North Korean authorities have reportedly transferred a shipyard that used to be controlled by the navy to the Munitions Industry Department (MID), raising its status to a joint enterprise. The move appeared to be part of North Korea’s efforts to accelerate the development and production of submarines and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).
A high-ranking source within North Korea told Daily NK on Apr. 2 that “the Oct. 3 Factory, which used to belong to Unit 597 of the Navy’s East Sea Fleet Command, was transferred to the MID after a directive issued on Mar. 17 by the Central Committee.” He added that “ship construction and repair facilities in the East Sea were reorganized under the Oct. 3 Factory to create a joint enterprise.”
Daily NK understands that this directive also upgraded the Oct. 3 Factory to a “special status” facility. Military shipbuilding enterprises given this status are able to independently import special alloy and construction materials necessary for the development and production of battleships.
According to the directive, “all factories and related agencies must complete the administrative work related to the reorganization by Apr. 3.”
Established in 1947, the Oct. 3 Factory was the first ship repair and maintenance facility built in North Korea. In 2011, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un toured the factory with his father, returning for another visit in Mar. 2016 when he expressed satisfaction with the factory’s modernization.
Meanwhile, although it was not included in the first part of the reorganization to be completed by Apr. 3, the North Korean authorities reportedly “plan to integrate ship construction and repair facilities under the control of the Navy’s West Sea [Yellow Sea] Fleet Command with [similar] facilities in the East Sea under one joint enterprise.”
Combining operations and exchange between North Korea’s western and eastern sea fleets is geographically impossible because it clashes with South Korean land and territorial waters.
For this reason, the North Korean navy has had a split command between the western and eastern seas, although most of its military strength has been concentrated in the East Sea. The deployment of major military facilities is made difficult because its western maritime territory faces Chinese territorial waters.
Unlike the South Korean navy, which is able to combine operations between its fleets in the eastern, western, and southern seas, the North Korean navy is geopolitically constrained and also inferior in strength to the country’s own army and air force.
Kim Jong Un is known to have been obsessed with developing strategic weapons like the SLBMs to overcome such constraints to the country’s naval power.
North Korean defense authorities have continuously worked to integrate military-affiliated facilities related to submarines or SLMB development into joint enterprises and thereby expand their authority.
The Bongdae Boiler Factory in Sinpo, South Hamgyong Province, which produces and processes submarine-mounted weapons, was transformed into a “first-class joint enterprise” in 2013. In June of last year, an institute in Sinpo was upgraded in status from “ship research institute” to a ”ship research branch” under the Academy of Defense Science, which develops nuclear submarines (article in Korean here).
The source claims that “the matter, which had not been discussed at the first plenary session of the Eighth Party Congress in January, nor at the second plenary meeting of the Eighth Central Committee of the Workers’ Party in February, was suddenly decided in mid-March in response to the US continuing to explore and review its policy toward North Korea.”
This may be a sign that the North Korean authorities have, until recently, expected the new US administration to create a global political atmosphere favorable to negotiations with North Korea, or allow for greater leeway in the midst of hostile policies.
However, the Biden administration has instead made moves to tighten sanctions on North Korea, and started applying pressure from the get-go by narrowing in on issues such as that of human rights, which is a sensitive subject for the country. As a result, the North Korean authorities have responded by strengthening their policy focus on the development and deployment of strategic weapons, according to the source.
The decision to promote the status of the Oct. 3 Factory to a special joint enterprise can be interpreted as a sign that North Korea will accelerate its production and deployment of nuclear weapons.
As a result, it is possible that the North Korean authorities will continue with efforts to reorganize and expand the authority of military factories concerned with the development and production of strategic weapons.
*Translated by Vilde Olaussen