North Korea’s military potential is a major issue on the world’s agenda this year for well-known reasons. Standard topics, such as “What are Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear capabilities?” have been supplemented with a more general issue: “What weapons does Pyongyang have in actual fact?” Talk has begun again (in the United States it goes the rounds once every few years) of the need to disarm North Korea by force and even overthrow its regime. In order to know how realistic this scenario is and what threats it may pose and to whom if implemented, we need to understand, at least in general terms, what the situation is like for North Korea’s adversaries in a military sense.
Pyongyang views military security issues as priorities in its foreign and home policies. Key tasks of the regime include maintaining the country’s military potential at a level that can deter its opponents from using force, and not becoming a “punching bag” for enemies in case of war.
The armed forces of the United States, South Korea, and Japan are seen, separately and as a coalition, as enemies. Pyongyang realistically assesses its offensive and defensive capabilities and therefore views military force primarily as a means of making the enemy “pay too high a price” for victory, rather than winning in the classical sense of the word.
Denied the possibility of importing advanced weapons and military equipment (large-scale imports ended a quarter of a century ago), North Korea relies on its own military-industrial complex. Given the limited possibilities of the national economy in terms of material resources and technology, Pyongyang puts the main emphasis on asymmetric solutions.
North Korea was a theater of combat operations in 1950-1953, and since then it has been waiting for a big war. All the above factors determine Pyongyang’s approach to military development for the present and the near future.
MYTH OF STRENGTH
There is a popular myth in the mass media that a huge North Korean army, which exceeds one million men in peacetime, is threatening the South and that it is only American troops stationed in South Korea that keep Pyongyang from invading it. Otherwise, this avalanche would easily reach Busan. People spreading this myth forget that the North is not alone in having been preparing for war since 1953, and that the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is not the same as the 38th parallel of 1950. But it is not just that. In reality, the Korean People’s Army (KPA) is far less than one million men in peacetime. More realistic estimates vary between 650,000 and 800,000 men, including the Air Force and the Navy. By way of comparison, according to official data, the strength of the South Korean army is 630,000-650,000. However, a deeper analysis shows that this figure does not include another 100,000 men, not counted in due to peculiarities of the way the military strength is calculated. So, the strength of both armies is approximately equal.
However, the defense budget of South Korea exceeds Pyongyang’s defense spending more than 33-35 times. In addition, South Korea has a conscription army and a great number of reservists. The population of the South is twice that of the North; hence, it certainly has at least as many, and most likely more, reservists and various paramilitary units. Demographic factors also explain the greater relative number of women in the North Korean army and law enforcement agencies.
In case of war, the United States would automatically take the side of Seoul; therefore, one should also add the military capabilities of the U.S. and its potential allies. Even a simple combination of the military potentials of the Republic of Korea, the United States, and Japan makes the balance of power profoundly bad for North Korea. And this does not include the armies of NATO countries, Australia, etc.!
There is also talk of North Korea’s huge Air Force and Navy. In fact, Pyongyang does not have airborne early warning and control aircraft, used by the air forces of the United States, the Republic of Korea, and Japan. During the war against Yugoslavia in 1999 and against Iraq in 2003, such aircraft controlled the airspace of these countries from a distance, out of the range of enemy missiles. North Korea has not imported modern air-to-air missiles for about 20 years. Over the same period, the air forces of its opponents have seen several waves of purchases. North Korea has no more than 46 fourth-generation MiG-29 fighters built, at best, in the late 1980s (this is the most optimistic figure; most experts estimate the number of North Korean fighters at 36-40). By way of comparison, South Korea alone has more than 160 (!) fourth-generation fighters, much better equipped and armed with advanced missiles, which makes them fourth-plus-generation aircraft. Another 200 fourth-generation fighters are in service with the Japanese Air Force. And there is little need to speak of the number of advanced multirole fighters in the U.S. Air Force, which also has fifth-generation F-22 and F-35 fighters, the development of which is nearing completion. At the same time, the North Korean Air Force still uses rarities such as the MiG-17. The MiG-21 is the country’s most numerous fighter. This technological gap is as great (or even greater) as that between the air forces of the U.S. and Iraq in 1991 or Yugoslavia in 1999. The number of old Su-7 aircraft cited in handbooks has remained unchanged since the 1990s, although all satellite images show them grounded in the same place for years, and no one has seen them flying. All MiG-19 aircraft are also listed as being in service, although many of them were declared obsolete and withdrawn from operational use in 2014. The fleet of An-2 transport aircraft is considered at full strength, too—their formidable number shows “where the threat to peace comes from.”
