North Korea’s mini-submarines and Soviet-era artillery may pose a greater threat to Asia than its nuclear program as Kim Jong Un seeks to cement support among generals three times his age in the world’s fourth-largest army.
While questions remain over whether Kim will inherit his deceased father Kim Jong Il’s control of the totalitarian state, he heads a country whose so-called military-first policy has kept it on combat alert since the Korean War ended in 1953. It terms a trade embargo over its nuclear weapons program “vicious sanctions of the enemy,” and has repeatedly assaulted the South.
“We’re still some ways away from North Korea being able to point a nuclear weapon at someone in any meaningful way,” Alexander von Rosenbach, U.K.-based senior analyst of armed forces at IHS Jane’s, said by phone. “There is a risk of a surprise attack to bolster the regime’s credentials.”
Strikes last year that killed 50 South Koreans demonstrate the risks posed by more than 250 long-range artillery installations along the world’s most fortified border in reach of the Seoul area and its 23 million citizens. The U.S., China, South Korea, Russia and Japan have failed to convince the regime to drop its nuclear-weapons program in eight years of talks.
“North Korea’s military forces retain the capability to inflict lethal, considerable disruption to the ROK with significant corresponding regional and global economic and security consequences,” U.S. Forces Korea said in a report last year, referring to South Korea. “North Korean forces are postured to conduct limited attacks or kinetic provocations against the Alliance, with little or no warning.”
Last year, North Korea shelled an island in the Yellow Sea, killing four South Koreans, and was blamed by an international panel for sinking the Cheonan warship, in which 46 sailors died. North Korea has one of the world’s largest fleets and more than 30 guided-missile patrol boats, according to a 2007 paper from the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute.
While North Korea has twice detonated a nuclear device, the country doesn’t have the technology to deploy one, said analysts including retired U.S. Admiral Bill Owens, a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who has lived in Beijing and Hong Kong for the past five years.
“I don’t think they have the ability to deliver a nuclear weapon,” Owens said in a telephone interview.
Birth From War
North Korea is a legacy of World War II, which ended Japan’s occupation of the Korean peninsula, and the Cold War. The Japanese surrendered to U.S. forces in the south and to Soviet troops in the north. The Soviet Union then installed an anti-Japanese guerrilla leader, Kim Il Sung, as head of North Korea. Kim invaded the South in June 1950, starting a war that ended three years later without a peace treaty.
Before his death in 1994, Kim authorized operations that included a 1983 assassination attempt on South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan in Myanmar that killed more than 20 people, the bombing of a Korean Air flight that killed all 115 on board, and the kidnapping of at least 13 Japanese to serve as language teachers for North Korean spies.
Kim Jong Il succeeded his father and stepped up the country’s missile and nuclear-weapons development, while continuing provocations against South Korea.
‘Lot of Harm’
The history of attacks “shows a lot of potential for causing damage, particularly if they aren’t concerned about the international consequences of their actions,” said Richard Bitzinger, senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “They haven’t really got a high-tech army overall, but that doesn’t mean it can’t cause a lot of harm.”
North Korea is estimated to have 1.2 million troops and another 7.7 million in reserve, according South Korea’s 2010 Defense White Paper. It also has 70 submarines, including an undetermined number of Yeono-class midget subs, compared with South Korea’s 10.
The Kim regime allocates a third of its budget to maintain 1,700 aircraft, 800 naval vessels and more than 13,000 artillery systems, according to the American military, which has 28,500 troops in South Korea. The U.S. estimates that the Pyongyang government has enough plutonium for a half-dozen nuclear devices and sells ballistic missiles for cash.
The 4 kilometer (2.5 mile) wide, 248 kilometer-long demilitarized zone is sown with a million land mines. The waters off the coast near the border are claimed by both sides and any military provocations from North Korea would probably revolve around such disputes, said Gary Li, head of marine and aviation forecasting at Exclusive Analysis Ltd., a London-based business advisory firm.
“The submarine force would be a likely candidate for any action,” Li said. “It would remain covert and you can deny responsibilities. They have the advantage of telling their own people one thing and telling the world another because they can keep the two separate.”
Kim Jong Un, thought to be in his late 20s, was made a four-star general last year and promoted to a senior position in the Workers’ Party of Korea. He hasn’t taken his father’s place as head of the National Defense Commission, a position designated as the “supreme leader” of the country, according to its constitution. Kim Jong Il, who state media said died of a heart attack on Dec. 17, took three years after his father passed away before assuming the country’s highest posts.
North Korea’s capabilities are limited by obsolete weapons, low morale among soldiers, reduced training and issues with command control, Dennis C. Blair, then director of National Intelligence, said in a 2010 annual threat assessment.
“Pyongyang relies on its nuclear program to deter external attacks on the state and to its regime,” Blair said. “Although there are other reasons for the North to pursue its nuclear program, redressing conventional weaknesses is a major factor and one that Kim and his likely successors will not easily dismiss.”
North Korea, which conducted nuclear test explosions in 2006 and 2009, said Nov. 30 that construction on a light-water atomic reactor and production of low-enriched uranium is “progressing apace.” While work is nearly complete on the outside walls of the building, the plant may not be operational for two or three years, according to an analysis of satellite photos on former U.S. nuclear negotiator Joel Wit’s website, 38North.org.
No public information can verify that North Korea possess operational nuclear weapons, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. North Korea wants to develop ballistic missiles capable of hitting targets in the continental U.S., according to the Pentagon.
More than 70 percent of North Korean forces are within 100 kilometers of the demilitarized zone established at the end of the Korean War. Even so, its constitution calls for “peaceful reunification” of the peninsula.
North Korea conducted more than 1,400 major provocations and violations of the demilitarized zone from 1953 to 2003, according to U.S. military estimates. State media regularly threatens to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire.”
The U.S. is pledged to defend both South Korea and Japan, where almost 40,000 troops are stationed. Japan, which has strengthened its defense capability after North Korea sent a missile over the island nation in 1998, this week announced the purchase of 42 Lockheed Martin Corp. F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.
“The risks we face over the next several years stem from Kim Jong Un’s weakness, not his strength,” said Marcus Noland, deputy director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington and the author of “Avoiding the Apocalypse: The Future of the Two Koreas.” “You can imagine other military provocations like the ones we’ve observed over the last 18 months toward South Korea.”