MajGen Richard C. Schulze Memorial Essay
North Korea is a regime that has engaged in brinkmanship and promoted regional instability since the days of Kim Il-sung. This governmental policy was also carried on during the reign of his son, Kim Jong-il. But these days—since the end of 2011—things have changed. There have been questions asked by experienced analysts regarding the stability of the Kim regime (now under the “3rd Kim”—Kim Jong-un), the many rogue state activities it has engaged in, and the status of the key pillars of power in the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) that have not been considered this tenuous since the 1950s when Kim Il-sung was still consolidating his power.
It will be the goal of this essay to conduct an analysis of the key issues in North Korea that are important to military professionals as they look to planning concerns, knowledge of social-political-military factors in the DPRK, and, of course, general issues that we should be concerned about for the future. In order to reach this goal, it will be necessary for an analysis of several key factors. Thus, we must look at three key issues and challenges involving North Korea, how these factors affect the way our views on what Pyongyang is accomplishing during the rule of Kim Jong-un, and why.
One of the key issues that has been a matter of concern for all nation states with interests in East Asia has been North Korea’s rapid development of several important weapons systems. While WMDs (weapons of mass destruction) and the platforms that carry them have been in the headlines—essentially since the 2012 Kim Jong-un regime’s nuclear tests of ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads—there has also been development, testing, and sometimes deployment of conventional systems that have the potential to cause damage to American and South Korean forces during any conflict that would occur on the Peninsula, particularly in the early phases of a potential war. I will address these systems, and I will also address the WMD system’s development. Both conventional and unconventional force developments in North Korea show potential for real threats to the ROK-U.S. alliance that must be planned for and dealt with.
North Korea has engaged in brinkmanship and provocations since the very beginning of the regime. It is important not only to describe these events but to differentiate between them. My definition of a provocation is an event intentionally initiated in order to inflict casualties on opposing forces. This is what has happened—repeatedly—during the reign of the Kim family regime. I will address how this has continued in a very compelling way under Kim Jong-un. Brinkmanship is a bit more ambiguous than provocations. In other words, brinkmanship can be something as simple as a long-range ballistic missile test, a necessary event in order to test a weapons system, yet something that can also be initiated at times of political opportunity.1 I will address brinkmanship and provocations in detail in this essay.
As we have seen with the continued violent provocations, the ongoing and escalating brinkmanship (for example, as of the writing of this essay, there have been more than 30 ballistic missile launches in the Kim Jong-un regime, a significant increase from the rate of test launches under his father), and the development of several weapons systems that have the potential to threaten both the region and the United States, one cannot help but wonder what the motivations are for all of this activity. As such, the final issue that I will consider will be the reasons behind the Kim regime’s stepped-up weapons development, constant moves that most consider brinkmanship, and continued policy of violent provocations that lead to increased tensions with Pyongyang’s neighbor to the South. There are specific reasons for this activity, and understanding these reasons can lead to planning that will better contain a rogue regime focused on raising tensions in the region and creating problems within the ROK-U.S. alliance.2
Weapons Development in the Kim Jung-un Era
North Korea’s nuclear weapons and its ballistic missile development programs are important. In fact, it is almost without exception that these are the developments (typically the testing of these systems) that garnish attention from both the world press and policy makers. Because these programs are important, and because Marine Corps units have the potential to be tasked with recovering WMD during time of war or a North Korean collapse, I will address these systems in this section. But I will also address some key examples of conventional weapons systems that North Korea has recently developed and tested. While many tend to think of the DPRK as a poor country with an army that is only a “Potemkin Village,” this is not true, despite continuing anecdotal reports of malnourishment and corruption in the army.3
One of the reasons that North Korea continues to maintain and upgrade a large, conventional military force that augments its WMD forces is because it spends so much on its military. In fact, according to a State Department document entitled, “World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers,” North Korea spent 23.8 percent of its GDP (gross domestic product) on the military between 2002 and 2012. Military proliferation made up 10.2 percent of their GDP during the same time frame.4 Both of these assessed figures place North Korea number one worldwide. It is important to keep in mind that much of North Korea’s economy and its military expenditures are illicit, meaning the figures above are likely even much higher. According to the DOD document “Military and Security Developments Involving the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea: 2015,” preparing for war with the South and with the United States is a key goal for the DPRK. The document states in part,
North Korea uses reunification with South Korea as a key component of its national identity narrative to validate its strategy and policies, and to justify sacrifices demanded of the populace. However, North Korea’s leaders almost certainly recognize that achieving reunification under North Korean control is, for the foreseeable future, unattainable.5
Thus, while North Korea is—at least for now—deterred by South Korea and its key ally, the United States, it continues to train for war, a prospect that remains a possibility even as the last Korean War seems a distant memory.
