Formations of troops have been practising for what is expected to be a major military parade in on October 10, the 75th anniversary of the ruling Workers’ Party.
Some observers say North Korea may use the Pyongyang parade to showcase its largest missiles for the first time since 2018.
Satellite photos have also shown a flurry of activity at the Sinpo South Shipyard where the North builds submarines, including in a secure basin where a barge used in previous underwater launches is docked.
‘We’re monitoring developments, as there is a possibility that a submarine-launched ballistic missile test will be conducted there,’ said South Korea’s incoming military chief Won In-choul.
A satellite image shows people assembled in formation near Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang in apparent preparations for a major ruling party parade on October 10
Analysts say there has been a flurry of activity at the Sinpo South Shipyard, where the North builds submarines (pictured earlier this month)
Experts say the North’s push to acquire submarine-launched missiles is a worrying development because they are difficult to detect before launch.
A source told Seoul-based website Daily NK that the shipyard is ‘bustling with activity to prepare for the ballistic missile launch’, with officials and researchers arriving since late August.
Dave Schmerler, a researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said there were signs of work being done on the missile barge.
However, he said the activity would also be consistent with basic repair work after the typhoons which lashed the Korean peninsula earlier this month.
Won, the nominee for chairman of South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the North could carry out a submarine-launched ballistic missile test once repairs are complete.
He said South Korea’s military is keeping a close watch on developments there, according to written remarks ahead of a confirmation hearing.
38 North, a US-based think tank, said imagery showed ‘heavy activity’ at the shipyard, but that ‘no other indicators of launch preparations were observed.’
Incoming South Korean defence minister Suh Wook said on Monday that he considered a submarine test unlikely because there is too little time to prepare.
On September 4, the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies said satellite imagery showed activity at Sinpo that was ‘suggestive, but not conclusive, of preparations for an upcoming test of a Pukguksong-3 submarine launched ballistic missile from the submersible test stand barge.’
The North has not launched intercontinental ballistic missiles since 2017, a pause which Donald Trump has hailed as a diplomatic success.
However, North Korea said last October that it had test-fired a Pukguksong-3, prompting no major reaction from Trump.
Experts say past North Korean underwater-launched missile tests were conducted from a submersible barge with a launch tube, not a fully-fledged submarine.
Experts are watching to see whether Kim Jong-un (pictured earlier this month) will unveil new weapons in North Korea
In July 2019, Kim inspected a newly built submarine which appeared to be the North’s most sophisticated model with several launch tubes.
Jung Changwook, head of the Korea Defense Study Forum in Seoul, said North Korea could perform a test to upgrade its nuclear attack capability and put pressure on Washington after the US election in early November.
Jung said a missile fired from the barge would have a potential range of up to 310 miles, posing no direct threat to the US mainland.
Nuclear talks between Trump and Kim have made little headway since the collapse of their second summit in Vietnam in early 2019.
The failure of the summit was followed by months of angry rhetoric, although hopes were briefly revived when Trump made an impromptu visit to the DMZ and met Kim.
Relations with the South have also been at a standstill, and Pyongyang blew up a North-South liaison office on its side of the border earlier this year.
Few of the pledges signed by Kim and the South’s president Moon Jae-in at their 2018 Pyongyang summit – among them joint sports teams and an Olympic bid, work towards transport links, and a visit by Kim to Seoul – have come to pass.
The North is now grappling with multiple crises including typhoon damage, the coronavirus pandemic which led to the closure of its border with China, and tough US sanctions.
But Seoul’s unification minister Lee In-young said this week: ‘I hope that communication channels, including the inter-Korean liaison office, can be restored and we can resume open-minded dialogue at an early date.’