North Korea has for the first time demonstrated the cruise missile strike capabilities of its most capable class of surface warship, the Amnok Class corvette, with a test launch of the Hwasal-2 missile from one of the ships. The missile class and the closely related Hwasal-1 were recently seen being launched from mobile ground based vehicles in March, and provide a potent complement to the country’s vast and increasingly sophisticated range of ballistic missile classes for delivering both conventional and nuclear strikes. The state run Korean Central News Agency reported that the test launch from the Amnok Class was intended to improve “combat function of the ship and the feature of its missile system,” while improving the ability of personnel to launch an “attack mission in actual war.” “The ship rapidly hit the target without even an error,” it added. North Korean leader Chairman Kim Jong Un personally witnessed the test launch, and praised the new ship class for its “high mobility and mighty striking power and constant preparedness for combat to cope with sudden situations.” The missile is thought to have hit a target approximately 200km away, which is relatively short for a subsonic weapon and just one tenth of its estimated range according to the American Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance’s estimates.
Investment in developing the Amnok Class corvette is a notable departure from the extreme focus the Korean People’s Army Navy has placed on its submarine forces over its surface assets, with the service fielding more submarines than any other in the world primarily for littoral operations to asymmetrically counter threats from the much larger American and allied fleets. Developing corvettes capable of carrying large and long ranged cruise missiles, which in most navies are deployed only from nuclear attack submarines or destroyer sized vessels, mirrors a similar approach taken by Russia since the end of the Cold War to compensate for its inability to deploy a large fleet of modern destroyer or cruiser sized vessels. A long range cruise missile strike capability from corvette sized ships was previously possessed only by the Russian Navy, and was first demonstrated in 2015 during strikes on Islamist insurgents in Syria. North Korea’s investment in corvettes with similar capabilities has the potential to further significantly complicate potential adversaries’ plans for war on the peninsula, and provide a capability of engaging far larger navies at very long ranges to support other assets such as coastal cruise missile batteries. The ships are also speculated by Western sources to be able to launch nuclear strikes, which could be a valuable asset for striking American military bases in Japan.
Two Amnok Class corvettes are currently in service in the Korean People’s Army Navy, and appear to be the first purpose built with modern cruise missile launchers. The ships also each deploy a 100mm main guns, a pair of six-barrel 30mm Gatling guns, and two six-barrel 14.5mm machine guns, rocket assisted depth charges, and possibly 533mm torpedo tubes. The lack of even medium ranged air defences, however, indicates that the ships are intended to operate well within range of the country’s vast network of surface to air missile systems, or possibly with cover from fighter aircraft. This deficiency could also potentially be compensated for by joint operations with larger ships from neighbouring countries which can provide cover against air attacks, such as Type 052D Class destroyers deployed by China. It remains uncertain whether North Korea will invest in producing further Amnok Class corvettes for its surface fleet, with strong arguments remaining that assets such as coastal defence batteries and cruise missile submarines provide far more cost effective assets both in terms of production and overall lifetime costs. The survivability of its small fleet of surface vessels in the event of a major war is expected to be far lower.