When examining the development of North Korea’s strategic thought, there are several points to bear in mind. First, the reorganization and transition of its military forces occurred over the course of three periods, namely of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) between 1997 and the early years of the 21st century, of the North Korean Special Operation Forces (NKSOFs) during those same early-century years, and of naval forces between 2010 and 2012. Each transition followed a change of strategic thought from conventional to asymmetric to guide both lines of thinking within the context of a future hybrid war. Second, the final stages of the transition to forces capable of engaging in an asymmetric war occurred between 2010 and 2012. The changes in North Korea’s naval capabilities manifest this evolution. Third, the overall changes in North Korean military capabilities, the emphasis on strategic weapons, and the nature of North Korea’s provocations point to an asymmetric strategic approach.
The Stages Of North Korea’s Military Development
North Korea has approached the transformation of its military in a top-down, nonlinear fashion. The recent development of its military capabilities and the current political initiatives can be placed into context by identifying five phases of development of the country’s military.
The first stage of North Korean military development consisted of a steady linear increase in the numbers of armed forces personnel, continuing from the end of the Korean War to the present. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, in 1985 North Korea was ranked sixth in the world, with 838,000 total armed forces personnel, and in 2015 fourth, with 1,379,000. This buildup was conceived as being defensive in nature, creating a massive protective shield provided by land forces. Status of this stage: accomplished.
The second stage saw the development of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, along with nuclear capabilities. It began with the initiation of North Korea’s missile program in 1976 and lasted to the first display of North Korea’s intermediate-range ballistic missile, the Hwasong-10, at a military parade in 2010. This missile’s range is only 2,500 kilometers (km), which covers only the zone of the first island chain. This stage also is interpreted as being defensive, as well as asymmetrical. Status of this stage: accomplished.
The third stage is the development of nuclear capabilities, along with intermediate-range ballistic missiles. It lasted from the intermediate-range ballistic missile Hwasong-10 test in 2016 to the intercontinental ballistic missile Hwasong-14 test in 2017. The characteristics and purpose of this stage were to be offensive and asymmetrical with the increased missile range, which fully covers the first island chain zone and theoretically the second island chain as well. Status of this stage: accomplished.
The fourth stage is the expansion of naval capabilities, along with intercontinental ballistic missiles. It began with the upgrade of training facilities, weapons systems, and special-operations capabilities at the Munchon naval base in 2014. In the same year, commercial satellite imagery identified two new North Korean helicopter-carrying frigates, and the buildup continued throughout 2017 with tests of the Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15 missiles. The characteristics and purpose of this stage are to be offensive and asymmetrical; the missiles’ ranges cover both island chain zones fully. Status of this stage: in progress.
The fifth stage is the expansion of the capabilities of the Korean People’s Army Air Force (KPAAF), along with the further development of naval weapons systems. Status of this stage: initiated. The 2018 summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore, along with South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s revival of the Sunshine Policy, marked the beginning of this fifth stage. In this stage, North Korea would have more time and resources and suffer less external political pressure, allowing it to focus on building up conventional military forces, primarily the Korean People’s Navy (KPN) and the KPAAF.
The sequencing of these stages leads to the conclusion that North Korea’s top-down approach to military development has been and is asymmetric, counterintuitive, and somewhat deceptive in its succession from advanced and nonconventional to less advanced and conventional military technologies.
North Korea’s Strategic Thought
Ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu averred that all warfare is based on deception. A successful strategy leads an opponent to see yet misperceive, while believing he sees and knows. Since its first nuclear test in 2006, North Korea has conducted its equivalent of the World War II Allies’ Operation Fortitude, with “rubber nuclear warheads” instead of rubber tanks. North Korea’s asymmetric approach has followed a nonlinear, back-and-forth progression.
If Western powers are failing to recognize correctly the elements of Asian strategic thinking, they are repeating historical mistakes they made previously owing to the application of Western strategic concepts. During the Vietnam War, the political center of gravity in the West was public opinion influenced by daily media coverage, which was well-exploited by the leaders of the North Vietnamese army. On the other hand, the United States did a poor job of determining the enemy’s military center of gravity, in part because the North Vietnamese army was so widely dispersed. Therefore, perhaps North Korea’s strategic center of gravity — the hub of all its power — never has resided in North Korea per se, but in its closest ally, China. If North Korea’s security depends on China, most likely its military strategy does as well.
North Korea’s ultimate strategic goal is to unify Korea on Pyongyang’s terms and maintain one-party rule under the Korean Workers’ Party. The regime is a dictatorship that uses coercive diplomacy and asymmetric strategies to achieve its political objectives — prior to 2013 limited to survival, sovereignty, and relevance. But the leadership transition in both North Korea and China and North Korea’s military advancement indicate an expanded scope of objectives.
The 2012 transition in Chinese leadership was notable for a significant change in China’s foreign policy from Hu Jintao’s “peaceful development” to Xi Jinping’s “peaceful rise.” The distinction was reflected immediately in China’s South China Sea policy. It appears that China has used tension on the Korean Peninsula to enable it to wield a free hand in the South China Sea and to buy time for further modernization and development of its military capabilities.
