As Pyongyang’s conventional forces age out, the dictatorship pursues asymmetrical capabilities
Last week the Pentagon released its annual, congressionally-mandated report on North Korea, Military and Security Developments Involving the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The short, 22-page report is an assessment of the North Korea’s strategic objectives and what military means are being developed to achieve them.
The report makes clear that the traditional North Korean military is crumbling. The regime’s ships, planes, and armored vehicles are old and obsolete, and despite North Korea’s “military first” economic strategy the country still doesn’t have the money to purchase upgrades. Deprived of a patron with the collapse of the Soviet Union, North Korea’s military equipment is marching toward oblivion, with little or no prospect of getting new, modern gear.
Mindful of this, the North Korean leadership is expanding capabilities into so-called “asymmetric” fields: fields that take advantage of North Korea’s remaining strengths to exploit the vulnerabilities of regime enemies. As a result, North Korea is investing heavily in nuclear weapons, special forces, and cyber warfare.
What A Rogue State Wants
To understand the North Korean military, it’s important to understand the leadership’s goals. The number one goal of the Kim family is regime survival. The regime has other goals, particularly creating a viable nuclear deterrent and reuniting the peninsula under the North’s control, but basic survival is first and utmost.
The regime of Kim Jong-un, like that of his father Kim Jong-il survives by creating the illusion that it is dangerous and unpredictable, capable of lashing out at any time. This disruptive behavior is often extortive: the regime regularly threatens violence if concessions are not made or aid is not given. The regime can do this because it has developed nuclear weapons, which deters regional actors from dealing with it decisively.
The North Korean People’s Army: “Antiquated” and “Outdated”
The Pentagon is remarkably downbeat on the state of North Korean conventional forces — to the point of being dismissive. The once-mighty North Korean People’s Army is slowly turning into a museum; the report repeatedly refers to the North Korea People’s Army as “antiquated” and “outdated”.
The report doesn’t break new ground on conventional forces. While the report notes that newly identified tanks, artillery and other armored vehicles have been seen at recent military parades, it doesn’t even bother going into detail about them. This suggests that the U.S. military doesn’t think much of the new vehicles and their ability to shift the balance of power on the ground.
The North Korean Air Force get only slightly more attention. The report notes that the air force hasn’t received any new fighter planes in fifteen years, when it purchased used MiG-21s from Kazakhstan. The report notes that surface to air missiles that resembled the Russian S-300 or Chinese HQ-9 (both similar to the American Patriot) have been recently sighted but lacks detail.
Finally, the Pentagon doesn’t have much of an opinion on North Korean naval developments. It notes continuing North Korean development of small, pocket submarines like the kind that sank the South Korean corvette Cheonan, as well as a locally-made torpedo.
Nukes: the Kim family’s insurance policy
North Korea has put an extraordinary amount of time and effort into building ballistic missiles, and for good reason: nuclear weapons are the shield that guarantees the regime. As the DoD report notes:
DPRK leaders see (nuclear and ballistic missile) programs, absent normalized relations with the international community, as leading to a credible deterrence capability essential to is goals of survival, sovereignty, and relevance and supportive of its coercive military threats and actions.
The North’s conventional force was the guarantor of the regime, but it was never a total guarantee because the United States had nuclear weapons and it did not. The Iraq invasion of 2003 made it clear that a strong conventional forces were irrelevant and that only nuclear weapons would keep the Americans. at bay. Now that North Korea does have nukes, the South Korea, the U.S. and Japan are severely limited in their options in dealing with the country.
North Korea continues to test nuclear weapons, attempting to shrink them down to the point they can be put on the tip of a missile. The February 2013 nuclear test, coupled with the December 2012 Taepo Dong-2 missile launch, point in the direction of a nuclear weapon with the range to reach the United States. The new Hwasong-13 intercontinental ballistic missiles, derived from primitive, short-ranged Scud missiles, might theoretically reach the United States but due of a lack of testing are likely unreliable.
From a conquering to disruptive force
As the North’s military grows older and the economy continues to do poorly, North Korea must pick and choose. As a result North Korea is less interested in weapons useful in all-out war than weapons that are more suitable for raids and isolated attacks. A large diesel submarine is less useful to North Korea than the pocket submarine used to sink the frigate Cheonan in 2010: conventional submarines are more expensive and suited to conventional war, and North Korea knows it will lose a conventional war.
Special forces are another disruptive force. Such forces are clandestine by nature, easy to hide from foreign intelligence, and capable of a broad nature of missions. In wartime they would infiltrate South Korea and even Japan via mini-submarine, aircraft, and over the Demilitarized Zone, carrying long-range reconnaissance, raids, sabotage, and attacks on politicians.
The North reportedly has 200,000 special forces troops. They are, as the report dryly notes, among the “most highly trained, well-equipped, best-fed, and highly motivated forces in the KPA.” It’s not often that the troops of a nuclear power are favorably described as “best-fed” among their peers.
How good are North Korean special forces troops? That’s hard to say. U.S. Special Operations Command has 63,000 well-trained, hand-picked troops from a total military of 1.3 million; North Korea has 200,000 special forces from an army of one million. Unless North Koreans are unusually well suited to commando operations, it’s very likely that the “special” in their special forces has been watered down considerably.
The Pentagon believes that North Korea is building up its capabilities in so-called “offensive cyber operations”. The report describes cyberwarfare as the most “cost-effective way to develop asymmetric, deniable military operations”. It lays the blame for denial of service attacks against South Korea in 2009 to 2011 on North Korean cyber units, and two other attacks last year on South Korean banking, media, and government networks, “resulting in the erasure of critical data”.
The Pentagon appears no longer worried about North Korea’s conventional forces. Though the report never quite comes out and says it, the subtext of is that North Korea, having achieved security through nuclear weapons, is shifting from the ability to conduct all-out war to a coercive operations. Conventional war is no longer desirable to the North since it will mean the end of the regime.
What the Pentagon does seem worried about is the possibility that North Korea will stage a disruptive attack that could escalate to war. Indeed, according to former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ memoir the South Korean government had to be restrained from launching escalatory attacks against North Korea after the artillery shelling of Yeongpyeong island, which killed four South Koreans.
All of this is not to say that North Korea has changed in any meaningful way. If North Korea were to suddenly receive a trillion dollars it is likely every penny of it would go to buying a new military that might very well be used to invade the South the next day. The new posture only reflects economic realities: North Korea is a prisoner of its economic decline.