The English language version comes courtesy of Bill Gertz in Inside the Ring. It is worth reading in full, but this is how it begins.

U.S. intelligence agencies are working to track down an alarming report from inside North Korea revealing that the communist regime is secretly developing underwater nuclear torpedoes and mines.

According to a newsletter run by dissident North Koreans, the report states that North Korea’s government has a special group of researchers at the National Defense Technology Institute that is “developing underwater weapons using nuclear warheads.” The report was published Dec. 3 by the Korean-language newsletter NK Chisigan Yondae, or NK Intellectual Solidarity.

The U.S. Navy once had nuclear torpedoes and mines, as did the Soviet navy, and China’s military also has discussed the use of nuclear torpedoes in its military writings as recently as 2006.

The original report in Korean that is being discussed can be found here.

Keep in mind this is an unconfirmed report from a group of North Korean defectors. What seems to add some credibility to this new report is a “secret” Wikileaks cable dated September 26, 2008 when a Chinese diplomat told a US diplomat that North Korea failed to report “critical information about secret underwater nuclear facilities located on North Korea’s coast.”

The idea of nuclear sea mines is not a new idea, there are several Chinese articles that have discussed the nuclear sea mine capability over the last decade. In China’s Underseas Sentries, a Winter 07 Underwater Magazine article by Andrew Erickson, Ph.D., Lyle Goldstein, Ph.D., & William Murray, the Chinese discussion is mentioned:

Submarines have attracted particular attention as a deployment platform for rising mines. An article by Dalian Naval Academy researchers suggests significant PLAN interest in SLMMs. A researcher at Institute 705 advocates acquisition of an encapsulated torpedo mine, similar to the Cold War-era U.S. Captor mine, which could be laid in very deep waters to attack passing submarines. Mine belts—external conformal containers designed to carry and release large numbers of mines—can be fitted to submarines in order to bolster their otherwise limited payloads. One article emphasizes that the Soviet navy developed a “mine laying module capable of carrying 50 sea mines on either side of the submarine” and states, “For the past few years related PLA experts have expressed pronounced interest in submarine mine belts…. The PLA very probably has already developed submarine mine belts.” Another source notes, however, that “submarines built after World War II rarely carry mines externally.”

Disturbingly, there is some discussion of a theoretical nature in Chinese naval analyses concerning arming sea mines with tactical nuclear weapons. One such analysis, in the context of discussing Russian MIW, notes that nuclear sea mines could sink adversary nuclear submarines from a range of 2000 meters…. A second article finds that a nuclear payload is one logical method to increase the destructive power of sea mines, while a third analysis argues that nuclear MIW is especially promising for future deep-water ASW operations. It concludes: “At this time, various countries are actively researching this extremely powerful nuclear-armed sea mine.”43 An article in the July 2006 issue of Modern Navy (Dangdai Haijun), published by the PLA Navy itself, in the context of discussing potential future PLA Navy use of sea mines, also notes the potential combat value of nuclear-armed sea mines. While there is no direct evidence of the existence of such naval tactical nuclear weapons programs in China, these articles do perhaps suggest the need to closely monitor any Chinese efforts in this direction.

The specific citations for the nuclear mine discussion are below:

焦方金 [Jiao Fangjin], “双头鹰的水中伏兵” [The Double-Headed Eagle’s Ambush at Sea], 国防科技 [Defense Science], July 2003, p. 91.
王 伟 [Wang Wei], “历久弥新话水雷” [Enduring and Yet Fully Relevant: A Discussion of Sea Mines], 国防 [National Defense], November 2002, p. 58.
陈冬元 [Chen Dongyuan], p. 45.

Is North Korea a signatory of the 1971 Seabed Treaty? I don’t think North Korea takes such things seriously, but use of a nuclear sea mine would be a clear violation.

In the focus of the Iranian nuclear program, I have discussed red lines that once crossed, means a military attack will likely come soon after. We have never really seen where a red line was crossed in regards to an Iranian nuclear program, but I am starting to wonder if someone in Seoul has decided North Korea has crossed that red line with the North Korean nuclear program. If so, it might help explain why the Obama administration seems to be committed to the new South Korean led strategy in dealing with North Korea, even if supporting that strategy takes the Korean Peninsula to the brink of war.

