I Spy a Frigate … or Two

Pyongyang's military is in decline? Think again. New satellite images show that nukes aren't the only thing on North Korea's mind these days.

While the world is focused on the threat of more North Korean nuclear tests, Pyongyang has been busy on yet another military front. Satellite imagery from December 2013 and January 2014 has identified two new helicopter-carrying frigates -- the largest surface combatants constructed by the North Korean navy in 25 years.

Although the new weapons may be Pyongyang's attempt to counter what it sees as a growing threat from South Korea's submarine fleet, these vessels also could have an important secondary role: protecting fisheries, located in the Yellow Sea and Sea of Japan (East Sea), which have important security implications for South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia. They may also represent a step toward developing a naval strategy to include helicopter anti-submarine operations. 

With construction beginning in 2006 and 2007, the first ship was launched in 2011 and the second in 2012. It is unclear, however, whether they are ready for service. Nevertheless, should the KPN, as North Korea's navy is called, push aggressively to commission these new vessels, it will still likely take several years to fully integrate their new capabilities into fleet operations. 

But these developments aren't exclusively about the addition of these frigates. What's notable is that Pyongyang has modernized its military during a period of prolonged and expanding international economic sanctions against North Korea as well as regular media reports about the country's economic and industrial stagnation and its reliance on outdated conventional military weapons.

North Korea's deployment of new helicopter-carrying frigates may be an important wake-up call not only about the overall effectiveness of sanctions in constraining Pyongyang's military programs, but also the need to carefully and realistically re-evaluate reports of its conventional military decline. 


During the late 1990s, as North Korea emerged from a prolonged period of famine, floods, and economic collapse, the KPN initiated a modest but wide-ranging modernization and shipbuilding program in an effort to address growing ship obsolescence and decreasing serviceability. Among the many components of this program was the replacement of old weaponry with Gatling-gun weapon systems on a number of patrol vessels, the KPN's first attempt to incorporate a degree of stealth technology in the design and construction of the patrol vessels; the construction of at least two new subclasses of stealthy fast patrol craft; and three new classes of very slender vessels, including a high-speed infiltration landing craft.

Another key component of this program was the construction of a new class of helicopter-carrying frigates. The KPN first became interested in these vessels during the late 1970s when it designed and then built the helicopter-carrying Soho-class guided-missile frigate (known by the designation FFGH) that presented an unusual mix of military options -- a choice that hinted at the service's possible indecisiveness as to the vessel's mission. The frigate had a catamaran-type hull, a flight deck that could accommodate one Mi-4PL ASW helicopter, four RBU-1200 anti-submarine warfare rocket launchers, depth charges, four SS-N-2 Styx anti-ship cruise missiles, a 100 mm gun for surface warfare, and various air-defense weapons. The hull was laid down in June 1980 at the No. 28 Shipyard in Najin, launched in November 1981, and commissioned in May 1982.

Location map.

Ultimately, the design was unsuccessful. The frigate was difficult to handle in rough seas. Consequently, it spent the majority of its career in port, only occasionally venturing out to sea and never far out into the Sea of Japan. During the 1990s, Pyongyang moved the frigate to the Singyo-ri Patrol Base on North Korea's east coast, where it spent most of its remaining career until the summer of 2007, when it was moved back to Najin and finally scrapped in mid-2009.

Soho-class FFGH, No. 823, seen at the Singyo-ri Patrol Base on North Korea's east coast, Nov. 5, 2006.

The failure of the helicopter-carrying Soho-class guided-missile frigate -- combined with the South Korean Navy's aggressive long-term expansion of its submarine forces, begun in the early 1990s -- presented the KPN with serious challenges, given its declining anti-submarine warfare capabilities. The bleak economic realities in the North at the time made it hard for the KPN to address the South's challenge. But by the end of the 1990s, the North initiated a new modest modernization program that eventually included a new class of helicopter-carrying frigate. The organization in charge of North Korea's defense industry, the Second Economic Bureau, oversaw the design of the new ship, and the plan was implemented by the Academy of National Defense Science's Nampo Ship Design Institute in cooperation with its Maritime Research Institute.

The Nampo helicopter-carrying frigate is seen berthed at the Nampo Shipyard in a satellite image on Dec. 27, 2013. Visible are the flight deck with the "H" helicopter landing zone and four probable RBU-1200 rocket launchers on the bow. Adjacent to it is one of the KPN's new 30m-class VSV (very slender vessel) stealth patrol craft. 