If one is to look at North Korea’s ballistic missile capability, the first missile that comes to mind is often the Taepo Dong. During the Kim Jong-un era, the testing and development of this missile series has increased. During January 2016, the North Koreans once again successfully tested the Taepo Dong. While a successful test of a Taepo Dong is nothing new, there were some new developments that are of concern. The North Koreans built an underground railway near the launch pad, allowing preparation for launches to be more covert and shortening allied reaction time to missile launches. According to press briefings and other reports, the Taepo Dong also now has increased its range, at least potentially. North Korea claims the missile is in actuality a satellite launch vehicle (SLV) they have named the Kwangmyongsong-4 (most analysts believe this is untrue and that the SLV is simply a test-bed for ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missiles] development). While improvements made to this system appear to be minor (at least to date), continued successful tests showcase the reliability of North Korea’s capability to target the United States mainland with a ballistic missile.6
The Taepo Dong certainly presents a compelling example of a potential threat to the United States—especially given the repeated successful launches. But the Taepo Dong is a missile that takes days, perhaps weeks, to set up and launch, and thus is a threat that, in most cases, could be successfully dealt with by ballistic missile defense (BMD). The same cannot be said for a newly developed (in the past five years) ICBM that is launched from a transporter-erector-launcher (TEL), which is road-mobile and has the range to hit the west coast of the United States. As of the writing of this essay, this missile, known as the “KN-08,” has not been test launched. This missile, however, is probably one of the key missile systems that is part of a new brigade-sized unit formed within North Korea’s Strategic Forces Corps (North Korea’s corps-level unit that is comprised of its ballistic missile forces).7
To the surprise of many, North Korea recently publicly displayed what its propaganda services called as a nuclear warhead for missiles. In March 2016, according to the Commander of U.S. Northern Command, U.S. government officials assessed that North Korea can now range the United States with an ICBM. North Korea has also publicly tested (with pictures released to the press) the reentry vehicle nosecone for the KN-08 (pundits have for years argued that long-range North Korean missiles did not have atmospheric re-entry capability—an argument that is rapidly dying). Many analysts have confirmed, based on scientific evidence, that the publicly tested reentry vehicle and the publicly revealed nuclear warhead appear to be legitimate aspects of systems that are now more advanced than most would have predicted even last year. What made the engine tests of 2016 the most troubling is that the engine appears to be based on a new 80-ton rocket booster built in collaboration with the Iranians (one can expect this new component to be proliferated to Iran in the future if this has not happened already).8 During a parade in 2015, North Korea showed off what at first appeared to be a modified KN-08. While it remains unclear in unclassified channels, the missile displayed in the parade probably has capabilities advanced beyond the KN-08, and the Pentagon has reportedly designated this version of a road-mobile ICBM the “KN-14.”9
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While North Korea is developing a plethora of new systems, it has not been idle in the continued testing of its already developed, deployed, and proliferated systems. North Korea conducted Scud missile launches during March 2016.10 During the same month, the DPRK test-launched the No Dong missile system (successfully) several times.11 Perhaps the most compelling launch of the No Dong during 2016 was in August, when the North Koreans launched one of the missiles straight into Japan’s economic exclusion zone (EEZ).12 The move by North Korea (which has also test-launched ballistic missiles that have flown over Japan) has prompted talk in Japan of bringing the Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) system there as an improvement to their BMD.13
North Korea continues to show that it has missiles capable of targeting a variety of targets—including key nodes in the Pacific. One such missile, called the “Musudan” by the West, was test launched by the Iranians during 2006 (the North Koreans proliferated 18 Musudan systems to Iran during the fall of 2005), but Pyongyang had previously never launched the missile from their own landmass.14 The North Koreans finally chose to test the Musudan from their own soil in 2016. They conducted a number of launches and eventually proved the capabilities of the missile. All did not go well at first—during an early launch, the missile reportedly exploded on the launch pad and killed or injured a number of North Koreans. While further tests did not have results as disastrous, none of the early launches during April 2016 were in any way successful.15