The situation is similar in the North Korean Navy. Pyongyang has a large fleet of submarines, but this is the only kind of weapon that can be efficient in head-on combat. The bulk of the Navy is a huge fleet of all kinds of boats, many without effective missile systems and advanced surveillance and reconnaissance equipment. This does not mean that North Korea’s naval forces pose no danger to the enemy. They do, but only in certain areas off the North Korean coast, where they can achieve temporary superiority in the initial period of a big war or in local clashes. The North Korean Navy’s most powerful ships are corvettes, while in South Korea it is destroyers, which outnumber the northern neighbor’s corvettes. In terms of fleet composition, the South Korean Navy ranks 8th in the world, the Japanese Navy ranks 4th, and the U.S. Navy ranks first. North Korea is not listed among the top ten countries in this respect.
North Korean armor units still use infrared night vision devices. The wars in Iraq in 1991 and 2003 and Ukraine in 2014-2015 showed what happens when tank crews use these devices against an enemy with modern night vision systems.
What does all this mean in practice? A coalition of North Korea’s adversaries will have guaranteed air and naval supremacy, and there are no signs that Pyongyang has any major advantages for ground offensives.
MYTH OF WEAKNESS
However, it is important not to go to the other extreme and say that all North Korean weapons are obsolete, that the army is not ready, that its “missiles are rusty” and, if necessary, North Korea can easily be conquered in a quick invasion by land or sea. Those wishing to implement such a gung-ho plan will be faced with two problems.
The north of the Korean Peninsula has a unique geography. Nature has created ideal conditions there for countering enemy attacks: predominantly mountainous and rugged terrain, which allows for offensive operations only through valley corridors with numerous water obstacles. There are very few (four to five) places on the coast that are suitable for amphibious landing. Moreover, coastal areas in the North are a real challenge not only for landing operations but even for navigation. In many areas, the coast consists entirely of steep rocks. The situation may also be complicated by local tidal peculiarities.
Some seasons in the North are not very good for large-scale use of aircraft and heavy weaponry. During the rainy season, many areas are hit by heavy rainfalls resulting in annual massive floods. The chronicles of the Korean War offer examples of how “hospitable” North Korea’s cold autumns and winters may be.
Peculiar soils with a large number of boulders, numerous irrigation systems in valleys (filled with water in certain seasons) and other peculiarities of the local terrain affect spectral characteristics and dramatically complicate the operation of surveillance and reconnaissance devices (in contrast to the deserts of Iraq, which are an ideal place for their use). North Korea remembers the war of 1950-1953 very well and this is why it has spent decades turning these areas into a veritable fortress.
The key principles on which this fortress is built are as follows. Firstly, it has an incredible density of defense in all threatened areas. Not less than 200,000-250,000 soldiers defend a fairly small strip along the DMZ (240 km) to a depth of 15-20 kilometers. In addition, another 100,000-150,000 soldiers are stationed nearby. In other words, a force of 300,000-400,000 troops is concentrated on a tiny territory. The coast is defended by groups, each numbering more than 100,000 soldiers. All these forces are echeloned in depth, and they have more than one line of defense and allocated mobile reserves, which can be redeployed to critical areas. Therefore, attackers will get stuck in the enemy defense, at least initially. In addition, they will not be able to outflank the enemy either through the DMZ or via the coast (as was the case in the two Iraq wars) due to the rugged terrain.
Another principle on which the defense is built is high density of artillery fire. All possible axes of enemy advance will be exposed to heavy artillery fire. The exact number of artillery systems in North Korea is unknown, but most sources say that defense artillery units on the west coast alone have more than 1,000 pieces. The second echelons and reserves also have significant artillery forces. Even various militia groups have their own multiple launch rocket systems and howitzers (up to 152 mm in caliber). Although most of them are towed and obsolete, they defend the whole of the country!
Satellite images of the DMZ have detected positions for at least 500 artillery batteries in adjacent areas, that is, for 2,000 artillery guns as a minimum, although more meaningful estimates increase this figure to 3,000-3,500. Suppressing this massive artillery force will require very many air sorties and heavy neutralization fire.
But the real problem is the third pillar of North Korea’s defense strategy—terrain reinforcement in the theater of operations. The North had successful experience of position defense during the Korean War, where underground facilities had an important role to play. North Korean military engineers helped allied Vietnam in 1954, and later they advised the North Vietnamese army on how to use underground facilities in the war against a technologically superior enemy. There is evidence that North Korean specialists helped Hezbollah design underground facilities. All this clearly shows that they have sufficient knowledge and skills to build various kinds of bunkers. They have been building them in North Korea, constantly improving their techniques, since the early 1960s. These facilities not only serve to protect troops and equipment but also provide enough space to meet the needs of the whole of the armed forces and the defense industry, including far behind the lines.