Posted by galrahn in Foreign Policy, Maritime Security

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  • Adrian Villanueva

    This is indeed an alarming information especially when a rogue country like North Korea is uncontrollable and provokes South Korea.If China cannot control its ally, then it’s important for South Korea, Japan and the US should take necessary action to STOP NK’s undersea weapons development, or is it too late?. Time to stop pandering to North Korea, and it would also be absolutely unwise for any US official or Governor to visit the North Koreans presently. Remember how the British PM Chamberlain was fooled by Nazi Germany? Same can be expected by a NK dictatorship.

  • I wouldn’t stress too much over this. Though nuke mines are rather easy (if you have a nuke) to make and deploy – just because you can do something doesn’t mean it is a good idea or an efficient/effective use of resources. From a Tactical, Operational, and Strategic POV – NORK nuke sea mines just shouldn’t be on anyone’s Top 10 NORK worries.

    Tactical Problems:
    1. You have to have specifically trained and highly specialized personnel to configure for use, arm, deploy and monitor a nuke.
    2. A nuke explosion underwater is not as powerful as you think – especially against a submarine. Nuff said there, but also consider that a generous “2,000 meter kill radius” is not that large a chunk of waterspace; it really isn’t.
    3. Unless you are in a specific choke point, it takes a lot of nukes to have an effective field. A lot more if your mine is using late-20th Century passive and magnetic triggers against a 21st Century warship. Again – an effective use of nuclear weapons?

    Operational Problems:
    1. Given the Tactical issues – is this really the best use of your nuclear weapons? Even in an asymmetric/terroristic way. Once you arm a mine – there are precious few ways to disarm them. You also have a limited ability to pick the time of your detonation. The second and third order effects of a nuke going off are totally different than a conventional. In a dynamic analysis – you lose any tactical advantage you may have sought in a static analysis.
    2. If used in a choke point odds are you are close to land. Mines close to land are easier to mark when laid, swept if found, and/or avoid due to a limited area of uncertainty. If open ocean, your measure of effectiveness for your mine field is very small. It’s a big ocean.
    3. A nuclear mine does nothing against an air or land threat. What is the marginal gain vs. the marginal risk in deploying such a passive weapon that once used, changes everything?

    Strategic Problem:
    1. Use of a nuclear weapon of any type opens the door to a very dark and a very dangerous room. The use of a nuke must be specific in time, target, and effect. It must be used in such a way to break the enemy’s will to continue. Will a nuke mine do that more effectively than one delivered via other means?

    Back in the old Cold War where we used to train for total, global nuclear war – the argument for nuclear mine’s utility was weak at best. In the 21st Century – their utility is even worse. If the Chinese are thinking through that problem as well – that doesn’t bother me. They are smart patriots like the USA and USSR types were – they will come to the same conclusion. Nuke mines are just not worth the effort.

    Back to the Hermit Kingdom; I wouldn’t worry about the NORKs nuke mine if they even to go there. Actually, if they were going to trip off a nuke, I would hope it would be a mine. It would do the least damage and would require the least long-term damage response on our part.

  • Matt Yankee

    What about a nuke torpedo? NORK had the marbles to sink the Cheonan…and a Chinese sub popped up within a CSG why wouldn’t they be aiming to surprise a carrier? What would be the reaction to a Cheonan type attack on a carrier and with a nuke torpedo? Would the Chinese expect to gain their stated intention to rein over the South China Sea and beyond?

    Yet another reason to sink the NORK navy and remove that threat. Make the Chinese do it themselves if they dare.

  • Byron

    Nuke torpedo’s: see “dark room” above. Not to mention. I really doubt the NORKs have SKINCs.

  • Always happy to read and learn from those better informed. I’ve fretted over the symbolic loss of a CVN or SSN for a while, and undersea nukes look like the way to do it. Now I’ll fret more realistically 😎

    Commander, you’ve coined a taut new turn of phrase. We all should know about the Very Dark Room.

  • DPRK traveler

    As always with stories on DPRK there is so little knowledge with so much speculation. Many of these “reports” are circulated with a motivation. The receiver of the report uses them to bolster their pre-conceived notions or fears. I have traveled the DPRK three times in the last three years and this is a society where the soldiers do not have socks. Their best industries are barely operating. Food cannot be moved around and is harvested often by ox cart. Behind those parades are a military barely functioning. The reality is far different than you perceive. Do not be captive to your fears. Their long range missile tests are failures. The first nuclear test was possibly a failure and some say the second may be. Their tanks are rotting in place. Look beyond the nice paint job and the CNN parade video. Overestimation is a standard American military pastime. While preparing for all contingencies is wise, this is not one of them.

  • Matt Yankee

    The “dark room” is lit just enough by our continually evidenced tendancy to make PC decisions to the detriment of our interests.

