(Corea del nord) North Korea Ups Ante (II) (Andrei Akulov, Strategic Culture Foundation, 22 febbraio 2013)

23.02.2013 05:47

North Korean military potential

North Korea’s armed forces are composed of nearly 1.1m active-duty personnel and some 4.7m reserves, making it the world’s fifth largest active military force (the population of the country is 22.5 million as the data for 2004 says). Army’s (ground forces) strength is 718 thousand. The KPA's annual budget is approximately six billion US dollars. 

The Army has 21 medium range missile launchers; it boasts the inventory of between 4,500 and 5,400 tanks, over 1300 armored personnel vehicles, 12.7 artillery pieces and mortars. The Army strike potential is added by tactical Soviet Union – produced Luna missiles (range –55-70 km). Totally the Army has around 1.1 thousand multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS). According to last year’s Korean Times reports, the country started the production of new Juche 100 MLRS, it has 22 240mm tubes and the range of 120 km. 

The Air Force is about 1200 aircraft strong, including 650 combat planes (80 Н-5 (IL-28) bombers, and over 400 J-5 (MIG-17, J-6, MIG-21 and others) fighters, there are over 340 cargo planes. All aircraft are extremely obsolete, MIG-17 join the service in 1952, MIG-21 – since 1955. North Korea has means of air power projection: the Air Force Il-76MD aircraft that provide a strategic airlift capacity of 6,000 troops. 

The Navy strength is 47 thousand. There are some 708 vessels including 3 frigates and 70 submarines. The Navy's sea lift capacity amounts to 15,000 troops. The ant-ship missiles are Styx class (the P-15 Termit is an anti-ship missile developed by the Soviet Union in the 1950s). The shore is defended by 122, 130, 152-mm artillery pieces. North Korean Special Forces use semi-submersible infiltration craft. The Navy submarines could be effective in operations such as mining and insertion of Special Forces. Missile and torpedo craft are old and their weapons systems obsolete, but these vessels would need to be neutralized before US vessels could anchor and use ports to deliver reinforcements. Mines in the difficult waters around the Korean Peninsula would pose a threat to potential enemy. There is another weak point - the North Korean navy is organized into two fleets which are not able to support each other. The two fleets are not known to have ever conducted joint operations or shared vessels, probably because of short range of sea going forces.

The Korean People's Strategic Rocket Forces inventory boasts around one thousand rockets, including: Nodong – 1000 km, Taepodong-1 – 2200 km, Musudan – 4000 km, Taeponong-2 – 7000 km ground based systems. The reports about North Korea going nuclear stated to surface since 1990s. The rods were delivered by Pakistan in exchange for missiles. It unsuccessfully tested a Taepodong-2 (or rockets with related technology) missile in 2006, 2009 and 2012. But it conducted an apparently successful launch of a three-stage rocket on 12 December 2012. North Korea has enough plutonium about 5-10 nuclear munitions. 

Around one-half of North Korea’s major weapons were designed in the 1960s; the other half are even older. Also, it is certain that due to shortages of spare parts, fuel, and poor maintenance, some weaponry will not be functional. Pyongyang has attempted to raise training levels and readiness in recent years, but fuel and other shortages have significantly limited its ability to conduct large-scale combined-arms training exercises. 

The armed forces rely on asymmetric warfare techniques and unconventional weaponry to achieve parity against high-tech enemy forces. North Korea has developed a wide range of technologies towards this end, such as stealth paint to conceal ground targets, midget submarines, human torpedoes, and anti-personnel lasers banned by international law. Because of forward deployments North Korea could theoretically invade the South without recourse to further relocations and with relatively little warning time. It would probably begin combat actions with a massive artillery assault on South Korean and US positions south of the demilitarized zone and on Seoul itself. The artillery assault would be followed by army units advance to Seoul. The mission would be to launch offensive while the enemy is off-¬guard, so that they could seize Seoul before reinforcements come. Mass artillery and armored forces, supported by special operations forces (SOF) and airborne operations, would be the core components of offensive actions. Chemical weapons might also be used. It is unknown if North Korea has chemical tipped surface-to-surface rockets. The SOF will be deployed on the South Korean soil in advance getting there through underground tunnels, dropped from air or inserted by midget-submarines. With Seoul captured, North Korean forces would spread their control over the rest of the Peninsula. If they don’t succeed, then Seoul may be used as a bargaining chip at talks aimed at achieving ceasefire. 

In case of war, North Korea is capable of inflicting heavy casualties. It doesn’t have to seize Seoul to devastate the city. North Korea’s conventional potential is a credible enough deterrence. US-led pre-emptive attacks to destroy nuclear facilities and missile sites could provoke retaliation followed by a general conflict. So North Korea is not strong enough to invade the South, the following US and South Korean response would be fatal. In their turn, the US and South Korea cannot strike North Korea without risking devastating casualties and losses.