North Korea continued their test launches of the Musudan in June 2016—this proved to be a different story. The North Koreans launched two missiles, with the first missile apparently not flying as was hoped (or it was a decoy), while the second missile apparently flew exactly as planned. Not only did the second missile fly an unusual and successful flight, it revealed new technical data regarding North Korean capabilities. The successfully launched Musudan missile soared to an altitude of more than 1,400 kilometers into the air. It may have been launched in such a manner to avoid flying over Japan. By launching it on the trajectory that they did, the North Koreans proved that if launched on a more leveled out trajectory, the missile probably has the range to target Guam (3,500 to 4,000 kilometers). They also proved that the missile clearly has a sophisticated atmospheric re-entry capability. But there were also important—and unexpected—details that came to light out of the successful launch as well. The missile appears to have grid fins, which would be a unique DPRK design. Some analysts have also assessed that the missile may be equipped with new engines. Analysis of the speed and altitude of the missile showed that it likely can avoid targeting by South Korea’s Patriot PAC-2 and even PAC-3 systems.16 For those who doubt North Korea’s ability to successfully launch ballistic missiles, it should be pointed out that they went from a missile exploding on the launch pad to proving the same missile can fly its claimed range and also has successful atmospheric re-entry capability, all in two months.
Thus far we have addressed a variety of land based ballistic missiles. But North Korea is also in the later stages of development of a submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM) and, perhaps as importantly, the accompanying blue-water submarine that carries it. North Korea is testing both of these systems and has already built at least one submarine. Based on reports thus far, the submarine may be a variant of the old (1960s technology) Soviet, GOLF-class submarines. The GOLF-class sub has an endurance time of 70 days and could potentially sail to Hawaii and back.17 North Korea has been testing both the submarine and the SLBM that goes with it since at least 2014. The North Koreans started off launching an SLBM from an underwater barge. They then reached the point where they were launching the missile from the actual submarine while it was submerged. Thus, what we are watching is the dual development and testing of a blue-water submarine that can actually make deployments throughout the Pacific (a first for North Korea), along with the same process for an SLBM that can potentially carry a nuclear weapon and threaten Hawaii when fired from the submarine. Initial test launches of the SLBM did not go well and apparently caused damage to the sail of the submarine. As they advanced the system, however, the missile was successfully launched from underwater and flew several miles. In late August, 2016, the North Koreans made a huge advancement by successfully conducting a test launch of the SLBM. The missile was launched from the submerged submarine near the east coast of North Korea. It flew 310 miles (500 kilometers) and landed in the Japanese air defense identification zone (ADIZ). Based on this launch and other tests, the missile appears to be very similar to the Chinese JL-1 (CSS-N-3) system. It appears to be a solid-fueled, two-stage missile, capable of ranges far beyond what it showed in August 2016 (the missile was launched at a very high trajectory, leading analysts to believe it could fly much farther).18 Once the North Koreans have successfully completed testing and deploying the system—something that appears to be happening much faster than most analysts predicted—it will be a significant challenge for the United States to track, posing new challenges to the United States.19
Ballistic missiles are an important part of North Korea’s threatening nuclear arsenal. But artillery has always been a key focus of the DPRK’s armed forces. This has not changed in the Kim Jong-un era. Changes in the bunkers of artillery units deployed near the DMZ were revealed in open sources during 2015. ROK and/or American units will now find it more difficult to conduct counterbattery fire against their positions. According to ROK military sources quoted in the press,
Previously, the South Korean military had an operational strategy to smash North Korea’s howitzers within three minutes upon the launch of the North’s attacks before the howitzers withdrew to the bunkers. But the recent change of the bunkers’ entries may extend the time needed for the allies to bomb the howitzers, which can reach South Korea’s entire capital area.20
North Korea has done more than simply change the deployment of its artillery systems. It has also been developing and testing new artillery systems. Among the most important new developments is a 300mm MRL (multiple rocket launcher) system that the North Koreans have tested numerous times since 2014. The system appears most similar to the Russian BM-30 300mm MRL system (Smerch) or possibly a Chinese system of related design. Based on what has been seen in testing, the system can range targets 60 miles south of Seoul. The North Koreans have tested the new 300mm system using underground penetration shells and fragmentation-mine shells. Between 2014 and 2016, it has been tested numerous times. Photos taken of recent testing show that each launcher has eight rockets and also reveal tubes that are divided into two sets of four per each launcher.21