Meanwhile, a gradual shift in North Korea’s strategic thinking occurred during the last years of Kim Jong Il’s leadership. Before 2013, all but one of North Korea’s missile tests involved only short-range missiles. In 2006, North Korea tested the Taepodong-2, an intercontinental ballistic missile, for coercive diplomatic purposes; it remains unclear whether it also was intended for military purposes or as a space-launch vehicle. Most of the missiles North Korea has tested since 2013 have had a medium range, effectively covering the first island chain zone. Since 2016, North Korea has tested the intermediate-range ballistic missiles Hwasong-10 and Hwasong-12 and the intercontinental ballistic missiles Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15, all of which can cover the entire second island chain zone.
It is impossible for China to control the first island chain without controlling the East Sea. The sea itself is landlocked except for two narrow straits (outside of Russia’s maritime zone): the Tsushima/Korea Strait and the Tsugaru Strait. North Korea offers China its only exit to the East Sea. The sea’s unique geostrategic position would impose a limitation on the successful application of a standard maritime strategy, including the ability of an outer, blue-water navy to engage. It seems that even attempts by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to remove constitutional restrictions on the use of his country’s military or U.S. President Donald Trump’s bombastic rhetoric will not override and affect North Korea’s development of forces suited to asymmetric warfare and its plans for using them.
A Hybrid War On the Korean Peninsula
The transformation of the KPA began at the end of the 1990s, with a focus on the NKSOFs. Changes that occurred prior to the 1990s — such as restructuring the army, changing the nature of training in general as well as that of the NKSOFs, and replacing regular infantry troops with light infantry troops along the demilitarized zone (DMZ) — highlight North Korea’s transition from emphasizing the waging of conventional warfare to the waging of asymmetric warfare and the increasing threat its forces represent in that mode.
North Korea’s focus on strategic weaponry and its asymmetric application is relatively new. Artillery and missile systems and nuclear capabilities were the focus of North Korea’s military development before 2012, while electronic-warfare and cyber capabilities were the country’s focus between 2012 and 2017. These interim events, occurring between 2012 and 2017, reinforce earlier premises that North Korea by 2012 had completed the transformation of its conventional armed forces and had begun the transformation of its other military capabilities. That transformation of the armed forces now can be considered complete, with the proviso that the United States assumes that most opponents cannot field air forces adequate to counter U.S. air forces nor challenge the U.S. air-to-air. Most opponents, therefore, would use missiles and air-defense artillery to provide air defense. The general opinion was that North Korea would counter enemy air forces by using Scud missiles to deliver persistent chemical weapons to theater airbases.
Every past North Korean leader contributed something new in terms of the strategic development of the country’s military; Kim Jong Un’s contribution probably will be to oversee the final transition of its military forces to hybrid warfare capabilities and to develop a maritime war strategy. The time frame for the development of naval forces in North Korea also is in line with China’s announcement at the 18th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012 of its intention to continue building up a naval force.
Chronologically, these developments correspond to North Korea’s many and various military provocations. While such have occurred since the 1950s, a possible interpretation for the most recent developments is that as North Korea judged its capabilities to have increased to closer to what was necessary to conduct (perhaps along with China) a hybrid war against the United States (and presumably to win it), its behavior has become less circumspect, and therefore more threatening to international peace and security.
In spite of the worrisome ambiguity toward South Korea, Japan can be considered as the only “legitimate military target” of North Korea. Japan occupies a vulnerable geostrategic/geopolitical position that makes it an important factor in the balance of power in East Asia. An attempt by Japan to amend Article 9 of its constitution, which heavily restricts the development of Japanese military forces, could lead to strained relations in the region and the implementation of radical countermeasures by China and North Korea.
Therefore, any assessment of North Korea’s asymmetric and maritime military strategy conducted strictly from a traditional perspective would be inadequate owing to the country’s unique geostrategic location. Sabotage and sea insurgency in pursuit of defensive political objectives do not require direct military engagement — but invasion does. A North Korean naval invasion of Japan, while possible, is not really feasible, given the contemporary geopolitical situation, including the strong U.S. military presence in the region. But ruling it out completely, is unwise; doing so would be similar to ruling out, at the beginning of the 20th century, a German war plan for a land invasion of France — something that Germany, in fact, had been developing since 1897, 17 years before the outbreak of World War I.
This article is a reminder of the necessity of reconceptualizing an asymmetric element in North Korea’s strategy, often falsely understood as irrational. In some previous cases, a failure to think outside the box has contributed to the failure of past strategies. If in the future we have a chance to see North Korea’s strategy unfold, we likely will discover that the problem was in our patchy understanding of North Korea’s strategic thought. Yet, by then, it might be too late.
Mirko Tasic is a lecturer and researcher at Webster University’s Thailand campus. He lectures on traditional and nontraditional security threats. This article draws on research for a longer paper, “Northwest Pacific—Exploring North Korea’s Asymmetric Military Strategy,” published in the Naval War College Review.