Satellite imagery from December 2013 of the Nampo Shipyard and from January 2014 of the No. 28 Shipyard in Najin provide the first clear details of the KPN's two new helicopter-carrying frigates, including the status of their construction and details of their armament. The vessel at Nampo was laid down in early 2010 and launched in about October 2011. The one at Najin was laid down in early 2011 and launched by June 2012. It's unknown whether either vessel has been commissioned.

Another Nampo helicopter-carrying frigate is seen berthed at the No. 28 Shipyard in Najin in a satellite image on Jan. 17, 2014. Visible are the flight deck with the "H" helicopter landing zone and four probable RBU-1200 rocket launchers on the bow.

Both measure approximately 249 feet by 36 feet, with an approximately 95-by-36 flight deck, and they're armed with a suite of four RBU-1200 anti-submarine warfare rocket launchers. The configuration of the superstructure forward of the flight deck is suggestive of a small helicopter hangar, but this remains to be confirmed. Future additions to the weapon systems carried by these vessels most likely will include a close-in weapon system to defend against anti-ship missiles, small anti-aircraft missile mounts, and depth charges. Additionally, given the KPN's tendency to mount anti-ship missiles on its larger combatants, these vessels could be armed with a variant of the Chinese C-802 anti-ship cruise missiles in the future.

Although it is too soon to assess the capabilities of these two vessels, their greatest potential weaknesses likely are in radar, sonar, and electronic warfare capabilities as well as anti-aircraft and anti-missile defense because the North's defense industry is known to have serious shortcomings in these areas. This suggests that, at a minimum, Pyongyang may reach out to external partners, such as China and Iran, for technology or equipment to address these shortcomings. Regardless, should the KPN push aggressively to commission and operate these new vessels, it will still likely take several years to fully integrate them into fleet operations.

When operational, these vessels will represent a new capability with which North Korea could project its military presence deeper into the Sea of Japan and Yellow Sea -- adding a further element of risk to an already tense situation around the Korean Peninsula.

This article is in cooperation with 38 North, which published the original analysis on its website.

Top Image: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

Map: Natural Earth Data

Satellite images: DigitalGlobe, 38 North via Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Can Europe's Security Watchdog Survive the Crisis in Ukraine?

The OSCE was designed to ensure peace in Europe. Now the conflict in Ukraine is confronting it with perhaps the greatest crisis in its history.

Until a few months ago, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) was an obscurity to most Westerners in the post-Cold-War world. Now it's the stuff of headlines and is at the center of high-stakes political deal-making. The reason is Ukraine, where our organization is mustering all of its reserves to help monitor and defuse the situation. In general, I think our efforts have been admirable. We've dispatched a Special Monitoring Mission to the country to establish the facts on the ground and track security developments. We've launched a National Dialogue Project aimed at building confidence among different segments of society, and facilitated a rare meeting of Russian and Ukrainian members of parliament. We're also preparing for a massive monitoring effort during the upcoming Ukrainian election on May 25. (In the photo above, two OSCE officers observe a pro-Ukrainian rally in Lugansk on April 19.)

It certainly sounds good -- good enough for some of my colleagues within the OSCE to argue that we've proven the health of our organization. But there's one problem: If the OSCE were working the way it's supposed to, the Ukraine crisis should never have happened in the first place. The OSCE has now reached a moment of truth: embrace real structural and political reform or be left to pick up the pieces after its failures.

In the first days of March, with Kiev quickly losing control of Crimea, Ukraine invoked a provision of the OSCE's 2011 Vienna Document that allowed for member states to call military observers onto its soil. Simply put, a team of international military personnel was to head into Crimea to cut through the chaos and evaluate the security situation on the ground. Some of these same observers would later find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, held hostage in the eastern Ukrainian town of Slovyansk before they were released amid an international outcry.

In Crimea, however, getting in, not out, was the problem. Several times the monitors attempted to enter the peninsula and each time they were barred by pro-Russian "militia." In the meantime, Moscow continued to "protect its own kind" inside Crimea while outside military observers were kept away. Russia, like all of its fellow OSCE states, had committed itself to upholding the provisions of the Vienna Document, including the provision for military observers to have access to the disputed area. Except for brief, restricted visits by a representative of the OSCE Chairman-in-Office and the OSCE High Representative on Minorities, we were shut out of the crisis area.