While North Korea has been developing new artillery systems, it has not been silent over the past year (2016) in conducting exercises. North Korea conducted a coastal artillery drill along the Northern Limit Line (the de facto “maritime DMZ” along the west coast border area between the two Koreas) during February 2016. The exercise was conducted so close to sovereign ROK territory that residents on Baeknyeong Island reported hearing “booms” from the gunfire, with many stating that they could even see muzzle flashes from their homes and businesses. One month later, the DPRK conducted what was widely reported as its largest known long-range artillery exercise (these are the systems that potentially threaten Seoul and adjoining areas). Photos taken during the exercise and released to the open press showed several dozen of these long-range systems firing in unison.22
Capabilities that can be said to have truly picked up steam during the Kim Jong-un regime are diverse and interesting. Among these capabilities is the primitive—yet effective—cyber-warfare threat that has developed in recent years. This capability is said to be operated primarily by Bureau 121 within the Reconnaissance General Bureau and is rumored to have a strength of around 6,000 personnel. Because of the relatively easy, indoor nature of these operations (also often operated outside of North Korea, from terminals in China or Japan), children of the elite in the DPRK are often the ones to fill these positions. This unit (and other lesser units in North Korea) have targeted large business conglomerates, governmental agencies, and even newspapers and television stations. The attacks have even targeted senior South Korean official’s phones; perhaps as importantly, these cyber-attacks have also targeted American-based entities and citizens. Of course the best known cyber-attack against American-based entities was the Sony incident in which Sony’s files and records were hacked during 2014, likely because Kim Jong-un was angry about the movie “The Interview.” In fact, the Commander, American Cyber Command stated in 2016 that North Korean cyber capabilities “pose a serious challenge to the United States.” During the summer of 2016, North Korean hackers were able to break into the networks of two major South Korean conglomerates, stealing thousands of defense related documents, including important documents with information about the F-15 aircraft.23
While cyber warfare is a legitimate, proven threat, this is not the only capability that North Korea has used to target electronic nodes. Over the past five years, North Korea has repeatedly targeted both maritime and airborne targets in South Korea with a GPS jamming system. What we have seen repeatedly—in blocks of time that typically cover several days—is targeted jamming operations that typically focus on Incheon airport aircraft as well as ships and boats operating off the west coast of the Korean Peninsula. The most recent spate of GPS jamming operations occurred during March and April 2016, when these operations once again affected hundreds of ships, boats, and planes. South Korea took formal complaints regarding the North Korean GPS jamming operations to the UN.24 One should keep in mind that these GPS jamming operations targeted the types of ships and aircraft that would potentially be involved in a non-combatant evacuation operation—a key concern for wartime or contingency operations on the Korean Peninsula.
In the previous sections, I have described development and testing of several important weapons systems, and while this is not a description of all of the systems under development in the DPRK, it certainly highlights many of the key new military threats that concern military planners and policy makers. Of course, of all of the threats that North Korea poses, the one that is most compelling is Pyongyang’s nuclear weaponization development. This has been ongoing since the early 1990s, and the program has increased in both sophistication and complexity to what we see in January, 2016, which is when North Korea’s fourth nuclear test occurred. Pyongyang claimed the test conducted in January 2016 was of a hydrogen device. Most analysts have assessed that the evidence did not support North Korea’s claim, though it may have been a different device from the first three tests (or not). According to a report issued by the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses,
Judging by the seismic data, the yield of the nuclear explosion was similar to that of the third test carried out in 2013, a far cry from the power of a hydrogen bomb, which ranges from hundreds of kilotons to tens of megatons. Therefore, it is highly likely that this test was not a hydrogen bomb test or even a failed one, contrary to what the North says. Another possibility is that North Korea tested a boosted fission weapon, using deuterium and tritium, which is a technology essential for increasing its yield and reducing the size of a nuclear warhead in order to allow such a warhead to be mounted on a missile, in addition to being an intermediate process in the development of a hydrogen bomb. 25
North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear test on 9 September 2016. There are many things that are important about the test. It was easily the largest test of a nuclear device by the North Koreans. Many analysts initially assessed the test to be around 10 kilotons in strength, while others have assessed that the yield may have been as high as 12 kilotons. If fired on a major city like Seoul or Tokyo by a ballistic missile, such a weapon could potentially kill up to 200,000 people. Also important regarding the test are the claims Pyongyang made that the weapon they tested is designed to be put on a ballistic missile capable of striking its enemies.26
One way or the other, it is clear that North Korea’s nuclear program continues to move forward, as does the quest to mount a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile.
