North Korea's Military Threat: Pyongyang's Conventional Forces, Weapons of Mass Destruction, and Ballistic Missiles
Authored by Dr. Andrew Scobell, Captain USN John M Sanford.
North Korea's conventional capabilities have eroded but remain significant, including its sizeable contingent of special operations forces. Meanwhile, Pyongyang continues the vigorous development of its nuclear and missile programs, and has ongoing chemical and biological weapons programs. Perhaps the biggest unanswered questions concern North Korea’s military intentions. Does the Korean People’s Army have an offensive or defensive doctrine? Does Pyongyang intend to use its weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles to replace the threat posed by its eroding conventional forces? Or is its intention to use conventional and unconventional forces in what it might view as a winning combination? In theory, U.S. forces could carry out preemptive precision attacks to destroy known North Korean nuclear facilities and missile emplacements, but such attacks might provoke North Korean retaliation and trigger a general conflict. Washington and Seoul cannot overthrow the North Korean regime by force or destroy its strategic military assets without risking devastating losses in the process. Meanwhile, North Korea cannot invade the South without inviting a fatal counterattack from the United States and South Korea. Thus, the balance of forces that emerged from the Korean War, and which helped maintain the armistice for more than 50 years, remains in place.
Since the inception of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in 1948, the Pyongyang regime has had two national strategic objectives: (1) the perpetuation of the regime; and (2) reunification of the Korean Peninsula under North Korea’s control. Militarism has remained an essential aspect of the DPRK throughout its existence, and the armed forces constitute a central element of the regime. The Korean People’s Army (KPA), the name given to all services of North Korea’s military, is the core element for the realization of North Korea's national strategy. This strategy calls for giving priority to military issues over everything else and the DPRK constitutes the most militarized state on earth measured by a variety of indicators.
The KPA emerged from guerrilla origins in the 1920s and then evolved into a hybrid force with elements of Soviet and Chinese doctrines and organization. It has adjusted as a result of learning from conflicts waged elsewhere in the world. This tradition embraces the concept of self-reliance and self-sufficiency consistent with the DPRK ideology of Juche.
North Korean military doctrine has shifted dramatically away from the doctrine of regular warfare to a doctrine that embraced People's War. Kim Il Sung espoused “Four Military Lines”: (1) arm the entire population; (2) fortify the entire country; (3) train the entire army as a "cadre army"; and (4) modernize weaponry, doctrine, and tactics under the principle of Juche in national defense. Military doctrine was refined further to incorporate the concepts of “combined operations” and “two-front war.” The combined operations doctrine called for the integration of guerrilla warfare operations (small unit) with conventional ground force operations (large unit). This integrated doctrine probably has been modified to include Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). The two-front war doctrine calls for close coordination of conventional frontline operations with guerrilla and special operations deep within South Korea and possibly elsewhere. The First Front traditionally has been the massive conventional KPA force along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), while the focus for the Second Front has been the rear area of South Korea.
To support these objectives and doctrine, since the end of the Korean War the KPA has developed into a massive armed force, 1.2 million strong, with substantial military capabilities—both conventional and unconventional. The KPA is the world’s fourth largest military in terms of manpower, with the world’s largest Special Operation Forces (SOF) and submarine fleet. Some 40 percent of the populace serve in some military, paramilitary, or defense-related industry and can be mobilized easily for war.
In addition to sizeable conventional forces, North Korea has significant WMD and ballistic missile programs. Nuclear weapons almost certainly were on Kim Il Sung’s mind from 1945 onward. He was impressed by the power of the bombs used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, both in terms of their destructive capacity and their value as a political weapon. The DPRK’s quest for a nuclear program began in the 1950s. Pyongyang has multiple reasons for keeping the program and no obvious good or compelling reasons to give it up.
North Korea possesses at least enough plutonium to make a handful of nuclear bombs. Still, it is entirely possible that Pyongyang does not have a weapon. The evidence from the October 9, 2006, underground explosion remains inconclusive, and the authors estimate that the DPRK has anywhere from zero to 13 nuclear weapons. North Korea has good reasons to play a game of “nuclear ambiguity.” Nevertheless, prudence demands that the United States and its allies proceed on the assumption that the DPRK has a nuclear weapon.
Whether or not Pyongyang has an explicit doctrine, it almost certainly has some guiding principles for when and how to employ whatever nuclear devices it possesses. While one cannot rule out a nuclear first strike by Pyongyang, given the extremely small amount of nuclear weapon making material available and almost certain massive retaliation North Korea could expect from the United States, it appears more likely that North Korea’s nuclear doctrine is focused on deterring an attack by the United States and as a way to gain leverage at the negotiating table. It is far from certain whether Pyongyang yet has mastered the ability to build a nuclear warhead from its plutonium stockpiles. Moreover, its preferred delivery system cannot be assumed. Its first choice might be ballistic missiles, but this option may be discounted if a warhead cannot be built. Furthermore, there may be grave doubts about the accuracy of the missiles. This may lead to the consideration of other options such as air or maritime delivery.