The exact size and parameters of the North Korean underground infrastructure are unknown. But available data indicate that the number of these facilities is already producing a new quality. In the early 2000s, the mass media quoted foreign experts as estimating the number of underground bunkers in the country at over 8,000 and the total length of underground tunnels at 527 kilometers. According to other estimates, North Korea has 12,000 bunkers. Many shelters for personnel are 40 to 70 meters below ground, and command centers are 300 meters deep.
All defense industry enterprises, tank, missile and artillery units, the Air Force, the Navy, and land transport have main and alternative shelters. In addition, in the 2000s, North Korea began to build numerous fake shelters, doing this even in areas where conditions preclude effective intelligence. The ground forces can remain underground most of the time, out of reach of enemy intelligence and weapons. According to many experts, they can even maneuver through tunnels, thus neutralizing the enemy’s air superiority. Destroying defensive positions of this kind requires more ammunition (it is necessary to hit soft spots) and often it must be ammunition of a special kind. Thousands of targets can be destroyed only by “bunker busters,” non-nuclear deep penetration bombs. But they will produce a guaranteed result only if they hit vulnerable elements of underground fortifications.
This system cannot be destroyed only by bombing and shelling; attackers will have to use precision-guided and other types of weapons to methodically suppress fortified positions one by one and clear numerous minefields. One should also bear in mind that the peculiarities of the North Korean terrain are conducive to effective use of weapons of mass destruction against attackers. Dispersion is one of the main ways to avoid the effects of nuclear weapon. However, the local terrain provides ideal conditions for destroying concentrated enemy forces with nuclear explosions. Nuclear devices can also be exploded underground to impede the enemy’s advance. Nuclear explosion craters are large and have steep walls. Loose ejected soil impedes the movement of vehicles, while fallout dust in a radius of several hundred meters from the blast epicenter has a major psychological impact on troops. In most cases, craters quickly become filled with groundwater, which creates additional difficulties for attackers who will also be exposed to high levels of radiation in and around the craters. Nuclear devices can also be planted on territories and at strategic facilities that may be captured by the enemy, such as port facilities, and detonated later to inflict maximum casualties on the invading troops.
But what prevents the U.S. and its allies from simply bombing North Korea to dust? Why not launch an extended air campaign, making 2,000 sorties a day, day after day, and in the end force Pyongyang into surrender? It would only take deploying more aircraft at airbases and bringing in more aircraft carriers and cruise missile carriers. It is as simple as that. Or is it not?
PYONGYANG CAN STRIKE BACK
Pyongyang has enough short and long-range weapons to deter its adversaries. Short-range weapons can be used against highly vulnerable South Korea, above all against Seoul with a population of several million people just 24-60 kilometers from the DMZ. The city cannot surround itself with uninhabited areas 20 to 40 kilometers wide to feel safe. Northern outskirts of Seoul, several surrounding towns and forward positions of the South Korean army are within striking range of North Korea’s long-range cannon and rocket artillery. In addition, this artillery group is built into the system of underground shelters, tunnels and fortified defenses, which seriously complicates any attack.
Apart from standard artillery systems of classical Soviet calibers, the North Korean army has several more powerful ones. These are 170-mm self-propelled guns, and 240-mm and 300-mm multiple-launch rocket systems. The latter have an effective range of 200 kilometers. North Korea also has Hwasong-1 and Hwasong-3 (Luna and Luna-M) tactical missiles, which can inflict serious damage even if equipped with chemical warheads. Also, North Korean anti-ship missiles fired from the shore can reach Incheon, one of the largest ports in South Korea.
Therefore, South Korea is in a very hard situation. In order to neutralize North Korea’s conventional retaliatory capability, Seoul needs to launch a massive first strike. However, a concentration of forces required for such a strike cannot be concealed from Pyongyang. If South Korea wants to achieve surprise at the expense of firepower, it will most likely suffer unacceptable damage from a retaliatory strike. However, North Koreans do not rule out that the United States may simply neglect South Korea and are getting prepared for this contingency as well.
NUCLEAR MISSILE SHIELD
Theoretically, Americans can deliver strikes using carrier-borne aircraft, long-range cruise missiles and aircraft deployed in Japan. South Korea is not taking part in visible military preparations for this scenario. This is where nuclear-tipped missiles are needed as a guarantee against such attacks. And if they fail to prevent it, they will at least not let the aggressor go unpunished.
North Korea has medium-range ballistic missiles—Hwasong-7 (also known as Nodong) and Hwasong-9 (Scud-ER). Both types of missiles can reach cities and U.S. airbases in Japan. In May 2017, Pyongyang announced the beginning of mass production of the Pukguksong-2 intermediate-range solid-fuel ballistic missile. The missile, carried by a cross-country tracked vehicle, can be launched in minutes and is capable of overcoming missile defense.
