Parsing harrowing threat from hot air is an essential task for monitoring the Korean peninsula. North Korean leaders and propaganda outlets unfailingly respond to times of crisis with apocalyptic language.
After the 2010 bombardment of the disputed Yeonpyeong island, for example, North Korea warned of a “merciless shower” and vowed renewed war would turn Seoul into a “sea of fire.”
Kim Jong-un, since succeeding his late father in December 2011, has overseen new missile tests, and in February 2013 declared his country was conducting its third nuclear test. With that latest crisis have come new rounds of grave statements.
The general staff of the Korean People’s Army vowed the “ever-escalating U.S. hostile policy . . . will be smashed by the strong will of all the united service personnel and people,” entailing a “diversified nuclear strike” and the “merciless operation” of the armed forces. The newspaper of the Korea Worker’s Party published war-planning photos with a conspicuous map of plans to target the U.S. mainland after the United States flew an “extended deterrence” mission of B-2 bombers in a round trip from Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, to South Korea.
Yet, barring unrevealed improvements in North Korean delivery systems, the mainland U.S. and likely even Hawaii are probably safe. Nevertheless, Pyongyang’s nuclear and conventional missiles remain real threats for South Korea, Japan, and critical U.S. infrastructure at Guam. Beyond its large army and decades of preparation, North Korea has, in the past, engaged in everything from hand-to-hand combat to naval warfare and bombardment before backing down the escalation ladder.
While it is important to keep in mind that accidental war is far less routine than calculated provocations, examining North Korea’s potential military options beyond the propaganda outlet headlines remains a worthwhile task. Despite the bluster, North Korea remains a considerable adversary with a wide range of military capabilities.
Provocations and Infiltration
Violent incidents occur within the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), despite the relative lack of attention to the risks that Republic of Korea (ROK) and U.S. troops have faced for decades. Despite its name, both sides treat the DMZ as a combat zone. Both Koreas may patrol the DMZ, so long as they remain on the respective sides of the Military Demarcation Line (MDL). In the past 20 years, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) troops have crossed the MDL, fired on patrols, and been caught wearing South Korean uniforms.
Since the 1960s, South Korean economic growth and U.S. military support has made reunification on Pyongyang’s terms increasingly unlikely. While securing Chinese backing for invasion became infeasible, dissent in the South against dictatorial regime of Park Chung-hee appeared to offer opportunity for irregular warfare. From 1966-1969, DPRK infiltrators and skirmishes killed nearly 300 South Koreans and 43 Americans and included an attempt by disguised DPRK troops to attack the South Korean executive mansion, the Blue House.
While lower-intensity incidents do still occur, the improved quality of South Korean forces, the discovery and closure of multiple infiltration tunnels in the 1970s and 1990s, and the lack of the hoped-for pro-Pyongyang fifth column within South Korea undermined it as a reunification tactic. Nevertheless, skirmishing and infiltration along the border remain an option should the North decide to escalate tensions further, and attempted infiltrations and raids would likely play a significant part of a wider war.
Skirmishes at Air and Sea
North Korea’s 1968 capture of the USS Pueblo (AGER-2)—now a DPRK museum and propaganda symbol—and 1969 downing of an EC-121 over the Sea of Japan demonstrate the extension of militarized tensions beyond the DMZ. Today, however, aerial and maritime clashes with North Korea are more likely to occur over the Yellow Sea. There, the Northern Limit Line, a de facto extension of the Military Demarcation Line, remains a significant flashpoint. Originally established by the U.S. Navy to avoid incursions too close to North Korea, South Korea since took it up as the official maritime border. North Korea disputes the NLL, which prevents it from accessing its nominal territorial waters.
Since 1999, North Korean ships guarding fishing vessels have exchanged fire with and even sunk South Korean vessels multiple times, most notably the Cheonan in 2010. That year DPRK artillery also shelled Yeonpyeong island. Although the DPRK lacks the air- or sea-power to effectively contest U.S. and ROK forces, it retains the capability to endanger intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance efforts, support DPRK infiltration tactics, and engage in raiding or anti-access operations against U.S. and ROK ships. North Korea’s air force faces even greater encumbrances. With obsolescent aircraft along with fuel and parts shortages, even functional DPRK airframes want for well-trained pilots.
While changes in U.S. amphibious doctrine and significant improvements in minesweeping capabilities mitigate the danger North Korean naval forces would pose during a broader conflict, North Korea’s air force and navy retain the potential to harass and raid U.S. and ROK forces before the outbreak of major conflict, and could still impose significant damage during a surprise attack before U.S. and ROK forces establish naval and air superiority. Consequently, U.S. aerial and naval exercises impose strong deterrent effects on their DPRK counterparts, by significantly shortening the DPRK’s window of opportunity to inflict damage between the outbreak of hostilities and the insertion of new U.S. forces to the peninsula.