The DPRK perceives chemical agents more as an operational force multiplier, rather than as a strategic asset. Chemical weapons likely will be used at the outset of any conflict against frontline forces via artillery, against rear area targets on the peninsula via long-range artillery, short-range ballistic missiles, and via unconventional means with the assistance of SOF. Moreover, it is possible chemical weapons could be used against U.S. military assets in East Asia delivered via medium-range ballistic or unconventional means. In short, it must be assumed that if the KPA launches an attack, chemical weapons will be employed.
Pyongyang’s biological warfare program is far less developed than its nuclear, chemical, or ballistic missile counterparts. This is true in terms of evolution, capabilities, readiness, and doctrine. Nonetheless, it must be assumed that North Korea has a significant biological weapons capability, along with the will and means to employ them.
North Korea has had a ballistic missile program for more than 4 decades. The program, created by Kim Il Sung, has been a top national priority from the start. Utilizing technological assistance from a handful of countries, foreign trained technicians and scientists, and reverse engineering, Pyongyang has succeeded in establishing a credible indigenous ballistic missile manufacturing base. The first phase produced shortrange missiles for export and domestic deployment; the second phase produced medium-range missiles for the same. In the third—current—phase, North Korea has turned to research and development, and testing— but not yet the production, deployment, or export—of long-range missiles.
Currently, North Korea is thought to possess between 600 and 800 short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. This number is only likely to increase with steady output by the military industrial complex. And if testing continues, the DPRK eventually will produce and deploy long-range missiles capable of reaching Alaska, Hawaii, and some day, the continental United States.
The short- and medium-range missiles originally were produced for defense and deterrence against the United States and South Korea, but the missiles could, of course, be used offensively. Pyongyang recognized that there was a market for missiles and it could profit from exports of ballistic missiles and related technology. North Korea’s missile program also became important as a status symbol to bolster the prestige of the regime, both domestically and internationally. By the late 1990s, Pyongyang realized the value of the program for diplomatic leverage.
The missiles could be fitted with WMD warheads. The critical question is whether Pyongyang has the capability to place nuclear (or chemical or biological) warheads on any of its ballistic missiles. It is not clear whether North Korea has developed the ability to mate a nuclear weapon with a ballistic missile. Nevertheless, one must proceed under the assumption that, at present, Pyongyang can deliver a chemical warhead and, in the not too distant future, will be able to deliver a nuclear warhead on the tip of a short- or mediumrange missile.
As impressive as the statistics on North Korean conventional and unconventional forces are, their actual capabilities are less than the raw data suggest, given the obsolescence of most KPA equipment, shortage of spare parts and fuel, and poor maintenance. Moreover, South Korea’s impressive strides in the acquisition of modern weapons and sophisticated technology, along with its burgeoning economy, further decreases North Korea’s chances of executing successful offensive operations on the peninsula. However, if given the order to attack, the KPA will do so.
Although it is difficult to know North Korea’s precise intentions or aspirations, its forces are deployed along the demilitarized zone (DMZ) in such a manner that they could support an invasion of South Korea. Currently, North Korea deploys approximately 70 percent of its military units, and up to 80 percent of its estimated aggregate firepower, within 100km of the DMZ. North Korea theoretically could invade the South without recourse to further deployments and with minimal warning time. But North Korea’s armed forces also are positioned in order to deter an attack, being deployed to deliver a preemptive strike against the South if Pyongyang believes that an attack is imminent or to retaliate with overwhelming force if the North is attacked.
While the KPA’s capacity to sustain offensive operations beyond days and weeks is questionable, North Korea retains the ability to inflict heavy casualties and collateral damage, largely through the use of massed long-range artillery. In effect, Pyongyang’s most credible conventional threat is to devastate Seoul (and a good portion of South Korea) rather than to seize and hold it.
If North Korea intends to attack when conditions are deemed auspicious, the KPA must rely on certain factors to tip the odds in its favor (e.g., element of surprise, the United States being deployed in a major conflict elsewhere in the world). Just as important— if not more important—than the performance of conventional KPA forces along the DMZ would be the execution of numerous Second Front operations by SOF forces in rear areas.
North Korea continues to develop its nuclear and missile programs. Moreover, questions remain as to North Korea’s military intentions. Does Pyongyang intend to use its WMD and ballistic missiles to replace the threat posed by its eroding conventional forces? Or is its intention to use conventional and unconventional forces in what it might view as a winning combination? The answer to these questions are likely to be evident only in time as analysts discern trends in North Korea’s conventional and unconventional forces.
North Korea’s conventional threat also is sufficient to make an allied preemptive invasion to overthrow the North Korean regime a highly unattractive option. In theory, U.S. forces could carry out preemptive attacks to destroy known North Korean nuclear facilities and missile emplacements, but such attacks could provoke North Korean retaliation and trigger a general conflict. Moreover, Washington and Seoul cannot overthrow the North Korean regime by force or destroy its strategic military assets without risking devastating losses in the process. Meanwhile, North Korea cannot invade the South without inviting a fatal counterattack from the United States and South Korea. Thus, the balance of forces that emerged from the Korean War, and which helped maintain the armistice for more than 50 years, remains in place.
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