In 2017, North Korea tested Hwasong-12 and Hwasong-14 ballistic missiles. Their mass production has not been announced yet, but these missiles have a much greater range than their predecessors. The Hwasong-12 can reach American bases on Guam, and the Hwasong-14 can reach Alaska. Although each of the missiles has had only one successful launch, there is a theoretical possibility that North Korea may deliver nuclear strikes not only against U.S. bases in allied countries or U.S. allies themselves but also against U.S. territory. Americans may try to destroy missile launchers with a first air strike, disorganize the North Korean command and control system, and repel a weakened retaliatory strike with their missile defense. It looks smooth on paper, but reality is different.
Firstly, North Korea has been systematically working on ways to overcome missile defense. One theoretical way to neutralize or at least reduce the effectiveness of missile defense is to replace single missile strikes with a barrage of several consecutive missiles. Successive launches of Hwasong-9 missiles were successfully tested at military exercises in 2016 and 2017.
Another way to overcome missile defense is to fire a missile on a lofted trajectory for an abnormally short distance but with a very high apogee. This method complicates their interception. Pyongyang practices such launches during military exercises and missile tests. Japan regards launches of the Hwasong-10 and Hwasong-12 on a lofted trajectory as a very serious danger. The velocity and angles of attack achieved by the missiles significantly reduce the probability of their interception or make it completely impossible.
Also, the new-generation missiles are fitted with maneuverable warheads. The Pukguksong-2 was said to be capable of performing midcourse maneuvers, which makes it difficult to intercept. In May, North Korea tested a new Hwasong missile, which is similar to the Hwasong-6 except that it has an airfoil. The new design increases accuracy and can be used to develop terminal maneuverability to overcome missile defense.
Secondly, North Korea is taking measures to protect its missiles against air reconnaissance and attacks. In July, the North Korean media showed videos demonstrating special underground shelters for ballistic missile launchers. Missile designers are also working to reduce missile reaction time. Emphasis is made on solid-fuel missiles which can be launched faster than liquid-fuel ones. Solid fuel allows missiles to be stored and transported while fully fueled, which greatly reduces their launch time. In addition, North Korea is modernizing old ballistic missiles with new electronics to make their launch time shorter and thus complicate attacks on them.
Another problem is the growing number of potential launch sites. The more of them, the harder it is to monitor them, especially after the creation of new cross-country tracked vehicles for carrying missiles. Moreover, the Pukguksong-2 is carried in a transporter-launcher container, which makes it less sensitive to the quality of soil required for its transportation and launch.
The most important way to make the missile forces more sustainable is to increase the number of launchers. North Korea cannot buy modern cross-country wheeled chassis for the production of mobile launchers, but it can make tracked vehicles or semi-trailers for civilian truck tractors. As a result, the number of ballistic missile launchers is growing fast, and it becomes increasingly difficult to destroy missiles before they are launched.
Pyongyang is also taking other measures to prevent the enemy from escaping retribution. The North Korean air defense system for many years was a kind of open-air museum (the S-75 was the most numerous surface-to-air missile system). However, in the 2010s, North Korea publicly showed the KN-06 (Pon’gae-5), a surface-to-air missile system with a range of 100-150 kilometers. During a visit to North Korea, I was familiarized with some of its specifications, which are very impressive. Now this system is in mass production. How effective it will be in real warfare is yet to be seen, but unless the enemy suppresses the KN-06, the hunt for ballistic missile launchers will be seriously hampered. According to some sources, up to 10 KN-06 battalions may already have been deployed.
Americans may have one more problem when they try to suppress North Korean control systems. In 2017, illegal activity of an allegedly Singaporean commercial company, Global Communications (Glocom), was uncovered in Malaysia. Glocom was a front company run by North Korean producers and exporters of battlefield radio equipment. The analysis of available information indicates that North Korea is working on large automated command and control systems for strategic and operational levels. Pyongyang already achieved some successes in this field in 2012. This means that disrupting North Korean missile command and control systems may prove to be much more difficult.
Of course, I do not mean to say that the United States has no chance of delivering a successful preemptive strike. It does, and the chance is good. However, prospects for a successful disarming strike that will go unpunished are fading fast. The rate at which Pyongyang has been developing its missile program shows that this option will disappear within a year or two. And then, in case of U.S. failure, American cities will become the target. Therefore, if the U.S. does not dare strike at North Korea in the near future, there will be no alternatives to a meaningful dialogue with Pyongyang.