North Korea Accused of Creating Dolphin Army. Or Fish Farming

North Korea has been accused of training dolphins for military purposes, following similar programs already developed in the U.S. and Russia.

The U.S. Naval Institute (USNI), a private, non-profit organization that aims to provide a forum for debate about national security, says satellite images show a dolphin training facility at a naval base in Nampo, on the west coast of the country.

The report, appearing on the USNI news website, says that images of the facility date back as far as 2015, when what looked like animal pens appeared near a shipyard near naval units. "But the main activity moved to a site further up the river on the edge of town," the article says. "This base, possibly where the dolphins are bred, began its development in October 2016."

The USNI says the facilities in the images look a lot like the dolphin training centers developed by the U.S. and Russian militaries. However, the institute also says the pens could be "some type of fish farm."

"North Korea has placed increased emphasis on fish farming in recent years and they are cropping up all over the country. Many are run by the armed forces."

However, it said these pens are different to other fish farms observed in North Korea.

Harry Kazianis, Senior Director of Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest, told Newsweek it is possible the images show a military dolphin program: "While many times we think of the North Koreans as a poor, starving and backwards people, their economic challenges push them to innovate in ways that we can't relate to sometimes," he said. "Because of their lack of resources, they many times create weapons that we would never even consider, and using dolphins for military applications does make sense in that context. While it's hard to know what missions they would use them for and under what scenarios, I do think it is possible."

The use of dolphins in the military dates back to the 1960s when marine animals, including sharks, sea turtles and dolphins, were tested for the potential use in operations. The U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program (NNMP), based in San Diego, California, now uses dolphins and sea lions for tasks like detecting underwater mines. For several decades, the program was classified, leading to widespread speculation that the animals were used as offensive weapons. These claims are untrue, but remain popular among public imagination, the NNMP says.

Over the last 60 years, other countries have developed similar programs, with Russia being the most prominent. The Russian navy is also thought to use beluga whales in its operations, with reports from Norway in 2019 that one had been found wearing a Russian harness and a GoPro camera. This sparked speculation the whale was a "spy" for Russian Navy.

Russia's program also gained widespread attention in 2018 after a dolphin from the Ukranian navy that was captured by Russian forces during the annexation of Crimea four years earlier had died. A Ukranian official said the dolphins went on "hunger strike," refusing food from their Russian handlers after the take-over.

What North Korea might do with an army of dolphins is unclear. The USNI report says that as well as detecting underwater explosives and inspect cables and sonar devices on the seafloor, dolphins could also "defend naval bases against saboteurs." It said they could mark enemy divers for "investigation and neutralization."

"Human swimmers cannot compete with dolphins or seals in speed, agility, and the natural ability to 'see' in dark or murky water," the report said. "It's not a contest, but because they cannot identify whether the diver is a friend or foe, they would only be used to mark the target by attaching a buoy. This is also more practical for training purposes. Enemy divers can then be dealt with by grenades or nets with shark hooks."

This article has been updated to include comments from Harry Kazianis.

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Stock image of a dolphin. The private non-profit U.S. Naval Institute has said North Korea may be training dolphins as part of a military program. iStock