By JD Work
The cheers of the crowd were deafening as the sharp prow of the Baekdusan fast carrier (CVL) slid into the dark waters of the protected basin at Sinpo. The adulation may have even carried some genuine enthusiasm by those caught up in the sight of North Korea’s first aircraft carrier officially launching, mixed in of course with mandatory nationalism under compulsion for fear of “encouragement” by watchful political commissars. The former Mistral-class amphibious assault ship was nearly unrecognizable after more than a decade in the yard, resulting in profound changes to the vessel. These changes go far beyond the superficial difference of the dazzle camouflage paint scheme that replaced the earlier haze gray given to her by the original French builders of Chantiers de l’Atlantique. The oddities of the unusual, algorithmically-derived dark blue pattern were perhaps a fitting metaphor for the long, strange journey that brought this hull to North Korean shores. Bringing a new light carrier into service would be an impressive feat for any naval enterprise, let alone the Korean People’s Navy.
From Egypt to the East Sea of Korea
The complex saga began in the bizarre spring of 2020, as the world reeled under the uncertainties of pandemic. Kim Jong Un had already been in isolation out of fear of the disease, and following a cardiac scare that gained worldwide attention, would emerge even more determined to make his mark upon the global stage through his nation’s military.1 Among these assets would be a stunning set of naval capabilities, built around a ballistic missile submarine (SSB) program and the fleet to protect those boats. During these months, an intrusion attributed to the Reconnaissance General Bureau by commercial cyber intelligence services was attempting to compromise the networks of a cleared defense contractor in the United Kingdom.2 The incident was part of a long-running cyber espionage activity – known commonly as HIDDEN COBRA, Lazarus, or HERMIT – that targeted individuals associated with high-profile defense acquisition efforts to seek out information related to aviation, shipbuilding, missile development, and other critical capabilities.3
Almost overlooked in the flurry of ever-changing malware and forged documents that furthered these machinations, the UK incident was notable only in that the decoy message repurposed a glossy promotional photo from the UK Royal Navy’s Future Aircraft Carrier program. But while this specific lure was detected and the attempt defeated, it was not the last such attempt. Other efforts would persist and ultimately provide sustained access to the shipbuilder, systems integrators, and strike aviation programs. This espionage not only gave the National Defense Commission insight into the capabilities and deployments of newly introduced systems, but the aggregation of stolen documents, technical information, software code, and problem-solving correspondence allowed various Machine Industry Bureaus to circumvent years of research and development activity. Integrating this espionage haul into an ossified and overly centralized military industry was the work of almost a generation of intelligence officers, scientists, and production managers.
For all the edge that stolen intellectual property could offer, the DPRK’s heavy industry could not muster the resources and expertise to construct a major surface combatant out of nothing. To overcome this deficiency, the Korean Worker’s Party turned to the shadowy entity known informally as Office 39. This group essentially served as the organized crime racketeering function of the North Korean state, tasked with generating the illicit revenue required to keep the country functioning and the Kim family in power under the crushing weight of international sanctions. Its far-flung operations ranged from gold smuggling, drug trafficking, cybercrime and other pursuits on a massive scale.4 It would be Office 39’s access to the proceeds of these continuing criminal enterprises that would fund the operation, laundered through the vast markets of the online videogaming industry and the many quasi-legal virtual gambling ventures launched by the casinos of Macau, Manila, and Hanoi – each desperate for gamblers to replace those driven away by pandemic and the downturn of the mainland Chinese economy.
Office 39 would score its grandest coup to date as the Egyptian state collapsed into yet another endless series of coups that continued to ripple out from the Arab Spring. The regime had long established itself through corrupt relationships with key power figures that increasingly were backed by intelligence advantages offered by compromised Orascom telecommunications networks. The HIDDEN COBRA intrusion set subgroup known commonly as APT37, REAPER, Scarcruft, or RICOCHET CHOLLIMA had enabled an initial foothold in the country’s networks after the collapse of a joint venture between the Egyptian firm and the North Korean Ministry of Post and Telecommunications.5 APT37 / REAPER operators built upon this initial access to develop an unprecedented signals intelligence interception architecture across the backbone of telecom infrastructure in the region. Years later, in the frantic uncertainty before Cairo’s ultimate fall, this combination of insider knowledge and powerful friends would give Office 39 the chance to purchase what was then the nearly unserviceable Mistral-class multipurpose amphibious assault ship, ENS Anwar El Sadat. The LHD was the last surviving vessel of two purchased from France after a Gallic deal with the Russian Navy had fallen through in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea.6 The Sadat’s sister ship, the Nasser, had been sunk at her higher-profile port in Alexandria by Ikwan saboteurs, and the Sadat was left to rust.
