North Korea has been accused of training dolphins for military purposes, following similar programs already developed in the USA and Russia.
The U.S. Naval Institute (USNI), a private non-profit organization that seeks to provide a forum for debate on national security, says satellite images show a dolphin training facility at a naval base in Nampo on the country’s west coast.
The report, which appears on the USNI’s news website, says the images of the facility date back to 2015 when what looked like animal enclosures appeared near a shipyard near naval units. “But the main activity shifted to a location further upriver on the outskirts of the city,” the article says. “This base, possibly where the dolphins are bred, began its development in October 2016”.
The USNI says that the facilities in the pictures resemble the dolphin training centers developed by the US and Russian military. However, the institute also says the enclosures could be “a kind of fish farm”.
“In recent years, North Korea has put more emphasis on fish farming, and they are appearing all over the country. Many of them are run by the armed forces”.
However, these enclosures were different from other fish farms observed in North Korea.
The use of dolphins in the military goes back to the 1960s, when marine animals including sharks, sea turtles and dolphins were tested for their possible use in operations. The Marine Mammal Program of the United States Navy (NNMP), based in San Diego, California, now uses dolphins and sea lions for tasks such as tracking underwater mines. For several decades the program was classified, leading to widespread speculation that the animals were used as offensive weapons. These allegations are untrue, but remain popular in the public imagination, according to the NNMP.
Over the past 60 years, other countries have developed similar programs, with Russia being the most prominent. It is also suspected that the Russian Navy uses beluga whales in its operations. In 2019, Norway reported that a beluga whale was found with a Russian harness and a GoPro camera. This triggered speculation that the whale was a “spy” of the Russian Navy.
Russia’s program also attracted a lot of attention in 2018 after a dolphin of the Ukrainian Navy, which had been captured by Russian troops during the annexation of Crimea four years earlier, died. A Ukrainian official said that after the takeover the dolphins went on a “hunger strike” and refused food to their Russian henchmen.
What North Korea could do with an army of dolphins is unclear. The USNI report says that the dolphins could not only detect underwater explosives and inspect cables and sonar on the ocean floor, but could also “defend naval bases against saboteurs. They could mark enemy divers “for examination and neutralization”.
“Human swimmers cannot compete with dolphins or seals in speed, agility and the natural ability to ‘see’ in dark or murky waters,” the report said. “It is not a competition, but since they cannot tell whether the diver is friend or foe, they would only be used to mark the target by attaching a buoy. This is also more practical for training purposes. Hostile divers can then be attacked with grenades or nets with shark hooks”.