The New York Analysis of Policy & Government continues its review of the Department of Defense’s 2015 Report to Congress on the Military and Security Developments Involving the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea . In this segment, we examine Pyongyang’s conventional military strength.
NORTH KOREA’S CONVENTIONAL MILITARY FORCES
The North Korean military poses a serious threat to the ROK [Republic of Korea], its other neighbors, and U.S. forces in the region despite its many internal challenges and constraints, including deterioration of its conventional capabilities.
North Korea’s national military strategy is designed to support its national security strategy by defending the Kim regime’s rule and enabling the regime to conduct coercive diplomacy. This strategy relies heavily on deterrence, strategically through its nuclear weapons program and supporting delivery systems and conventionally by maintaining a large, heavily-armed, forward-deployed military that presents a constant threat to South Korea, especially the greater Seoul metropolitan area. These two aspects of its military strategy are meant to be mutually supporting; the threat posed by one is employed to deter an attack on the other.
North Korea’s force modernization goals are aimed at maintaining the credibility of its conventional forces through more realistic training and the modest production of new systems; enhancing the credibility of its strategic deterrence by advancing its nuclear and missile programs; and developing new or improved means to support its coercive diplomacy – most notably via its cyber and missile programs. North Korea directs its limited resources to areas where it sees the potential for localized comparative advantage.
North Korea’s large, forward-positioned military can initiate an attack against the ROK with little or no warning, minimizing the logistics strain it would incur if deploying forces from further away. The military retains the capability to inflict significant damage on the ROK, especially in the region from the DMZ to Seoul. Although North Korea is unlikely to attack on a scale that would risk regime survival by inviting overwhelming U.S.-ROK counterattacks, North Korea’s threshold for smaller, asymmetric attacks and provocations is unclear. Recent provocations (e.g., the November 2014 cyber attack against Sony Pictures Entertainment and the August 2015 DMZ landmines incident) suggest that North Korea sees some value in such attacks. Indeed, North Korea’s special operations forces (SOF), growing artillery, and missile forces provide significant capabilities for small-scale attacks that could rapidly escalate into a larger scale confrontation.
North Korea is making efforts to upgrade select elements of its large arsenal of mostly outdated conventional weapons. It has reinforced long-range artillery forces near the DMZ and has a substantial number of mobile ballistic missiles that could strike a variety of targets in the ROK and Japan. However, the DPRK’s force modernization will likely emphasize defensive and asymmetric attack capabilities to counter technologically superior ROK and U.S. conventional forces.
North Korea will likely continue to develop and test-launch missiles, including the Taepodong (TD)-2 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)/ space-launch vehicle (SLV). North Korea’s desire to enhance deterrence and defense and to improve its ability to conduct limited attacks against the ROK drives its road-mobile ICBM development, missile tests, and programs to improve unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), denial and deception, cyber, electronic warfare, and submarines.
The Korean People’s Army (KPA) — a large, ground force-centric organization comprising ground, air, naval, missile, and SOF — has over one million soldiers in its ranks, making it the fourth largest military in the world. Four to five percent of North Korea’s 24 million people serve on active duty, and another 25 to 30 percent are assigned to a reserve or paramilitary unit and would be subject to wartime mobilization. With approximately 70 percent of its ground forces and 50 percent of its air and naval forces deployed within 100 kilometers of the DMZ, the KPA poses a continuous threat to the ROK and U.S. forces stationed there. The general disposition of the KPA has not changed in the last two years.
The KPA primarily fields legacy equipment, either produced in or based on designs from the Soviet Union and China dating back to the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Although a few weapons systems are based on modern technology, the KPA has not kept pace with regional military capability developments. The KPA has not acquired new fighter aircraft in decades, relies on older air defense systems, lacks ballistic missile defense, its Navy does not train for blue water operations, and recently unveiled artillery systems include tractor-towed rocket launchers while most other countries are improving the mobility of such systems.
Kim Jong Un seems to prioritize the development of new weapons systems, as demonstrated by his numerous appearances with military units and research and development organizations. He has personally overseen land- and sea-based ballistic missile and anti-ship cruise missile testing activity in 2014 and 2015. He has also overseen events designed to demonstrate the proficiency of his conventional military forces.