Brinkmanship and Provocations in the Kim Jong-un Era
There is, in my view, a big difference between brinkmanship and provocation. Brinkmanship is typically an act that is designed to create tensions in the region or draw attention to North Korea’s military might, such as a nuclear weapons test or a large exercise near the DMZ. But violent provocations are acts designed to inflict casualties. In my studies, I have found that North Korea’s violent provocations all have four things in common. As I have discussed in previous studies, these four commonalities are: 1) they are intentionally initiated at moments when they have the likelihood of garnering the greatest attention on the regional and perhaps even the world stage; 2) they initially appear to be incidents that are relatively small, easily contained, and quickly “resolved;” 3) they involve continuously changing tactics and techniques; and 4) North Korea denies responsibility for the event.27
Perhaps the most important thing to note about violent provocations in the Kim Jong-un era is that the “third Kim” has chosen to carry on the policy of his father, which is to say that he intends to continue the policy of carrying out violent provocations from time to time in order to foster fear in South Korea, to attempt to drive a wedge into the ROK-U.S. alliance, and to uphold the image of North Korea’s military prowess. As those who study the Korean Peninsula know well, there were several violent provocations during the Kim Jong-il era, with the most compelling being in 2010 when a North Korean submarine sank a South Korean Corvette (killing half the crew) and, months later, when North Korean 122mm MRLs fired on sovereign ROK territory (an island) killing two South Korean Marines and two South Korean civilians. Nineteen people were also injured in that attack.29
It took five years for the North Koreans to once again come up with a violent provocation, one that met the four criteria discussed earlier in this section. Two South Korean soldiers were on patrol 1,440 feet south of the military demarcation line on 4 August 2015. On that day, both soldiers stepped on North Korean “wooden box” mines. The soldiers were badly wounded, with one needing to have one of his feet amputated, and the other having parts of both of his legs amputated.28 The mines were clearly south of the DMZ demarcation line. In other words, DPRK soldiers (likely special operations forces personnel) conducted a mission into the DMZ, planted the mines, and then successfully got back out—all without being detected and without any injuries. The violent provocation created an uproar in South Korea and showed that North Korea under Kim Jong-un clearly intends to continue the policy of conducting violent provocations meant to inflict casualties on the South.30
In reaction to the North Korean covert attack, South Korea resumed broadcasting propaganda into North Korea via loudspeakers near the DMZ. Pyongyang publicly responded that they would “attack” the loudspeakers. South Korea did not end the broadcasts. On 20 August 2015, the North Koreans fired several rounds of what at the time appeared to be small caliber artillery at targets in South Korea. ROK forces immediately reacted with artillery fire into North Korea, a quick and well-organized response. Following the exchange of fire back and forth across the DMZ, the North Koreans called for talks—there was no North Korean counterattack once the South Koreans showed they would respond quickly and authoritatively to any attack.31 Thus, the “friction” quickly ended. In the future, South Korean troops who patrol on missions along the DMZ will wear mine-proof boots and carry special mine detectors in measures now taken to improve the safety of troops placed in harm’s way.32
Motivations Behind the Brinkmanship, Provocations, and Weapons Development
With all of the stepped up development of weapons, the intentional brinkmanship to create tensions on the Korean Peninsula, and the ongoing violent provocations, one has to wonder what the motivation would be. There is no doubt that the weapons development is going at a faster pace than even under Kim Jong-un’s father, both in the number of military systems and the speed with which they are being rushed into development. But at the same time, there is no doubt that the government in North Korea is more unstable than it has been in over 60 years, when Kim Il-sung was consolidating his power.33 Thus, we must turn to that instability and Kim’s efforts to consolidate power as the key reasons for what is going on now with the military forces.