    Inside the Ring article states they intend to have nuke torpedos by 2012…that’s 13 months away. Even if it’s 2-3 yrs away why give up a perfectly good excuse to sink their Navy and remove all of their Naval potential…at a minimum. Chinese should be forced to bleed somewhere also…supplying terrorists with shoulder fired missiles is going WAY past the line.

    New Mexican Governor just advertises our naivety by paying the North a visit and believing talk will lead to peace. This only will make them bolder as blatant wishful thinking confirms their perception of our willingness to be misled.

  • Chuck Hill

    Nuclear Torpedoes certainly make more sense than nuclear mines. Their conventional subs are really just smart mines anyway.

    It does seem unlikely that they have enough warheads to consider this, when there are so many other places they may want to use them.

  • Matt Yankee

    The NORKs are seeking a nuke to go around needing large conventional (and highly sophisticated) forces… just like AQ. AND just like AQ, asymetric nuclear attacks can be complicated if not impossible to respond to with nuclear deterrence because the head of the snake is not going to be at risk in a counter strike…no capital and leadership can be in a cave or small town somewhere. I really don’t think the Chinese or the North would care about losing North Korean cities if they could sink a carrier. The “dark room” should include Chinese cities and this should be stated clearly…just like what we faced from Cuba.

  • From the viewpoint of what capabilities North Korea is likely to develop at sea, this seems to fit the bill. North Korean deterrence is based on nuclear weapons, otherwise they would not be foolish enough to fire artillery at South Korean neighborhoods. Nuclear mines would not be difficult for North Korea, sea mines is a technology the DRPK does still develop.

    North Korea does not have a traditional Navy, they have a coastal protection agency and very small submarines. Their most capable naval weapons are old anti-ship missiles, shore based artillery, torpedoes, and mines.

    The question is whether one believes the DRPK view of maritime denial is seen from their view of the Battle of Inchon, reinforced by the way the US Navy, South Korean Navy, and Japanese Navy typically operates around North Korea.

    No, not from the view of an amphibious landing – rather observing the operational model of concentrated, large armadas of warships. In the context of limited resources and capability options facing overwhelming forces that are concentrated for maximum offense and defense, underwater nuclear weapons is precisely the way to attack.


    While I agree a nuclear torpedo makes far more sense than a mine, even a nuclear torpedo will only get one ship. Much better than a conventional torpedo, but still only one ship. Even a casual review of the results of the Bikini tests and other nuclear tests (including the test of the Nuclear ASROC) shows that most ships (especially submarines) will escape significant damage unless they are virtually (in a nuclear sense and 2000yds is somewhat greater than that) directly over the blast. Unless making a photo, our ships never operate that closely. If you have a plethora of nuclear weapons, nuclear torpedoes make sense. If you don’t, there are better uses for them. Of course, the NORKs might see it differently or may be planning for a plethora of warheads.

  • Byron

    However…if one nuclear mine goes off and damages/sinks a ship, you’ll freeze the rest of the formation until sweeping operations have cleared the area. Look no further than the second amphibious invasion of Korea and you’ll see it took days to get the ships through a cleared lane…and that’s when we took MIW seriously.

  • Lowly USN Retired

    Has Truman’s decision to deny General of the Army Douglas MacArthur to develop and enforce the General’s rules of enfagement and command the 1950-1953 war in Korea still haunting the United States and the Republic of Korea? Did Truman make a terrible mistake when he fired General MacArthur? One might say, “should of, could of, would of, what does it matter? The matter is, the United States would not continue to be bogged down in East Asia now and forever it seems and we would not have this discussion on the DPRK pursuit of developing nuclear sea mines. When will American politicians learn from their mistakes and understand if we are to insert our military forces into conflicts and hostile environments, we must do so as total war with one goal only, unconditional surrender of the enemy. To not do this is to dishonor those brave men and women who serve, who pay the ultimate sacrifice, are maimed and scared for life as a result of hostilities and as important, to never learn from our past mistakes.

  • Fortnova

    Interesting that they’re trying to pursue this path. Problem isn’t necessarily that nuclear sea mines would be all that effective or that much of a threat from North Korea (based upon the principle that mines rely on overwhelming numbers of devices to effectively cover an area, even nuclear ones would have to be packed pretty densely and in large numbers to be an effective threat). The real worry is the fact that the DPRK would be willing to utilize nuclear devices in such a haphazard manner. Not that I expect them to be responsible stewards of nuclear technology, but that’s beyond what I’d have even expected of them.

    Let’s just hope this isn’t true…