Multiple sources are reporting that North Korea fired a short range missile in a scheduled test just hours before the announcement of Kim Jong-il’s death. A South Korean official has gone on record as saying that the test was likely not connected to Kim’s death. Still, it underscores the potential danger of any miscalculations in an already tense situation as the international community looks for clues on who exactly is now in control of North Korea’s massive military and its nuclear and chemical weapons arsenal.
The United States, Japan, and South Korea have all increased their levels of military preparedness in response to the death of the North Korean leader, with all three concerned that a period of instability could result from Kim’s passing. It’s also still unclear if Kim’s son, Kim Jong-Un, will attempt to increase his domestic political support by orchestrating tensions with other countries.
“The militaries of both North Korea and South Korea are on high alert during this transitional period,” says Alexander von Rosenbach, senior armed forces analyst at IHS Jane’s. “Additionally, both sides maintain massive arsenals along the Demilitarized Zone. Thus, there’s a heightened risk of accidental clashes between North Korea and South Korea.”
So, what would happen in the event that conflict was sparked? “North Korea would rely on numerical advantage in hopes of overwhelming the South,” von Rosenbach says. “North Korea’s equipment is old and it’s unlikely that it is all in useable condition. Nevertheless, there’s reason to fear its force of up to 13,500 artillery pieces, all of which are pointed across the border and protected from counter-attack.”
Von Rosenbach also noted that the South Korean army is about half the size of North Korea’s million-man force, and said its soldiers would be determined fighters despite the fact that they are poorly trained and equipped.
“The North also possesses three times as many submarines, which could be used to attack the South Korean military or commercial shipping in contested waters or to stealthily deliver North Korean commandos to attack land-based targets behind the DMZ,” he says. “On many occasions in the past, North Korea has proven that what it lacks in modern capability, it makes up for with creativity. While nuclear capabilities are often on the spotlight, it is their inventiveness and the sheer size of the military and traditional capabilities that are the bigger threat.”
Sarah McDowall, senior analyst and desk head for the Asia-Pacific region at IHS, agrees that Kim’s sudden death has plunged the Korean Peninsula into even greater uncertainty.
“There are real concerns that heir-apparent Kim Jung-un hasn’t had sufficient time to form the necessary alliances in the country to consolidate his future as leader of the country,” she says. “Although little is known about Jong-un, it appears unlikely that he’ll be a transformative figure for the country. Conversely, he’s likely to be predisposed to adhere to concepts of Juche – or self reliance – and dynastic centralization.”
Official North Korean media is, meanwhile, already declaring Kim Jung-un the successor to his father. Indeed the media made special reference to the younger Kimas the “great successor to the revolutionary cause.” The official Korean Central News Agency for its part described his as “the outstanding leader of our party, army and people.”
Despite the acclamations, as McDowall notes, it’s still an open question whether Kim Jong-un has had time to build the level of support he needs to prevent the collapse of the regime and the Kim dynasty. Indeed, as Richard Weitz noted in an opinion piece in The Diplomat today, the decision to make Kim Jong-un a general last year – a move clearly designed to bolster his credentials with the armed forces – may actually have undermined his support in the military.