Submarine Comparison: North Korea's Hero Kim Kun-ok vs. South Korea's Dosan Ahn Changho-class

In a geopolitical chess game, the underwater arena is witnessing fierce competition between North and South Korea as they race to fortify their naval arsenals. The spotlight is on North Korea’s recent unveiling of its ballistic missile submarine, the “Hero Kim Kun-ok” number 841, while South Korea responds with the Dosan Ahn Changho-class submarines. Let’s dive into the depths of this maritime rivalry.

North Korea’s “Invincible Precious Sword”

Launching Ceremony and Capability

The North Korean Navy proudly presented the “Hero Kim Kun-ok” in September 2023, labeling it as an “invincible precious sword.” Equipped with diesel-electric engines, this submarine boasts the capability to launch nuclear warhead-carrying missiles from underwater. According to North Korea’s Central News Agency (KCNA), Submarine 841 is deemed capable of defeating any formidable enemy.

Submarine Comparison: North Korea's Hero Kim Kun-ok vs. South Korea's Dosan Ahn Changho-class
North Korean submarine 841 during the launching ceremony on September 6. Photo: Reuters

Technical Evolution

Compared to its predecessor, the Gorae-class 8.24 Yongung, the 841 submarine showcases significant advancements. Extended by approximately 10 meters, with a shortened and rounded nose, it stands 86 meters in length, over 6 meters wide, and has a displacement of 1,830 tons. The missile compartment’s strategic placement behind the command tower mirrors designs from Russia and China.

Missile Arsenal

The submarine’s vertical launch tube cluster comprises 4 large tubes at the front and 6 smaller tubes at the back, hinting at a diverse missile payload. Analysts suggest it can launch the short-range KN-23 ballistic missile and the submarine-launched cruise missile (SLCM) Hwasal-1, with a range of 700 km and 1,500 km, respectively. Expert Tyler Rogoway even speculates the potential for launching the Hwasal-2 with a range of 2,000 km.

Tactical Nuclear Attack Submarine

During the launch, North Korean media labeled Submarine 841 a “tactical nuclear attack submarine,” indicating its role in regional raids rather than targeting distant strategic locations like the continental United States.

South Korea’s Response: Dosan Ahn Changho-class

Submarine Comparison: North Korea's Hero Kim Kun-ok vs. South Korea's Dosan Ahn Changho-class
Dosan Ahn Chang-ho submarine during testing. Photo: Korean Navy

Technological Superiority

South Korea counters North Korea’s submarine advancements with the Dosan Ahn Changho-class, officially named KSS-III. These domestic submarines, with a displacement exceeding 3,000 tons, showcase cutting-edge technology. The optoelectronic system allows for enhanced situational awareness without surfacing, and sound-absorbing tiles minimize noise detection.

Weapons and Capabilities

Armed with 6 torpedo tubes and 6 vertical launch tubes, Dosan Ahn Changho submarines can launch Hyunmoo 4-4 ballistic missiles with a range of 500 km or cruise missiles with a maximum range of 1,500 km. The advanced sonar system further enhances their defensive capabilities.

Future Expansion

South Korea plans to build a total of 9 KSS-III class submarines, with the later batches featuring larger size, more vertical launch tubes, and enhanced lithium batteries for extended range and operational time. Future considerations include potential upgrades like a vertical launch system and the development of nuclear-powered variants.

Evaluating the Maritime Arms Race

Strategic Implications

The race for ballistic missile submarines plays a pivotal role in determining each Korean nation’s advantage in a potential conflict on the peninsula. South Korea’s Dosan Ahn Changho-class appears to have a technological edge over North Korea’s 841 submarines.

Expert Insights

Military experts, such as Bruce Bennet and Ankit Panda, express concerns about the 841 submarine’s outdated design and potential performance issues. Bennet suggests it may face challenges against modern anti-submarine weapons, while Panda predicts limited maneuverability and durability for offshore combat missions.

Future Challenges and Ambitions

Despite North Korea’s ambitions to upgrade its remaining Romeo-class submarines to SSBs and pursue nuclear weaponization efforts, experts like Bennet remain skeptical of their financial capabilities to realize such aspirations.

In conclusion, the maritime rivalry between North and South Korea unveils a complex dynamic where technological advancements, strategic considerations, and financial constraints intersect. As the submarines take center stage, the geopolitical undercurrents in the Korean Peninsula continue to evolve, adding yet another layer of complexity to the regional security landscape.