Apr 04 2013

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What is North Korea’s End Game?

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Could It Happen Again?

Could It Happen Again?

After an apparent Easter recess, North Korea was back on the airwaves this week, announcing new policy provocations and blistering rhetoric.

The NK’s announced that they will restart a nuclear reactor, previously closed after a deal with the West that traded closure of the facility for food and fuel in 2007. The reactor can produce enough plutonium to make one nuclear weapon annually.

In addition, the North Korean government threatened again to close down the jointly run South-North industrial park at Keosong, where more than 100 South Korean companies have businesses (six miles from the DMZ in North Korean territory), and barred South Korean workers from traveling to the facility.

Pyongyang also increased its already red-hot rhetoric aimed at South Korea and the US, warning that, “The moment of explosion is approaching fast. the US had better ponder the prevailing grave situation.”  The NKs also noted that they were authorized to take powerful, practical military counter measure, using cutting edge, smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear strike means.  As if to accent the point, South Korea reported this morning that the North had moved one of its longer-range missiles to the country’s east coast – ostensibly closer to US territory and interests in the Pacific rim.

The contradiction here, of course, is that with the exception of these acidic statements and provocative policy actions, it does not appear that North Korea is taking the practical steps necessary to launch a war.  Reserve troops have not been called up. There has been no obvious surge of troops and weapons to the DMZ.  These are actions that would be necessary for a serious ground offensive.

Yet  all the public bluster over a period of weeks destroys North Korea’s only effective comparative advantage in a crisis – surprise.

The North Koreans military machine is simply massive. Pyongyang has one million men under arms. including 700,000 army troops.  By comparison, the entire active duty US Army is 561,000 men. The NKs have 8,000 artillery pieces and 2,000 tanks that are garrisoned in hardened, underground facilities within 100 miles of the DMZ, and 1,700 aircraft.

But for all of its size and destructive power,  this force is also obsolete.

The majority of NK army tanks are T-55s and T-62s, models deployed by the former Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s. Similarly, the majority of the Air Force is made up of Soviet MIG-17s (deployed in 1950) MIG-19s (deployed in 1953) and MIG 21s (deployed in 1955).  The North Korean’s most modern plane is the MIG-29, deployed by the Soviet Union in 1983, and roughly comparable to the US F-15. The NK Air Force has only 30 such craft, guarding Pyongyang.

This is in contrast to South Korean forces, which deploy far more modern and capable equipment, supplied by the US, including M1A1 tanks and F-15/16 fighters. And this does not include the power and sophistication of US forces, including strategic bombers (B-2), fighters (F-22) and a decade of actual military experience.

Thus, the only way for the North Koreans to capitalize on its (deteriorating) military advantage is a BOOB attack – a “Bolt Out Of the Blue,” in Cold War parlance. To launch an attack when affairs in Northeast Asia appear quiet and the attention of the major powers is elswhere. When the South Korean military and the US forces in Korea are operating in a peace-time (for Korea) tempo.  When no one expects it.

At that point, the North would throw everything it  has at the South in a most violent and ruthless attack,  with complete disregard for casualties, and drive as fast as possible to Pusan, overthrow the South Korean government in Seoul along the way, and force the US off the peninsula before the US had sufficient time to reinforce its position. At that point, the NKs would presumably threaten nuclear attack on Japan or US positions in the Pacific to prevent a US effort to counter-attack.  What would happen at that point is anyone’s guess.

But a BOOB attack is out of the question today.

Not only has weekly North Korean bluster alerted the US and South Korea (and the international community), but the US and South Korea are already conducting annual, pre-planned war games, which bring US-Korean forces on the peninsula to a higher state of operational readiness.  Kim III could not have picked a worse time to beat his war drums. Needless to say, these are exactly the opposite of the conditions Pyongyang needs in order to execute  the cosmic role of the dice with open warfare with the south.

So if BOOB is off the table, then what’s the North Korean end game?

The North Korean leadership may be crazy by our conventional standards, but they are not stupid. The Kims and their Capos did not spend 68 years building the world’s largest sovereign criminal enterprise to see it destroyed by war with the US.

It doesn’t make sense.

That is where the genuine risk resides.





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