On March 21, after tense negotiations in which Moscow stood in the way, the Organization's 57 participating states belatedly agreed to deploy a Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine. The mission would be tasked with gathering information, particularly on the security situation, as well as "reporting facts regarding incidents, including those concerning alleged violations of fundamental OSCE principles and commitments." Those principles are contained in the Organization's founding document, the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, and recognize, inter alia, the inviolability of frontiers; the territorial integrity of states; non-intervention in internal affairs; and the peaceful settlement of disputes. Kiev had officially requested the creation and deployment of the Mission weeks before, but had run into a problem that has long burdened our organization: the consensus rule.

Of course, something else of note also occurred on March 21: That was the day Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the annexation of Crimea into law. The national weather forecast on the evening news in Russia gave highs and lows for Moscow, St. Petersburg, Vladivostok -- and Sevastopol. Essentially, Russia had allowed the OSCE to assemble a monitoring mission to Ukraine only after it ripped a chunk of the country away. To be sure, the mission has done excellent and valuable work across non-Crimean Ukraine in the weeks since. Its creation was perhaps only possible due to concerted international pressure on Moscow to give in, which it did, only after a farcical "referendum" supposedly asked for Russian annexation.

So what is to be done? To mark the 40th anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act next year, the Parliamentary Assembly is organizing a series of events with prestigious international think tanks in Moscow, Washington, Stockholm, and Helsinki to consider the future of the OSCE. The policy experts and academics will have their say, but when I consider that question, I again think back to March. Addressing the governmental side of the OSCE, the Parliamentary Assembly's human rights chair, Portuguese member of parliament Isabel Santos, asked officials to consider the implications of Russia's behavior for the OSCE itself: "I wonder if Russia's de facto invasion of Ukraine means its de facto withdrawal from our organization," she said. To be sure, many parliamentarians in our Assembly argue that keeping Russia -- and other violators of OSCE commitments -- in the dialogue is the only way we can aspire to be the East-West bridge we were meant to be. Nevertheless, Santos's question poses an existential challenge for the OSCE that cannot be avoided.

First, there simply must be consequences for the kind of thrashing of OSCE commitments that we've seen during the Ukraine crisis. The Helsinki Final Act is not an international treaty backed by law and efforts to turn it into one have gone nowhere. But what we can at least do is not pull any punches, publicly denouncing at the highest levels the unacceptable actions in Ukraine and insisting that the provisions that all participating States agreed to be observed. When the smoke clears in Ukraine, the OSCE chairman-in-office could call an organization-wide summit on the existential gravity of this moment. The result could be a mechanism, or at least the initiation of a process, that the organization could invoke to consider egregious violations of its tenets -- a mechanism for holding member states publicly accountable for their transgressions. Such a mechanism could help us make soft power a little bit harder.

More than ever before, the situation in Ukraine -- and within the OSCE during this crisis -- prove that we must finally adjust the consensus-based decision-making which prevents collective action against blatant violations of OSCE commitments. The OSCE as an organization must resolve that it will not be taken hostage by any one state to remain silent and helpless while human suffering and brutal aggression continue. OSCE parliamentarians have long called on the governmental side to consider new rules -- perhaps consensus minus one or two, or two-thirds-majority or some procedure that prevents a single country veto by a transgressor. Achieving this change will no doubt be a diplomatic battle royale, but this current episode has demonstrated just how much we need to take it on. What if Russia had not held up the formation and deployment of a monitoring mission to Ukraine? Official reporting from Crimea during the early stages of the unrest there could have made a real impact on Russia's calculations, not to mention those of Ukraine, its neighbors, and the international community. If the monitoring mission was created to investigate alleged violations of OSCE principles, how, indeed, can the OSCE rationalize its inability to act?

Will our organization, even with clearly needed reforms, be able to head off all conflicts between member states? Of course not. Will it have a better chance of doing so? I don't doubt it. Will the OSCE be truer to its ideals? Certainly. Make no mistake -- on the ground in Ukraine, the OSCE has given its all in trying to respond to the crisis. But if this is not to be the final act for the Helsinki Final Act, it will have to be just as vigorous in tackling the tough questions of self-reform.