A report from the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said the drone, called the “Unmanned Underwater Nuclear Attack Craft ‘Haeil,’” was tested from March 21 to 23, cruising in waters off the country’s east coast for more than 59 hours before its test warhead was detonated on Thursday afternoon.
“The mission of the underwater nuclear strategic weapon is to stealthily infiltrate into operational waters and make a super-scale radioactive tsunami through underwater explosion to destroy naval striker groups and major operational ports of the enemy,” the KCNA report said.
The KCNA report said the weapon has been in development since 2012 and has undergone more than 50 tests in the past two years.
This week’s test “verified its reliability and safety and fully confirmed its lethal strike capability,” the KCNA report said, adding the drone can be deployed from any port or towed by a surface ship to begin its operations.
Analysts poured doubt on North Korea’s claims, noting that North Korea has previously exaggerated its capabilities and deployment time lines.
“Pyongyang’s latest claim to have a nuclear-capable underwater drone should be met with skepticism” because North Korea offered no proof, said Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
In March 2022, North Korea released footage of what it claimed was a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that was later discredited by experts.
Writing on social media Friday, Ankit Panda, a nuclear policy expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said: “I tend to take North Korea seriously, but can’t rule out the possibility that this is an attempt at deception.”
He added that it would be “ill-advised” to allocate limited fissile material for a warhead in an underwater drone, as opposed to a more “road-mobile” ballistic missiles.
But the idea of an unmanned submersible carrying a nuclear warhead is not unique to North Korea.
Russia claims to have developed the Poseidon torpedo, a submarine-launched, nuclear-powered unmanned underwater vehicle capable of carrying both conventional and nuclear munitions. Its nuclear propulsion system would give the Poseidon virtually limitless range.
But Russia has offered no proof of a successful test of the Poseidon and analysts suspect it could be years from deployment.
North Korea’s purported new underwater weapon has important differences from the Poseidon.
It is conventionally powered and is not launched from a sub, meaning it would not be on a par with the Russian torpedo, the analysts said.
North Korea’s drone test claim comes at the same time Pyongyang said it tested nuclear-capable cruise missiles this week.
Four of the subsonic missiles hit targets in the East Sea, also known as the Sea of Japan, after flying oval and figure-8 patterns of 1,500 and 1,800 kilometers (932 and 1,118 miles) on Wednesday, KCNA reported.
Wednesday’s drill “let strategic cruise missile units get familiar with the procedures and processes for carrying out the tactical nuclear attack missions,” the report said.
The state-run Rodong Sinmun released a series of photos on its website purportedly showing the cruise missiles and the underwater drone.
The KCNA report said Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons development was necessary to counter “the reckless military provocations being escalated by the U.S. and the South Korean authorities.”
US and South Korean forces have been holding their biggest war games in five years on the southern part of the Korean Peninsula.
North Korea has been testing various missiles at the same time, including the test of an intercontinental ballistic missile last week and the tests of smaller range missiles like the cruise missiles tested on Wednesday.
Analysts say Pyongyang is delivering a message to the US and its allies in the region.
“North Korea’s ICBM tests are thinly veiled threats that it could potentially destroy American cities,” Easley said. “Its recent short-range missile firings attempt to increase the credibility, command, and control of its self-proclaimed tactical nuclear weapons units aimed at South Korea and Japan.”