Ground. The KPA’s ground forces are predominantly regular and light infantry units, supported by armor and mechanized units and heavy concentrations of artillery. These forces are forward-deployed, fortified in several thousand underground facilities, and include long-range cannon and rocket artillery forces that are capable of reaching targets in Seoul from their garrisons.
The ground forces possess numerous light and medium tanks, and many armored personnel carriers. The KPA’s large artillery force includes long-range 170-mm guns and 240-mm multiple rocket launchers (MRL), many deployed along the DMZ posing a constant threat to northern parts of the ROK.
In October 2015, North Korea paraded what appears to be a large-caliber MRL — larger than its 240-mm MRL — that carries eight tubes on a wheeled chassis. In recent years, North Korea has unveiled other new ground force equipment, including tanks, artillery, armored vehicles, and infantry weapons. The display of these systems shows that North Korea continues to produce, or at least upgrade, limited types and numbers of military equipment.
Air and Air Defense. The North Korean Air Force (NKAF), a fleet of more than 1,300 aircraft that are primarily legacy Soviet models, is primarily responsible for defending North Korean air space. Its other missions include SOF insertion, transportation and logistics support, reconnaissance, and tactical air support for KPA ground forces. However, because of the technological inferiority of most of its aircraft fleet and rigid air defense command and control structure, much of North Korea’s air defense is provided by surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and anti-aircraft artillery (AAA).
Naval. The North Korean Navy (NKN) is the smallest of the KPA’s three main services. This coastal force is composed primarily of numerous, though aging, small patrol craft that carry a variety of anti-ship cruise missiles, torpedoes, and guns. The NKN maintains one of the world’s largest submarine forces, with around 70 attack-, coastal-, and midget-type submarines. In addition, the NKN operates a large fleet of air-cushioned hovercraft and conventional landing craft to support amphibious operations and SOF insertion. The force is divided into East and West Coast Fleets, which each operate variety of patrol craft, guided-missile patrol boats, submarines, and landing craft.
The NKN has displayed limited modernization efforts, highlighted by upgrades to select surface ships and a continued program to construct submarines. North Korea unveiled a new submarine in mid-2015, which it claims was developed domestically and can fire a ballistic missile.
Special Operations Forces. North Korean SOF are among the most highly trained, well-equipped, best-fed, and highly motivated forces in the KPA. As North Korea’s conventional capabilities decline relative to the ROK and United States, North Korea appears to increasingly regard SOF capabilities as vital for asymmetric coercion.
Strategic SOF units dispersed across North Korea appear designed for rapid offensive operations, internal defense against foreign attacks, or limited attacks against vulnerable targets in the ROK as part of a coercive diplomacy effort. They operate in specialized units, including reconnaissance, airborne and seaborne insertion, commandos, and other specialties. All emphasize speed of movement and surprise attack to accomplish their missions. SOF may be airlifted by An-2 COLT or helicopters (and possibly Civil Air Administration transports), moved by maritime insertion platforms, or travel on foot over land or via suspected underground, cross-DMZ tunnels to attack high-value targets like command and control nodes or air bases in the ROK.
Intelligence Services. North Korean intelligence and security services collect political, military, economic, and technical information through open-source, human intelligence, cyber, and signals intelligence capabilities. North Korea’s primary intelligence collection targets remain South Korea, the United States, and Japan.
The Reconnaissance General Bureau (RGB) is North Korea’s primary foreign intelligence service, responsible for collection and clandestine operations. The RGB is comprised of six bureaus with compartmented functions including operations, reconnaissance, technology and cyber, overseas intelligence, inter-Korean talks, and service support.
The Ministry of State Security (MSS) is North Korea’s primary counterintelligence service and is an autonomous agency of the North Korean government reporting directly to Kim Jong Un. The MSS is responsible for operating North Korean prison camps, investigating cases of domestic espionage, repatriating defectors, and conducting overseas counterespionage activities in North Korea’s foreign missions.