The ripple effects of serial pandemics throughout the 20s would again prove key. The near total collapse of the recreational and luxury cruise industry left hundreds of vessels at sea in makeshift flotillas, crewed by unpaid and increasingly desperate mariners abandoned by corporate headquarters which had rapidly ceased to exist.7 These ungainly, massive ships were unsuitable for merchant commerce, and poor choices as pirate motherships – although many crews tried both just to survive. Eventually, they would be destined for the shipbreakers in order to extract any value that could be salvaged. The ordinary yards of Alang and Chittagong, already under immense pressures over environmental regulation and worker safety, could not accept hulls encumbered by high profile, already years-long bankruptcy litigation – and especially would be unable to pay a master and crew whose only tenuous claim to ownership was mere possession.8
But the great decoupling had also killed many other vessels no longer needed for trade with an increasingly broken Chinese market, and like countless oil tankers and container ships, these hulls would be stripped in the newly emerging breaker yards of Africa. Here, the remnants of Belt and Road Initiative mercantilist outposts still raced to extract any resources that could be used to offset crippling debts to Beijing, heedless of legality or consequence.9 One more sale to one more shell company, paid through a Southeast Asian nation banking institution cutout, passed without notice. The Sadat would sit at anchor for nearly two years at harbor in Nacala, Mozambique; just another hulk among the many waiting to be beached and broken in a forgotten port at the wrong end of a frequently failing rail corridor.
Only commercial imagery satellites recorded when the Sadat vanished from port under cover of darkness, and even despite the high revisit rate of increasingly more capable constellations, some uncertainty would persist over exactly which night it happened. Active interest had long since faded and monitoring was reassigned to mere automated change detection algorithms, which dutifully flagged the discrepancy as being lost in the sea of other low-profile vessel movements. The system, triaged only by a bored Office of Naval Intelligence analyst, who did not speak French, apparently did not pick up on the significance of the type designator BPC (for Bâtiment de Projection et de Commandement) as he might have then tagged the vessel as an LHD. Instead, it was mistaken for one of many legacy British Petroleum entries that had never been corrected following Brexit. The error would prove costly, especially as the KPN prize crew now sailing the Sadat would embark on a route that would take her through the most desolate and empty waters imaginable.
The over 9,000 nautical mile journey would depend heavily upon Office 39’s prior experience conducting illicit transfers at sea, especially for the clandestine movement of oil to keep the Sadat’s bunkers topped up.10 Over nearly three months at sea, a quarter of the crew would perish from accident, malnutrition exacerbated illnesses, and what became an infamous purge responding to what the KPN would describe as a mutinous plot by so-called “wreckers.” The global community further failed to respond effectively when the Sadat was at last spotted approaching Indonesian waters, initially unclear on her destination. The distractions of the Taiwan crisis further delayed consensus for action as she transited east of Hokkaido. A promised interdiction operation by Russian forces from Vladivostok did not materialize when the lead Lider-2 (Project 23780M) class destroyer allegedly suffered an unspecified mechanical failure, reportedly preventing pursuit – an event which remains viewed with much skepticism by international diplomats and navalists alike.11
The ship once called Sadat was transformed in years-long process in the yard at Sinpo. Her flight deck was extended, and featured a new ski-jump ramp that offered a Short Takeoff But Arrested Recovery (STOBAR) capability for somewhat limited aircraft weights.12 Her obsolete and degraded onboard networks were refitted with an indigenously developed Red Star operating system.13 Somewhat surprisingly new, Iranian-origin 15 Khordad radars and missile canisters would be integrated for air defense, along with multiple CHT-02D torpedo mounts and small arms weapons stations.14 Concept graphics reported by Chinese defense analyst sources also depicted KN-23 SRBM TELs positioned on the aft deck, possibly intended to mimic the U.S. Marine Corps deployment of HIMARS systems on light amphibious warships, although the North Korean missiles have not been observed to date in handheld imagery of the platform.15
On the day of the Baekdusan’s launch, the pierside static display of light aircraft that would operate from her decks also commanded attention, with the ranks of their future pilots assembled alongside in full Nomex suits and oddly shaped augmented reality flight helmets. The two delta wing fighters, a supposedly navalized variant of the country’s indigenously developed “next generation pursuit assault plane,” had been observed through overhead commercial imagery for years. It was still unclear if the North Korean aircraft industry had produced more than a dozen airframes – nearly half of which had already been lost to mishaps during development.
One of these mishaps had claimed the third aircraft previously intended for display, where the platform was lost during the long road movement from the airstrip at Iwon down to the port in the weeks before the ceremony. Handheld imagery of the mishap had circulated among the country’s elites-only StarMesh social media network, where in virtue signaling posts they condemned the heavy transport truck driver for careless driving. It had just as quickly been censored – but not before being picked up and reported to the world by a sharp-eyed Chinese defense blogger.