Since 2012, the results of Kim Jong-un’s power consolidation has been purges. By 2015, it had become obvious that this showed no signs of ending, suggesting that his power was not yet consolidated (nor is it now). But also by 2015, it had become obvious that even though purges were occurring throughout the power structure, the military was taking the heaviest blow.34 Much of what has occurred in the military appears to be intentional “divide and conquer” that has always existed. In other words, tension and competition exists between operatives (including generals) from the General Political Bureau (which answers to the party, not the military chain of command) and the traditional “fighting officers.” While this division has always existed (the General Political Bureau essentially spies on officers and unit commanders for the party), reports suggest that Kim Jong-un has exacerbated this already uncomfortable relationship in order to consolidate his power in the military.35 Dr. Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, stated in an interview with Radio Free Asia that by 2015 Kim Jong-un was purging security officials on a scale not seen in North Korea since the 1960s. Lankov’s reasoning for the rational behind the purges was that Kim Jong-un wanted a “docile and obedient military.”36 During July 2015, the National Intelligence Service in South Korea gave a briefing to the National Assembly that was later briefed to the press, assessing that “about 20 to 30 percent of senior party officials and more than 40 percent of senior military officers have been replaced.”37 High-level officials continued continue to be executed as we move through 2016.38
The reactions to these massive purges—particularly in the military—have been predictable. What we have seen is increases in the defection rate amongst high-level officials.39 If one is to conduct analysis on recent events, however, the reasons for the ongoing activity are obvious. Kim Jong-un is faced with a military that he obviously is not fully in control of yet. How does he control it? The solution is simple—with both the carrot and the stick. In other words, we have seen massive purges throughout the power infrastructure in North Korea but at much higher rates within the military. Thus, the purges and the extreme punishment have been “the stick.” The carrot has been rapid development of a plethora of military systems, from artillery to nuclear weapons. Those who remain loyal to Kim will be leaders in a military that will focus on continuing to be a threatening, well-armed entity that maintains the status and power of the regime. Because of these factors (the fact that Kim is still developing his power base in the military and that his modus operandi appears to be the use of both the carrot and the stick), we are likely to continue to see continued development, testing, deployment, and proliferation of advanced systems, continued military training that is meant to increase tensions on the Peninsula, and violent provocations when the North Koreans feel the time is best to implement them.
There is no doubt that North Korea is a country struggling simply to feed its people and to keep even the most basic needs of its cities satisfied (such as its long inoperable electric grid). But this is where we must think outside of the box as we analyze this nation state many analysts predicted would fall immediately (or soon thereafter) after Kim Il-sung’s death in 1994. North Korea has an economy that is a basket case largely because of the high prioritization of its military (which takes away from everything else). Pyongyang continues to develop systems that can threaten not only the region but the also the United States. Its conventional weapons development will have an impact on any military forces involved in either a conventional conflict or a contingency operation, and the same applies to North Korea’s WMD programs. One of the biggest challenges for allied forces, either in a war or in a contingency operation (such as collapse), will be recovering North Korea’s WMD, which continues to be a major challenge for military planners.
We are thus left with a dual-headed threat as we look at North Korea. We see a country that is unstable and has been since the death of Kim Jong-il. We see the most instability within the military institutions, where Kim Jong-un continues to make strides to consolidate his power, but simply has not completed the task yet. So, we are faced with the many challenges that will exist if (when) American forces assist the South Korean military in the case of a North Korean collapse scenario and the contingency operation that will ensue as a result. At the same time, we are faced with an aggressive, asymmetrically equipped North Korean military led by an unpredictable strongman and armed with weapons that would inflict hundreds of thousands of casualties just in the first 48 hours of any conflict. It is this two-headed threat that is being planned—and trained—for in military exercises today. Those who would downplay the North Korean threat would be wise to carefully examine developments over the past four years.