US group: NKorean sub equipped to fire missiles

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US group: NKorean sub equipped to fire missiles
This picture taken from North Korean paper Rodong Sinmun on October 14, 2014 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (R) during an inspection tour of a newly-built housing complex in Pyongyang.  North Korea's leader Kim Jong-Un has finally resurfaced with the help of a walking stick after an unexplained and prolonged absence that fuelled rampant speculation about his health and even rumours of a coup in the nuclear-armed state. (AFP PHOTO / Rodong Sinmun)
This picture taken from North Korean paper Rodong Sinmun on October 14, 2014 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (C) during an inspection tour of a newly-built housing complex in Pyongyang.  North Korea's leader Kim Jong-Un has finally resurfaced with the help of a walking stick after an unexplained and prolonged absence that fuelled rampant speculation about his health and even rumours of a coup in the nuclear-armed state. (AFP PHOTO / Rodong Sinmun)
This picture taken from North Korean paper Rodong Sinmun on October 14, 2014 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (C) during an inspection tour of a newly-built housing complex in Pyongyang.  North Korea's leader Kim Jong-Un has finally resurfaced with the help of a walking stick after an unexplained and prolonged absence that fuelled rampant speculation about his health and even rumours of a coup in the nuclear-armed state. (AFP PHOTO / Rodong Sinmun)
This picture taken from North Korean paper Rodong Sinmun on October 14, 2014 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un during an inspection tour of a newly-built housing complex in Pyongyang.  North Korea's leader Kim Jong-Un has finally resurfaced with the help of a walking stick after an unexplained and prolonged absence that fuelled rampant speculation about his health and even rumours of a coup in the nuclear-armed state. (AFP PHOTO / Rodong Sinmun)
This picture taken from North Korean paper Rodong Sinmun on October 14, 2014 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (L) during an inspection tour of a newly-built housing complex in Pyongyang.  North Korea's leader Kim Jong-Un has finally resurfaced with the help of a walking stick after an unexplained and prolonged absence that fuelled rampant speculation about his health and even rumours of a coup in the nuclear-armed state. (AFP PHOTO / Rodong Sinmun)
This picture taken from North Korean paper Rodong Sinmun on October 14, 2014 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (C) during an inspection tour of a newly-built housing complex in Pyongyang.  North Korea's leader Kim Jong-Un has finally resurfaced with the help of a walking stick after an unexplained and prolonged absence that fuelled rampant speculation about his health and even rumours of a coup in the nuclear-armed state. (AFP PHOTO / Rodong Sinmun)
A man walks past TV monitors displaying a news program at an electronic shop in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2014, showing a North Korean newspaper with a photo of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un smiling, reportedly during his first public appearance in five weeks in Pyongyang, North Korea. Kim has made his first public appearance in five weeks, smiling broadly and supporting himself with a cane while touring the newly built Wisong Scientists Residential District and another new institute in Pyongyang, state media reported Tuesday, ending an absence that drove a frenzy of global speculation that something was amiss with the country's most powerful person. The writing reads " Honorable Kim Jong Un." (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
A man watches a TV news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2014, showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un using a cane, reportedly during his first public appearance in five weeks in Pyongyang, North Korea. Kim has made his first public appearance in five weeks, smiling broadly and supporting himself with a cane while touring the newly built Wisong Scientists Residential District and another new institute in Pyongyang, state media reported Tuesday, ending an absence that drove a frenzy of global speculation that something was amiss with the country's most powerful person. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)
A worker at a news paper distributing station in Seoul, South Korea, arranges South Korean newspapers Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2014, reporting about North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's first appearance in nearly six weeks in Pyongyang, North Korea. Kim, smiling broadly and supporting himself with a cane, appeared Tuesday in the North's state media for the first time in nearly six weeks, ending rumors that he was gravely ill, deposed or worse. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
ADDS WHERE KIM APPEARED - A shopper passes by TV monitors displaying a news program at an electronic shop in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2014, showing a photo of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un smiling, reportedly during his first public appearance in five weeks in Pyongyang, North Korea. Kim has made his first public appearance in five weeks, smiling broadly and supporting himself with a cane while touring the newly built Wisong Scientists Residential District and another new institute in Pyongyang, state media reported Tuesday, ending an absence that drove a frenzy of global speculation that something was amiss with the country's most powerful person. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
A photo of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un walking with a stick in Pyongyang, North Korea, is carried on the front page of a South Korea's English newspaper kept at a newspaper distributing station in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday evening, Oct. 14, 2014. Kim, smiling broadly and supporting himself with a walking stick, appeared earlier Tuesday in the North's state media for the first time in nearly six weeks, ending rumors that he was gravely ill, deposed or worse. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
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WASHINGTON (AP) - Recent satellite imagery appears to show that a North Korean submarine is being equipped to fire missiles, posing a potential new threat to its neighbors, a U.S. research institute said Thursday.

The finding published by 38 North, the website of the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, comes as Washington ratchets up sanctions against North Korea following a destructive hacking attack against Sony Pictures.

North Korea already has a considerable arsenal of land-based ballistic missiles. South Korea's Defense Ministry reported this week that the North may now have the ability to strike the U.S. mainland because of its progress in missile technology - although how far it has progressed remains a subject of debate. The ministry also said the North is advancing in efforts to miniaturize nuclear warheads to mount on such missiles.

Missiles fired from submarines could be harder to detect before launch than land-based ones, and North Korea's efforts have already gotten the attention of defense officials. South Korea's military said last fall it had detected a North Korean submarine with a possible capability to launch ballistic missiles.

The institute has previously reported that North Korea was building a missile-testing facility on land near a naval shipyard at the east coast site of Sinpo. Monday's analysis by Joe Bermudez, an expert on satellite imagery and North Korea's military, notes there has been an upgrading of facilities there in the past six months in what appears to be preparation for a significant naval construction program.

A Dec. 18 commercial satellite image shows a submarine docked at Sinpo with a large rectangular opening in its conning tower - the raised turret that juts vertically from the main body of the submarine. Bermudez says it could contain one or two missile launch tubes, but the image is not clear enough to deduce the type of missile.

Such a capability could expand the North Korean threat to South Korea, Japan and U.S. bases in East Asia, but developing it will be expensive and time-consuming, Bermudez said. Experts also say North Korea's submarines tend to be old and would be vulnerable to attack.

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