The obvious gap in the display arrangement had been hastily filled with a Kimchaek unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV). While manned flight operations were still considered the prestige assignment, it was the dark composite of the cranked kite design that brought the Baekdusan its truly operational airwing. A nearly direct two-thirds scale copy of the CASIC CaiHong-7, the stealth platform had been a revolutionary development for DPRK strike capabilities despite its quintessentially 2020s vintage design.16 When fitted with beyond visual range air-to-air missiles, the UCAV could also serve in the combat air patrol (CAP) role, as a pair of Republic of Korea (ROK) KF-X fighters found to their surprise when ambushed near the Northern Limit Line a few years ago. Named for the former Korean People’s Army Air and Anti-Air Force Academy, the Kimchaek UCAV’s resemblance to the Northrup Grumman X-47B demonstrator was a constant reminder of the path not taken by the U.S. Navy. The Kimchaek fighters were also fitted for delivery of autonomous standoff naval mines, using a bolt-on kit of Chinese origin for glide, underwater propulsion, fusing and guidance that could be fitted to low-cost conventional gravity bombs that themselves were well within North Korean production capacities. This too incorporated stolen designs that could be originally traced to cyber espionage against the defense industrial base conducted by Chinese Ministry of State Security operations known as APT40, Periscope, KRYPTONITE PANDA, or GADOLINIUM.17
Implications and Outlook
Baekdusan is in many ways a counter-intuitive platform to Western eyes. The KPN still does not appear to have a genuine strategic requirement for the kind of force projection options that are the traditional role of a carrier or expeditionary strike group. However, to a dictator the investment could be justified solely on its basis as a prestige capability – to say nothing of the propaganda value in continued demonstration to domestic audiences of the Juche ideology of self-reliance. It mirrored the accomplishments of their larger neighbor in acquiring and fielding a modified CV, much as the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy managed to convert their purchase of the Varyag heavy aviation cruiser (TAKR) into the fleet’s first carrier, Liaoning.18 But this is likely not the whole story, suggesting both wider ambitions and a new strategic depth to the regime’s ultimate priority: the survival and continued rule of the Kim dynasty.
The Gorae SSB and its successors remain a key linchpin of this priority. These submarines continue to represent a significant wildcard in any potential strategic exchange – despite the relative obsolescence of their design, terrible acoustic profile, and frequent maintenance casualties.19 Even as advances in Western intelligence capabilities, prompt conventional strike options, and other left-of-launch methods increasingly threaten the DPRK mobile missile force, the ability of the Korean People’s Navy to sustain a sea-based second strike delivery platform presents an unknowable challenge to deterrence. This challenge becomes especially salient in the case of an ROK attempt at leadership decapitation, whether due to Pyongyang’s feared bolt out of the blue or Seoul’s anticipated crisis escalation scenarios.
The Baekdusan fast carrier (CVL), or drone carrier (CVLQ) as some would prefer to argue, may instead represent a substantial further investment to protect the Gorae SSB as a second strike retaliation capability, drawing upon older Soviet naval doctrine developed when facing similar correlations of forces and qualitative disadvantages. The bastion model of patrol within confined seas, where access may be controlled via strategic chokepoints or sea denial, may have unexpectedly re-emerged in part as a function of the new time and distance equations that bound the contemporary weapons engagement zone. In this, the DPRK may also be mimicking emerging thinking observed over recurring deployments of the PLAN SSBN force.20 A North Korean carrier provides the option, at least as a matter of doctrine, to delay regional or international naval intervention in order to buy necessary operating space for the survival of the Gorae and her sister boats.
It still remains to be seen if this costly and audacious program will be nothing more than a white elephant. Certainly, the debate is far from finished regarding the limited survivability of a large surface platform like a carrier in the face of contemporary precision guided munitions fires, especially given ever-increasing ranges, loiter times, sensor integration, and autonomy. The remarkable accomplishment of the Baekdusan may be merely reduced to the first flaming datum in a future peninsular conflict.
Still, one cannot help but reflect on what might have been different. The combination of factors that had to line up “just-so” for this carrier to be built was the result of remarkable North Korean tenacity, and no small degree of luck. So many opportunities existed where intervention could have halted Pyongyang’s progress, starting from the earliest cyber espionage campaigns against defense industrial base contractors. But very much like the reaction to early Chinese forays toward a blue water navy in the 1990s, serious people would not take the idea seriously. After all, everyone knew the immense hurdles of building a naval aviation warfare community to operate from a narrow deck at sea. This simply could not be achieved using a rusting hulk headed to the shipbreakers, by the kinds of people more at home in a casino than in a banker’s office or a uniform. Likewise, conventional wisdom demands that serious naval strategists focus on power projection in the open ocean, unencumbered by the distractions of littoral operations in close and confined seas.
But what if they were wrong?
JD Work serves as the Bren Chair for Cyber Conflict and Security at Marine Corps University, and as a non-resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative. He holds additional affiliations with the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, the Elliot School of International Affairs at George Washington University, and as a senior adviser to the Cyberspace Solarium Commission. He can be found on Twitter @HostileSpectrum. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the U.S. government or other organization.
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Featured Image: “Modified Aircraft Carrier” by Jack Cong via ArtStation