The Unknown Warships of the Hermit Kingdom!

Come see satellite views of warships that make you go “huh?” in North Korea!

North Korea has one of the most unusual – and least known – fleets. From antiquated ex-Soviet submarines and patrol boats to advanced-looking catamarans, the Korean People’s Navy (KPN) is the 39th fleet documented in a series of new pages on our project. We are certainly not the only ones gazing at satellite views of North Korea and wondering…what the hell?!

The Shipsearcher Identification Section (SIS) faced more than the usual challenges locating naval units in the scattered East and West Sea naval ports. The extreme lack of photographs of North Korean ships has made interpreting the satellite views a trial. 

Najin North Korea with fleet 2009
Commercial port facilities and the naval shipyards are along the North side of the Bay. In this September 2009 capture, many of the East Sea fleet’s surface units are anchored.

Some of the earliest units transferred to the North, in late 1953, after the active fighting of the Korean War ceased, were elderly Russian minesweepers. These 1930s Fugas/Tral class sweepers/patrol ships inspired the design of the domestically-constructed Sariwon class corvettes. All these years later, 3 Sariwons and 1 of those Stalinist-era Russian ships remain in active service!

This aerial photograph, taken by Japanese military aircraft in the Sea of Japan during 1993, appears to show one of the then 55-year old ex-Russian ships. Though the bow gun is described as an 85mm tank gun off a T-34/85 tank, it looks to us like a larger 100mm Russian or Chinese tank gun. NARA: USN 330-CFD-DN-SC-94-01225
Tral class Munchon 2019
The distinctive differences with what we know of the similar Sariwon class are the twin gun positions in the stern deck, the raised superstructure amidships, on either side of the funnel, and the crescent-shaped flying bridge roof.

The larger Najin class frigates are sometimes described as a near copy of the Russian Kola class. They have formed the mainstay of the surface combatant fleet since four units were built in North Korea starting in the early 1970s. In their lengthy career they were armed with torpedoes, then, in the early 1980s, with cannibalized STYX anti-ship missiles and tubes off missile boats. The two that remain in service are even now being updated – at least one has been seen armed with some version or copy of the modern Russian Kh-35 anti-ship missile.

Najin class corvette or light frigate no. 531 underway, ca. 1993, with the two STYX missile bins fitted between the funnels. NARA: USN 330-CFD-DN-SC-94-01224

For a period in the early 2000s, it looked like the Najins would be joined by a mystery frigate! Around 2004 the unmistakable hull of a comparatively massive Russian Krivak class ship appeared out of nowhere in Nampo shipyards. According to various observers it was an uncompleted Krivak III class ship on the stocks at Mykolaiv, Ukraine. It would have joined sister-ships in the Black Sea fleet in first the Russian, and then the Ukrainian Navy. Somehow, with the likely intercession of a Russian firm, this “dead hulk” got sold to North Korea. Had the ship been completed, it would have become the largest surface unit of the KPN. However, it vanished from Nampo before 2008, and has not reappeared.

krivak frigate Nampo NK 2004
The unfinished Krivak in Nampo. Reports that this was radically altered to become a much shorter modern frigate seem absurd, and it is more likely the hulk was scrapped or sunk.

After the Najin class, large domestically-designed KPN warships became increasingly odd. The most unusual ship was the futuristic Soho helicopter-carrying missile-equipped catamaran of the early 1980s. There are virtually no photos of most spaces on this ship. Its design did seem to inspire a host of follow-on smaller catamarans and surface-effect-vessels. The Nongo class ships started to appear in the early 2000s. There are at least 3 varieties with some major differences – the earliest appears to have a “stealthy” radar reduced cross-section, some are armed with Kh-35 or derivative anti-ship missiles, and they come in a few sizes.

The Nongo class may also be the only craft fast enough to accompany and support another strange feature of the fleet: the numerous Kongbang class assault hovercraft. Should widespread hostilities break out again on the Korean peninsula, the main task of as many as 140 Kongbangs would be to quickly land several thousand special operations troops in South Korean territory – an incursion around the Demilitarized Zone which would be intended to disrupt the South Korean military response.

We hope visitors are interested in our new pages, where we try to arrive at a detailed satellite imagery exploration of the mysterious North Korean fleet!

Tondar hovercraft, Iranian Navy. This craft is similar in appearance to the North Korean units. These both were developed from the same British Hovercraft Corporation / Saunders-Roe design. Credit: Tasnim News Agency, CC BY 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
Kongbang class hovercraft are staged near the borders in several locations, seemingly poised to descend on the South Korean coast.

Additional Resources:

A declassified Central Intelligence Agency report on the North Korean Navy in 1986, with a summary of all warship types in service and in construction in that era:

To see views of the technologically-advanced, highly capable South Korean fleet, which would oppose North Korean naval operations in a future conflict, check out our pages for the Republic of Korea Navy.

The variations in types within the Nongo class fast attack craft are analyzed by HI Sutton, on his site, Covert Shores.

A National Post Apr. 2014 article “Graphic: North Korea’s Conventional Arms” by Richard Johnson, Andrew Barr, and Jonathon Rivait has a summary of naval units and silhouette views of KPN ships/boats and submarines: . There appear to be a few inaccuracies, such as the Kowan class ASR sub rescue vessel (which looks like a much older trawler or tug-based sub rescue vessel), but it is an interesting attempt to visualize the fleet, and helps highlight the distinctive differences in these very similar types.

In several ways, the unusual warships we located reminded us of the Iranian Navy, which we explored earlier in pages and posts. There has been some technology transfer between these two, and the mix of fast attack craft, midget submarines, light frigates and corvettes is similar.

Stay tuned for an upcoming blog post where we explore features and attempt to reconstruct views of the mysterious and highly unusual Soho missile-equipped, helicopter-carrying catamaran frigate!