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North Korea’s naval forces get ‘serious’ upgrades

This July satellite image provided by Airbus Defense and Space and 38 North shows Munchon Naval Base, North Korea. Four known naval squadrons are subordinate to KPA Navy Unit 155: a patrol squadron, a torpedo squadron, a fast-attack squadron and a fire-support squadron, according to 38 North, a U.S. think tank that monitors North Korean activities.

COURTESY OF ADS/38 NORTH

By KIM GAMEL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 2, 2016

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea is pouring “serious resources” into modernizing its naval forces, an effort that could eventually increase the threat to U.S. and South Korean vessels in the region, a U.S. think tank says.

Commercial satellite images show the North Koreans have been working aggressively since 2014 to upgrade training facilities, weapons systems and special operations capabilities at the Munchon naval base on the country’s east coast, the U.S.-Korea Institute’s 38 North blog said Thursday.

It is part of leader Kim Jong Un’s strategy to improve North Korea’s conventional military capabilities and special operations forces in parallel with its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, experts said on a conference call to discuss the report.

“It appears that North Korea, at this point in time, is concentrating all of its naval sniper brigades on the east coast,” said Joseph Bermudez, who wrote the analysis for the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

“Since Kim Jong Un has come to power, we see an upgrading across the board in North Korean military capabilities,” he said.

Workers also are developing new ship-support facilities that “remained relatively untouched” during the regime of Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, who died in 2011, the analysis said.

The upgrades could increase the Korean People’s Navy’s operational readiness and coastal defenses along with the ability of amphibious special forces to conduct operations against the South in wartime, it added.

They also could increase the navy’s ability to mount longer and more frequent naval patrols farther out into the Sea of Japan.

Munchon — a collection of small bases hosting at least 16 operational and support units — is the largest naval facility on North Korea’s east coast and houses the headquarters of the 13th Naval Command.

Significant projects include the testing and development by Navy Unit 155 of the single NONGO-class missile-armed patrol craft and the anti-ship KH-35 missile, according to the report, which was based on July 13 satellite images.

“Should the new KH-35 missile system be successfully integrated into the KPN and widely deployed, it would pose an increased threat to South Korean and U.S. Navy vessels in the region,” the website said.

North Korea also has razed and rebuilt the October 3 dockyard, named for the date the country’s founder, Kim Il Sung, first visited the area in 1961. The site now consists of about 30 buildings, a dry dock and a warehouse area.

Construction also began to modernize and expand the base for a navy sniper brigade known as Unit 291. When complete, it is expected to house all five navy sniper battalions of the East Sea Fleet, and 68 to 84 Kongbang II/III-class hovercraft will be stored in new hardened shelters, 38 North said.

“This consolidation will improve training and coordination, and facilitate the maximum projection of amphibious forces against the South Korean east coast during a future conflict,” it added.

Tensions have spiked on the divided peninsula since North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test in January, followed by a long-range rocket launch that sent a satellite into orbit earlier. That prompted a new round of toughened U.N. sanctions.

North Korea also has been angered by U.S.-South Korean war games that began on Aug. 22 and were due to end Friday.

The North’s Korean People’s Army again denounced the joint exercises known as Ulchi Freedom Guardian.

It issued a so-called white paper on Friday that said the drills are “nothing more than exercises to prepare for a pre-emptive nuclear strike against North Korea,” according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency.

“If they persistently resort to military exercises and other nuclear war exercises against the DPRK, they will face the most merciless and miserable end,” KCNA reported, using the acronym for the North’s official name.

The two Koreas are technically still at war after the 1950-53 conflict ended with an armistice instead of a peace treaty. About 28,500 U.S. servicemembers are stationed in the South.

gamel.kim@stripes.com

Twitter: @kimgamel

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