basis".

Pyongyang has long bristled at exercises conducted by South Korean and US forces, saying they are preparation for an invasion of the North. South Korea and the US say the exercises are purely defensive and have criticised the North’s tests as destabilising and in breach of UN sanctions. - Reuters