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North Korea Is Afraid Of Being Attacked By The US

October 28, 2021
Kim Jong Un flanked by ministers at the Self Defense 2021 exhibition. Via North Korean media.

This month the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) released an e-book titled North Korea Military Power: A Growing Regional and Global Threat for unlimited distribution. At almost a hundred pages long it gives readers a narrative survey of all relevant topics connected to Pyongyang’s war machine. But another reason to acquire a copy are its insights nine years since Kim Jong Un assumed leadership over his impoverished country. The most valuable is a frank assessment of the actual military power Kim has at his disposal; the DIA thinks it’s inadequate except for the nukes. On page 14 the authors claim that “Pyongyang probably assesses its force as a whole cannot prevail in combat against the United States, given US forces’ overwhelming advantages…and probably judges it is at a qualitative disadvantage against its neighbor [South Korea].”

The best North Korea Military Power has to offer is its pocket history chronicling the nuclear weapons program from page 19 until 27. The late Kim Il Sung did cultivate an aggressive dual use nuclear research program from the 1950s onward but the development of nuclear warheads outlasted him. A wonderful addition to the text are a series of well done infographics that illustrate the nuclear program’s size and scale along with a helpful chart detailing the different missiles that have either been revealed to the public or are underdevelopment. As far as the DIA can ascertain North Korea’s “Strategic Force” have in their possession four operational ICBM models, four SLBM models, two MRBMs, and two IRBMs. The road mobile missile armed with a hypersonic glider wasn’t recognized yet as this e-book came out on the same week North Korean media broke the news about the hypersonic missile.

Browsing North Korea Military Power brings so much relevant data to the reader’s attention. On page 13 the authors parse through the dubious figures on North Korea’s excessive commitment to military self-sufficiency. If the numbers are credible it remains the world’s foremost militarized state with an annual spend on its armed forces varying from 20% to 30% of gross domestic product. (By extension the national economy is the size of an “emerging market” with a nominal GDP of just $100 billion or somewhat comparable to Ethiopia.) The resulting dollar figure is above average at $11 billion but it’s still eclipsed by South Korea’s own massive spending that’s now in the $40 billion range and growing each year. There are no indications Pyongyang is cutting back on its military budget, however.

For anyone who stays updated on events in the peninsula the appendices that beef up North Korea Military Power are a trove of valuable knowledge. These are divided among alphabetized sections, from A to I, and each is focused on a branch or institution that forms parts of North Korea’s overall hard power. The appendix on special operations forces in particular shares a deep analysis of a formidable branch with as many as 200,000 highly trained personnel. But the first appendix is about the “Strategic Force” who control and operate the country’s growing arsenal of road mobile ballistic missiles. The authors admit that it’s unclear if the current generation of submarine-launched weapons fall under the Strategic Force’s authority or not–the naval branch is described as poorly resourced and its efforts at acquiring nuclear-capable SLBMs are a work in progress.

According to the authors of North Korea Military Power the Strategic Force have 200 road mobile launchers for their missiles. But the types and available stockpile resist accurate assessment. For example, the Korean People’s Army (KPA) maintain an immense inventory of battlefield rockets but when measuring their offensive ability the authors believe the opposite; the army on its own is unprepared to deploy them as intended. On page 35 the readers are given a dismal view of the North Korean military’s total readiness. “North Korea may have sufficient supplies for only 2 to 3 months, and ammunition could last slightly longer” the authors write. “Inadequate availability of fuel and transportation assets, poor maintenance of ground lines of communication…constrain North Korea’s ability to sustain large-scale conventional offensive operations.”

If this holds true then it means the Strategic Force also faces the same constraints despite the missiles they’ve amassed. These can’t be used for attacking South Korea and are mainly a deterrent if relations with the US and other rivals–such as Japan–spiral out of control. Early on, the authors explain there are just two deep-seated ideas influencing North Korea’s behavior, and the first is preserving its sovereignty so that the current regime’s long-term survival is assured. The second is overwhelming leverage over South Korea, which of course has disappeared. As the authors point out the nuclear arsenal by itself is for discouraging any future conflict involving the US military. So at this point in history North Korea has succeeded in buying itself time through nuclear blackmail but whether or not Kim Jong Un fulfills his grandfather’s vision is very uncertain. Or, as the authors put it, “Kim Jong Un has publicly emphasized the ability of North Korean nuclear-armed ballistic missiles to strike the US and regional allies in an attempts to intimidate international audiences.”

North Korea Military Power is available as a free download here.

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