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The Real North Korea Threat

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New Leaders Forum

The Real North Korea Threat

The WMD threat from Kim Jong-il’s regime is real. But a bigger threat could come from its conventional forces.

A year has passed since North Korea conducted its unexpected shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. Yet, while tensions between the two Koreas seem less intense now, the threat posed by North Korea’s military continues to be as complex and diversified as ever. Indeed, even as the North Korea looks like it is edging toward collapse, there are signs of dangerous military changes, including the further politicization of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) and the diversification of its military capabilities.

At first glance, the KPA’s force structure seems nothing more than a collection of Cold War military platforms. With the exception of its Mig-29s, the majority of platforms are models designed and produced during the 1960s or earlier. Ever since Pyongyang constructed its ideological stronghold on the Korean Peninsula,the North Korean government has been ingrained with the belief that modernization isn’t so much about technological innovation, but innovation in the use of existing technology.

For example, North Korea has an overwhelming stock of upgraded Y-5(the Chinese variant of the Antonov-2)transport aircraft fitted with stealth capabilities and KN-01 missiles. Against this backdrop, the modernization of the KPA doesn’t necessarily require major adjustments in investment or structural management. Instead, the process simply exploits existing conventional platforms by applying asymmetric capabilities.

Signs of North Korea realigning its conventional military capabilities have been there for at least the past two years. In January 2010, the KPA held its “Combined Maneuvers” military exercise, which involved the KPA’s ground, air and naval services. The fact that exercises of this nature have never been held (at least officially) since Kim Jong-il’s rise to power in 1992, hinted that the KPA is reconfiguring itself into something new. Following the “Combined Maneuvers” exercise, the KPA began to partially actualize its “new” capabilities by sinking the Cheonan, conducting several artillery drills near the Northern Limit Line (NLL), and the deadly shelling of Yeonpyeong Island.

For North Korea, the military “provocations” of 2010 proved that the utilization of conventional platforms were just as, if not more, effective as strategic weapons for upsetting the U.S. alliance with the South. Not only did the attacks bewilder South Korea and the United States, but their response was delayed and ineffectual. There’s therefore good reason to believe that North Korea will continue to diversify its conventional military capabilities to seize its asymmetric edge over the U.S. alliance.

There have been other alarming developments in the KPA this past year.

In terms of structural developments, one area where there has been significant growth is in cyber/electronic warfare capabilities. Despite its technological weaknesses, North Korea’s knowledge-based technology seems to have advanced to the point where it’s capable of conducting DDoS and jamming attacks. Recent reports also claim that large-scale jamming facilities are currently under construction in areas near the demilitarized zone (DMZ).

Meanwhile, there has been a notable increase in the activities of artillery/MLR (Multiple Launch Rocket) units in the coastal areas near the NLL with the Yeoneo (130t) and Saneo (300t) class submarines, and the recent testing of air-to-ship missiles with Ilyushin-28 bombers.

Developments in the KPA’s capabilities are diverse, but can be broadly interpreted in two ways. In offensive terms, North Korea has qualitatively diversified its conventional military capabilities by increasing the number of options to further develop its asymmetric threat. In terms of defense, recent developments could be seen as being directed at strengthening its deterrence capabilities along the DMZ and NLL.

Yet it’s another, centralized, shift that poses the biggest threat to South Korea – the increased efficiency and effectiveness in the mobilization of its special operations (SOF) troops. A recent South Korean Defense White Paper, for example, stated that North Korea has approximately 200,000 personnel designated as special operations forces, with roughly a quarter of them forward deployed along the DMZ. Successful coordination of cyber/electronic attacks and bombardment by artillery, meanwhile, would allow smoother infiltration by the KPA’s guerilla troops into South Korea.

None of this is to suggest that the KPA’s developing capabilities are flawless. Although North Korea may be diversifying its military capabilities, the KPA’s conventional forces still suffer from at least two weaknesses.

The first is over power projection capabilities – especially in the country’s air force. While the KPA has an abundant stock of air platforms, overall combat readiness is undermined not only by an aging inventory, but also because of the severe shortages of fuel. Even in emergencies, North Korean fighter jets have avoided engaging with South Korean F-15Ks. Kim Jong-il’s unsuccessful attempts at acquiring China’s J-10 fighter jets last May, meanwhile, highlights Pyongyang’s desire to remedy its inferiority in terms of airpower.

The second problem relates to the negative impact of the political process. As heir apparent Kim Jong-un rises up the ranks in the North Korean system, ideological discipline has been strengthened, while significant organizational changes have been taking place in both the KPA and the Workers Party of Korea (WPK). While this may bolster the North Korean leadership’s political security, it inevitably distracts the regime from addressing technical issues in the KPA.

The complexity of the KPA highlights the ongoing problems with North Korea’s defense planning. In 1962, Kim Il-sung issued the sa dae gunsa roson (Four Grand Military Lines), which aimed to: modernize the entire KPA; establish a cadre-based military; ensure nationwide fortification; and arm all citizens. To finance this, Kim carved out a chunk of the state’s economy for the military and established the Second Economic Committee. Ironically for North Korea, the very system designed to strengthen the KPA became the source of its defense planning failures simply because it was beyond the state’s capacity to cope with it.

Still, North Korea has displayed expertise in exploiting diplomatic weaknesses. After its returns from its nuclear ambitions proved to be slower coming than desired, Pyongyang searched for loopholes in the U.S. alliance’s system of deterrence. With its military capabilities apparently having the desired effect, North Korea is likely to continue searching for ways to keep its asymmetric capabilities one step ahead of any countermeasures.

Under such circumstances, a realignment of the deterrence strategy vis-à-vis North Korea is in order. Although North Korea has remained relatively calm since the attack on Yeonpyeong Island, there’s no guarantee that the KPA will refrain from conducting another series of provocations. Indeed, the break in North Korea’s military behavior may suggest further realignment and preparations to undermine the security of South Korea, Japan and the United States.

The U.S. alliance’s deterrence efforts to date have focused too much on North Korea’s WMD capabilities and too little on the KPA’s conventional capabilities. The alliance therefore needs to find a new strategy that’s more expansive and flexible to deal with North Korea’s military threat. Devising harsher response strategies and exercising greater surveillance over North Korea are certainly plausible options. In particular, improving human intelligence, imagery intelligence and signals intelligence capabilities vis-à-vis North Korea could be crucial.

In addition, an expanded and comprehensive approach to North Korea’s military threat will require greater trilateral cooperation between Japan, South Korea and the United States. Given the diversifying nature of North Korea’s military capabilities, the U.S. alliance need to broaden its strategy to encourage greater co-operation between Seoul and Tokyo, especially as Japan and South Korea don’t always see eye to eye on the threat posed by North Korea.

The KPA’s diversifying capabilities are part of longstanding efforts by Pyongyang to achieve the Four Grand Military Lines aimed at compensating forNorth Korea’s shortcomings in the regional security balance. However, while North Korea may have been successful in strengthening its military leverage, it has fallen short of guaranteeing the regime’s security. North Korea’s realignment of its military capabilities also reflects the state’s shaky domestic foundations. Regardless, while the KPA’s diversifying military capabilities are unlikely to help North Korea achieve its goal of becoming a “strong and prosperous nation,” they are certainly making it a potentially more deadly one.

Ryo Hinata-Yamaguchi is a Reserve Specialist with Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Forces and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of New South Wales – Australian Defense Force Academy, where he is researching North Korea’s military capability management. The views expressed are entirely his own.