North Korea has displayed a formidable arsenal of rhetoric, threats and symbolic moves in its confrontation with South Korea and the U.S.
This week alone, Kim Jong Un’s regime has warned that “the moment of explosion is approaching soon” and said it’s poised to conduct a “smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear strike.” North Korea also has moved a missile to its eastern coast, possibly for training and test-firing, according to South Korea’s defense minister.
North Korea is incapable of hitting the U.S. with a nuclear missile, and its chances of winning -- or even surviving -- a second war with South Korea and the U.S. are poor, according to military analysts such as Joseph Bermudez, who have studied North Korea’s strengths and weaknesses in the face of the combined might of South Korea and the U.S.
“I do not see the prospect of conflict as some of my friends in the United States do,” retired Army General Colin Powell, the former U.S. secretary of state, said at an event in Seoul on March 26. “They bluster, they threaten, they say things they cannot do.”
North Korea “cannot effectively strike the United States with a nuclear weapon,” said Bermudez, a Denver-based scholar on the country who publishes the KPA Journal. Its only long-range missile, the Unha 3, is unreliable, and there’s no evidence it can be armed with a nuclear warhead, he said in an interview.
The U.S. has at its disposal an array of weaponry that includes 4,650 operational nuclear weapons, B-2 stealth bombers that can carry nuclear or conventional warheads, stealthy F-22 aircraft and Navy destroyers, submarines and a Japan-based aircraft carrier that can conduct air strikes.
“If there were to be a war, North Korea would surely lose, and the Kim dynasty would come to an end,” Sung-Yoon Lee, a professor of Korean studies at the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, said in an interview. “They are most unlikely to launch an all-out war. They are highly rational, just with a different set of standards.”
While North Korea’s internal politics remain almost completely opaque to outsiders, the U.S. has surveillance satellites, air and naval intelligence assets and anti-missile radars that keep eyes, ears and noses on the isolated nation’s military activities. North Korea, by contrast, remains almost blind, said a U.S. intelligence official.
All of North Korea’s recent threats have come after the U.S. announced, or the media reported, American military activities such as B-2 and F-22 flights and the movements of two destroyers, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he has access to classified material.
That increases the danger that the country’s young and untested leader could misinterpret a U.S. or South Korean action, said the official.
Although Kim’s regime doesn’t have a nuclear missile able to hit the U.S., it’s less clear whether it would be able to attack South Korea or Japan with a nuclear weapon -- at the risk of a devastating response.
Its claim to have “smaller, lighter” nuclear weaponry may indicate that North Korea has developed a highly enriched uranium warhead that could be fitted on its medium-range Nodong missile, said Bruce Bechtol, a former military intelligence analyst who studies the Korean peninsula.
“Japan and every inch of South Korea is within range of a nuclear strike” if that’s true, Bechtol said. He said such a capability has yet to be demonstrated.
Threats aside, North Korea knows it would almost surely lose an all-out war against its U.S.-backed southern neighbor, after sowing destruction and death along Asia’s biggest political faultline, in the estimation of military analysts.
“It’s not a pretty picture,” Bechtol said.
North Korea has protested United Nations sanctions --backed by its longtime ally, China -- that were imposed after it tested a nuclear weapon in February and has said annual U.S.-South Korea military drills scheduled to run until the end of April have brought the region to the brink of war. Tensions have reached their highest level since at least 2010, when North Korea sank a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors, and then shelled a South Korean border island eight months later, killing four.
While North Korea is unlikely to provoke an all-out war, the risk remains that a provocation aimed against South Korea or U.S. forces might spin out of control, according to retired U.S. Admiral Dennis Blair.
“I’m not relaxed about this one,” said Blair, who served as President Barack Obama’s director of national intelligence and earlier as head of the U.S. Pacific Command. “I think this one’s more dangerous than in 2010” because of the youth and inexperience of Kim, who took over in July after his father’s death.
North Korea has a plutonium stockpile sufficient to make four to 12 nuclear weapons, a uranium-enrichment program that could produce one or two weapons a year, and an array of short-and medium-range ballistic missiles that could threaten targets as distant as 1,600 kilometers (994 miles), according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a research group based in London.
“North Korea may have been able to develop a warhead over the past decade that is small and light enough to be delivered using a Nodong missile, but there is insufficient information to make a confident assessment,” the group said in a report.
The missile has a range of 1,350 to 1,500 kilometers, according to the Federation of American Scientists. That would put all of South Korea and U.S. forces in Okinawa, Japan, at risk. North Korea also has the world’s third-largest arsenal of chemical weapons, and it may have biological weapons, the International Institute said.
The U.S. Army’s 23rd Chemical Battalion, which is stationed in South Korea, is currently conducting routine training for its annual certification in chemical protection, the Pentagon said yesterday in an e-mailed statement.
The Kim regime’s conventional military has the manpower and machinery to “do tremendous damage,” said Bermudez.
With about 1.1 million soldiers, the North Korean army is the world’s fifth-largest, although it hasn’t seen combat since 1953, when an armistice suspended the Korean War. It has an estimated 3,500 battle tanks, 3,000 armored personnel carriers and light tanks, and more than 10,000 artillery pieces, according to the International Institute.
“A million of anything is very dangerous,” Bermudez said. “What makes it dangerous is the closeness to the populated areas of South Korea.”
About 700,000 North Korean troops, 8,000 artillery systems and 2,000 tanks sit within 100 kilometers of the demilitarized zone that has separated the north from the south since the 1953 armistice, the institute said.
Seoul, South Korea’s capital with a population of more than 10 million, is about 48 kilometers (30 miles) south of the zone, according to GlobalSecurity.org, a military research group based in Alexandria, Virginia.
Ultimately, Bermudez said, South Korea and its ally the U.S. would prevail.
While South Korea’s army is about half the size of North Korea’s, it is fitter, healthier, more sophisticated and has better trained officers, he said. Its air force “would obtain air supremacy in a short period of time,” allowing South Korean and U.S. planes to attack North Korean ground forces, he said.
The extent of U.S. involvement would depend on the scope of the conflict, according to Bermudez. The U.S. has about 28,500 troops in South Korea and could deploy thousands more from bases in Japan and Guam. At a minimum, the U.S. would provide logistics support, command-and-control capabilities and airborne early warning systems, he said.
U.S. and South Korean officials have said they’ve seen no signs of North Korea preparing for an attack amid all the rhetoric.
“We haven’t seen anything that would cause us to believe there are movements other than consistent with historic patterns and training exercises,” Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a Pentagon news conference last week.
While the North Korean forces are large, “their actual capabilities are less than the raw data suggest, given the obsolescence of most North Korean equipment,” the International Institute’s report found. “About one-half of North Korea’s major weapons were designed in the 1960’s; the other half are even older.”
Bechtol, the former military analyst who now teaches at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas, disputed the notion that North Korea’s capabilities are overstated.
“There’s a difference between old equipment and broken equipment,” he said. “They maintain it very well. They’re not a paper tiger.”
North Korea may be seeking a way to underscore its determination without launching an attack, such as a test of its medium-range Musudan ballistic missile that could be timed to mark April 15, the birthday of Kim Il Sung, the current leader’s grandfather and the nation’s founder.
“They are setting up for their end game -- a missile test and then the propaganda narrative that they have caused the U.S. to back down because of the North’s superior military capabilities and that it’s a nuclear power,” David Maxwell, associate director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University in Washington, said in an e-mail.