Comparing figures one can see the numerical advantage of North Korea is obvious, but what somehow comes to mind is that Iraq had a million-man army, which also had modern equipment, combat experience and plenty of fuel. The personnel had been experienced fighting Iran for 8 years. We all know the outcome. I think the fact that the North Korean servicemen suffer from malnutrition and seldom train during exercises because they lack fuel and ammunition is a very important weak point that dooms North Korea to failure in case combat actions are sparked one way or another.

Regional arms race

Asia has plunged into an arms race that meets the interests of US arms producers. The military expenditure in Asia has already surpassed Europe in 2012 totaling $224 billion. To strengthen America's treaty allies and other security partners in the region under the Asia Pivot policy, the US has increased its arms sales to the Far East. The sales agreements with countries in the US Pacific Command's area of responsibility rose to $13.7 billion in fiscal 2012, up 5.4% from the previous year.

Japan has announced to buy 42 F-35 fighters from the United States. South Korea is considering the deal to buy 120 advanced, high-end fighter aircraft too. The Philippines are to buy the second-hand US F-16 fighters. The US and Australia discuss the prospect for the Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean to become a base for US drones. Thailand, India, Singapore, Japan, Australia and South Korea are applying effort to build their own unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). North Korea is developing kamikaze drones which could target South Korean armed forces. The US is testing aircraft carriers - based remotely - piloted systems to be operational by 2018. The ability to launch long-range UAVs from aircraft carriers, Guam and Australia greatly enhances the operational flexibility, 

South Korea announced deployment of its own long-range cruise missile. A week after a failed North Korean long-range rocket launch in April 2012, South Korea announced its deployment of a new cruise missile capable of hitting targets anywhere in North Korea. The cruise missile South Korea unveiled, called the Hyunmu-3C, is believed to have a range of 1,500 kilometers carrying a 450-kilogram payload. South Korea is already believed to have deployed a 1,000-kilometer-range Hyunmu-3B cruise missile.

Japan’s right-wing politicians have taken advantage of the running tensions to call for boosting the potential of Self-Defense Forces under the label of strengthening the U.S.-Japan alliance. They speak in favor of a military build-up and the development of nuclear weapons. Shintaro Ishihara, the governor of Tokyo, and Toru Hashimoto, the leader of the National Japan Restoration Association are the most known among them. Japan also plans to purchase PAC-3 surface-to-air anti-ballistic missile systems and modernize four F-15 fighter jets.

By the end of 2012 the US finally agreed to sell four RQ-4 Global Hawk drones to South Korea. Japan, Australia and Singapore are also looking to buy the drones. Besides, the F-35 has already been chosen by the Japan to replace the aging F-4 fighters. The US agreed to upgrade the Taiwan’s 145 F-16A/B fighters.

BMD in Asia

The US has announced that it is seeking to build a missile defense system (BMD) in Asia. China is expected to respond. It may force China to change its long-held nuclear policy. If Japan, South Korea and Australia join the system, a chain reaction would follow. Australia signed a BMD Framework memorandum of understanding with the U.S. in 2004. Australia’s new destroyers are to use US Aegis missile defense combat system. The U.S. is expanding missile defense cooperation with Japan and South Korea; the Philippines may join the effort. The U.S. and Japan said in September 2012 that they had agreed to deploy powerful early-warning missile defense radar, probably in southern Japan, to add to the capability of similar X-Band radar stationed in the north of Japan since 2006. The US been evaluating sites in Southeast Asia for a third X-Band radar to build a network allowing more accurate tracking of ballistic missile launches from North Korea and from parts of China. The radars could be linked to sea and ground-based interceptors. A total of 27 US and Japan’s warships possess missile defense capability (23 – in the US inventory). They have initial capability against ballistic missiles with ranges up to 5,500 km. China and Russia strongly oppose the U.S.-led ballistic missile defense in the Asia-Pacific region. Both are building new weapons that they say will counter the U.S. missile defense if it achieves global reach by 2020 as planned.

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If the North Korea’s nuclear program is recognized than the West hostile Iran will have each and every justification for its own nuclear efforts. But the US recognized the nuclear programs of India and Pakistan giving a ground for being accused of double standards. 

No matter many failures suffered on the way, North Korea continues to make technological advances. A long-range rocket launch last December was a success. The February 12 test is a prove the program is on the way, the test is a clear sign it is advancing its nuclear technology and is very close to fit a rocket.

The North Korean nuclear test gives the United States, South Korea and Japan and other countries an argument to justify joining the regional arms race and US ballistic missile defense efforts. Japan and Australia emphasize missile defense, while South Korea focuses on expanding the range and payload of its attack missiles. The event is strengthening the position of hardliners in South Korea and Japan. The unfolding of the situation dictates a need for urgent, closely coordinated international effort. 

North Korea is not the only country whose leadership has come to conclusion that going nuclear is the only way to survive as a sovereign state in the contemporary world where one country after another become victims of unprovoked armed interventions from outside, for instance: Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya…