The Koreas | Security | East Asia

The Tactical Implications of North Korea’s Military Modernization

Displays of new North Korean military equipment are likely meant to implement deterrence via posturing, with no real impact on the regional balance of power.  

The Tactical Implications of North Korea’s Military Modernization

Weapons on display during the military parade in Pyongyang on Jan. 14, 2021.

Credit: Screenshot/ KCNA broadcast

On January 14, to commemorate the end of the Eighth Congress of the Korean Workers’ Party, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un presided over a lavish military parade where many new models of military hardware were showcased. This was the second such parade in the last few months, as the last batch of new weapons was revealed during a parade in October 2020 to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Korean Workers’ Party.

In the most recent parade, a variety of new equipment was shown, ranging from sniper rifles and semi-automatic grenade launchers for ground troops, to tank destroyers and heavy multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS), and lastly a new model of submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM). Excluding the SLBMs, we can see inspiration for abroad for the new weapons. The rifle-sized grenade launchers mimic the high-tech South Korean Daewoo K11 infantry weapon system; the tank destroyers superficially resemble the M1128 mobile gun system from the Stryker family of armored vehicles produced by U.S. defense firm General Dynamics Land Systems; and the North Korean MLRS are meant to fulfill the same function as the U.S. Lockheed Martin M270 MLRS.

Much Less Than Meets the Eye?

At first glance, it would appear that Pyongyang is engaging in a vigorous program of military modernization, intended to narrow the technological lead that the United States and South Korea enjoy in terms of conventional arms, since the bulk of the North’s ordnance dates back to or is based on weapons from the 1960s to 1980s. However, if and when these new arms are deployed, actual operational realities might well be substantially different from the implied perceptual threat portrayed in the extravagant parades staged in Pyongyang.

Specifically, three issues obstruct an assessment that the Korean People’s Army (KPA) is successfully working to be on par with the U.S.-ROK alliance on the Korean Peninsula. The first is whether the KPA has derived a workable doctrine for the incorporation of its new armaments into existing war plans. Inasmuch as doctrines refer to plans about how equipment and forces contribute to military campaigns and operations, flashy new equipment without concrete implementable instructions for battlefield employment in concert with existing forces means little. As North Korea has not fought any large-scale engagements since the end of the Korean War in 1953, doubts exist as to the efficacy of new doctrines derived by the KPA’s general staff to efficiently utilize the apparent military modernization recently witnessed.

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Next, even if new functional doctrine exists, there still remains the issue of training. Military units need sufficient training in the form of regular maneuver exercises to drill them in the effective execution of doctrine-based orders. Based on North Korean press releases, it can be seen that KPA exercises predominantly consist of massed units firing on static targets or land features. These activities are conducted infrequently, while maneuver exercises held by the South Korean military are done frequently on a unilateral basis, or executed annually in concert with U.S. forces as part of their alliance. Therefore, there is skepticism over whether the KPA can use its newly introduced materiel, or even the critical mass of its older hardware, in a dynamic offensive southwards without serious command, control, communication, and coordination problems.

Exacerbating the issue is also the fact that since the end of the Cold War, the Russians and Chinese have ceased to supply North Korea with subsidized fuel, while the North is unable to afford sufficient fuel for the maintenance via training of the KPA’s maneuver capabilities. This is made worse by the reduction in fuel exports from China as mandated in tough new UNSC sanctions implemented from 2016-2017 in response to Pyongyang’s prohibited nuclear and missile testing.

Finally, there should not be undue panic about the weapons systems rolled out by the Kim regime because there is no way to gauge the quality or capability and the sustainable operability of these armaments. With weapons exports to the North being banned since 2006, the North Korean defense industry has been deprived of technology transfers and has been operating in isolation, relying on dual use technology, domestic research, and reverse engineering smuggled weapons samples. Such poor conditions for military research and development are unlikely to produce internationally competitive equipment, even if such materiel looks good in parades.

Moreover, the impoverished nature of the North’s economy raises questions about whether enough of these new arms, vehicles, and rockets can be manufactured to be strategically significant. It’s one thing to produce a few prototypes for display, and quite something else to churn out a few hundred examples for operational duty, along with enough spare parts to effect inevitable repairs. Notwithstanding Pyongyang’s military-centric “songun” policy, where the KPA should lack nothing, the beleaguered nature of North Korean finances casts reasonable doubt on the sustainability of such manufacturing.

With these three factors in mind, it would seem that a substantial part of the last two military parades in Pyongyang, revealing new conventional military hardware, could well amount to mere posturing, or rather visual propaganda designed to scare Seoul, deter Washington, and instill domestic pride

Is the New SLBM Something to Worry About?

North Korea’s new SLBM, the Pukkuksong-5, which made its debut during the parade on January 14 is certainly impressive, but its practical deterrent effect is rather limited. To begin with, effective submarine-borne nuclear deterrence requires submarines with ultra-long endurance, to undertake long submerged patrols lasting many weeks, without possibility of resupply, to maximize stealth. Such submarines are invariably nuclear powered, and even though Kim Jong Un has vowed to build them, it is highly doubtful whether this can be done as the North lacks the technological sophistication to accomplish such an advanced goal.

Additionally, even if Kim manages to get one such vessel built and if the Pukkuksong-5 functions with acceptable reliability, range, and accuracy, such a submersible maritime deterrent faces the challenge of not being prematurely sunk by arguably the three most advanced anti-submarine warfare forces in Asia, belonging to the United States, Japan, and South Korea. Although we should never underestimate the nuclear threat posed by the Kim regime, the Pukkuksong-5 and its earlier developed cousins are much less of a concern, at least for now.

So What Now?

For all his purported claims to care for ordinary North Koreans and better their welfare, it is clear where Kim’s government spending priorities lie. Since nuclear warhead development, ballistic missile research and building, and conventional arms manufacturing are extremely expensive, it is obvious that defense spending takes up the lion’s share of the annual North Korean budget. Indeed, Pyongyang reportedly spends 23 percent of North Korea’s GDP on defense, the highest such proportion globally.      

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Neither of North Korea’s two declared principal adversaries, the United States and South Korea, have given the Kim dynasty any justifiable excuse to waste precious resources by adopting a policy of arms accumulation. No country has pre-emptively attacked the North since the armistice of 1953.

However, the Kim regime shows no inclination to devote the bulk of its financial wherewithal to vital needs such as health care outside the elite enclave of Pyongyang, rehabilitation of crumbling civil infrastructure, and other vital priorities. As a result, efforts to starve the songun policy of monetary fuel should continue and be intensified.

Toward this end, Washington and Seoul should resolutely focus efforts on convincing the international community to tighten implementation of existing U.N. sanctions, so that North Korea’s smuggling and evasion attempts are kept to a bare minimum. The KPA and Kim’s WMD programs do not have bottomless coffers. If the several hundred million or few billion U.S. dollars gained from illicit circumvention of international sanctions can be eliminated, we may well see a distinct lessening of destabilizing weapons swaggering, and even antagonistic behavior from Pyongyang.

Liang Tuang Nah, Ph.D., is a research fellow at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies (IDSS), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU). This commentary is purely the writer’s own opinion and does not reflect the views of the IDSS, RSIS or NTU.