North Korea Frigates With Helicopter Pads Spotted in Satellite Images

Friday, 16 May 2014 11:07 AM

By Michael Mullins

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North Korea frigates with helicopter launch pads and what appear to be anti-submarine rocket launchers were recently spotted off the coast of the bellicose Asian nation in a series of satellite images.

According to North Korea-monitoring website 38North, which reported the findings on Thursday, the frigates are the largest surface combat ships the nation's navy has constructed in a quarter-century, The Associated Press reported.

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"North Korea's deployment of new helicopter frigates may be an important wakeup call not only about the overall effectiveness of sanctions in constraining Pyongyang's conventional military programs, but also the need to carefully and realistically reevaluate reports of its conventional military decline," Joseph Bermudez, a North Korean military expert in satellite imagery analysis, wrote in the 38North report.

The images were taken in December and January and show the combat ships docked at the west coast port of Nampo and a shipyard at the northeastern port of Nanjin.

According to, construction on the 1,300-ton frigates likely began in 2006 or 2007, though the ships were not launched until five years later. The identical vessels were likely designed to counter submarines and protect fisheries, the report suggests.

It remains unclear whether or not the frigates are fully operational.

The debut of the frigates is likely North Korea's attempt to flex its ever-growing naval muscles in the region. In 2012, the country's navy consisted of 420 combat ships and 70 submarines, The Wall Street Journal reported. In comparison, South Korea's navy consists of just 120 combat ships and 10 submarines.

But, according to Seoul’s defense ministry, much of the North's navy is made up of small, outdated, and low-tech gunboats, The Journal noted.

RAND Corp. Senior Defense Analyst Bruce Bennett told the AP that the two new frigates, once fully operational, would be more capable than the rest of North Korea's surface fleet.

Despite this military achievement, "adding these two ships will not cause North Korea to have a very strong navy," Bennett added in his AP interview. "If involved in a big conflict, the U.S. and South Korean navies and air forces could pretty quickly sink these ships."

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