Bombardment and Invasion
North Korea’s extensive investment in artillery along the DMZ poses significant danger not simply to military forces, but to Seoul and South Korean settlements near the border. Nevertheless, it is important not to overstate the threat that artillery poses. Decades of anticipation of a North Korean bombardment and ground offensive towards Seoul prompted development of a robust and resilient ROK civil-defense capacity and counter-planning to engage DPRK batteries. As Roger Cavazos points out, logistics and range limits the number of artillery pieces capable of engaging Seoul, while high observed dud rate of DPRK artillery, and the need to keep equipment in reserve to guard against hostile counterfire and counteroffensives, add significant friction to a DPRK bombardment. While such an attack would be immense and devastating in human and monetary terms, the ability of land, sea, and air-based counterfire to quickly and precisely engage DPRK artillery would prevent the million-casualty-scenarios touted in the mid-1990s. In other words, while bombardment would be immensely tragic, its reduced likelihood of inflicting a knockout blow to the ROK and its allies (along with the likely death of many of Chinese nationals) reduce its value as an offensive tool.
A DPRK ground invasion would face even greater challenges. According to the Office of Net Assessment’s estimates of combat strength, developed to rectify the vast overestimation of Iraqi forces during the first Gulf War, North Korea’s combat capability unlikely matches its massive size. Its ten armored divisions probably possess the actual combat capability of two and a half U.S. armored divisions, while its equivalent of six air wings only likely possesses the combat power of two U.S. F-16 wings.
Factoring in superior equipment, training, logistics, and morale, South Korea maintains an edge over North Korean ground forces even without the two U.S. brigades stationed there, and with both countries’ air forces added in, it is highly dubious North Korea could establish air dominance. Indeed, some assessments fear North Korean commandos using aerial munitions as IED to disrupt allied use of roadways during a defense or counter-offensive on the peninsula. The use of such IED tactics would also significantly enhance the capability of the DPRK’s aforementioned irregular warfare and infiltration tactics. While North Korea could inflict serious damage on the defensive, the significant challenges it would face from qualitatively superior South Korean and American forces seriously undermine the viability of full-scale war as an offensive tactic, especially without the backing of its patron, China.
Missiles and Nuclear Weapons
Nevertheless, North Korea’s options are not limited to dubious conventional threats, harassment, and irregular tactics, its arsenal of ballistic missiles and unconventional weapons remain a significant advantage. According to a classified report discussed in the House Armed Services Committee, the Defense Intelligence Agency has “moderate confidence” that the North possesses the capability to launch a nuclear-armed ballistic missile, although it had low estimates of its reliability (particularly since there is little evidence that such a system is adequately tested or demonstrated).
The threat that North Korean missiles—nuclear or conventionally armed—pose to the United States and South Korea varies widely. Despite U.S. fears, the only missile posing a reliable threat to Alaska or Hawaii is the KN-08, which remains untested, although persistent concerns about another, yet unknown longer-ranged ICBM that could threaten the homeland might exist. The more serious threats are Musudan missiles deployed in the east that could strike as far as Guam and an array of shorter-range missiles that could strike targets in South Korea and Japan. Consequently, the United States has deployed land-based missile defenses to Guam and stationed Aegis-equipped destroyers off the coast of Japan and Guam, augmenting Japan’s own Aegis vessels and PAC-3 batteries. North Korea frequently uses missile tests as an escalation tactic, prompting some calls to shoot down a future missile test. The deterrence-undermining effect of a failed interception attempt on a missile test (distinct from an actual attempt to strike U.S. or allied targets), though, make such a move risky.
Also worth considering are North Korea’s significant stocks of chemical and biological weapons, for which ROK civil-defense capabilities are significantly less prepared. Using such weapons in a conflict would be extremely dangerous for North Korea, which is fully aware of the U.S.’s nuclear capability. Despite recent limitations on U.S. nuclear response to chemical and biological weapons use, North Korea’s 2003 announcement of withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty leaves it open to nuclear response. Should North Korea question the reliability of such a counterstrike, however, its special operations forces and artillery may attempt to deploy such weapons in a wider conflict to even the unbalanced conventional odds.
Ultimately, North Korea’s escalatory measures remain effective only so long as they do not initiate a wider war, which would likely deny the DPRK significant Chinese support in the face of allied conventional and nuclear superiority. Skirmishes, infiltration, and attacks on aircraft and naval vessels remain viable capabilities even if North Korea’s conventional combat power remains degraded and its ability to deliver nuclear weapons inadequate to give credibility to its aspirations. Yet the devastating consequences of a large-scale conventional war, even without the introduction of nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons, continue to recommend cautious diplomacy and a deterrent role for military force. Balancing the value of U.S. security guarantees with the requirements of engagement with Beijing and de-escalation with Pyongyang can prevent the nightmare scenario of full-scale war, even if North Korea’s ability to undertake deadly provocation remains.