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Sat, January 23, 2021 | 09:23
North Korea’s strange military moves
Posted : 2021-01-20 16:40
Updated : 2021-01-20 17:07
During the eighth congress of the ruling Workers’ Party, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un declared important development directions for the North Korean military. He made clear that his country would develop tactical nuclear weapons as well as a super-large nuclear warhead.
He also announced a plan for the procurement of a nuclear-powered submarine and other “luxuries” such as military satellites, drones, MIRVs multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs), hypersonic missiles and so forth.
These are strange braggadocios. We have become used to North Korea’s abnormal behavior in showing off its weapon systems and its occasional mysterious bluffs. However, this time it seems to have gone too far. We all know that North Korea’s economy has suffered from decades-long international sanctions and the country has had to pour its national resources into recovery from recent natural disasters.
These developments even led Kim to confess that his economic projects had failed. Under such circumstances, any rational calculation would conclude that North Korea simply cannot afford those military programs.
North Korea should have been very careful in showing off its assets to an external audience, considering nuclear weapons and missiles are the most important assets for its regime’s survival. However, it haphazardly revealed the assets’ defects, and strategic errors. The North’s recent moves in military affairs are therefore highly incomprehensible. They are trying to accomplish unreachable goals. Let’s take a closer look.
North Korea abruptly announced the completion of a nuclear weapon in November 2017, raising questions among experts. Their arguments were as follows: We have to admit North Korea has made some progress, as proved by its 250 kiloton detonation yields.
We also have to admit its ability to launch longer range missiles, which could reach the U.S. mainland. However, despite such progress, North Korea was yet to demonstrate the re-entry capability of its missiles and the miniaturization of a nuclear warhead.
North Korea has other problems as well. Its ICBMs use a liquid propellant which is almost a half-century old technology for military missiles. How can North Korea fight against the ROK-U.S. alliance with such weapons? North Korean missiles take so much time to fuel, making it difficult for the North to quickly respond to incoming surgical strikes against its cherished ICBM transporter erector launchers (TELs).
Moreover, it doesn’t have early warning systems, satellites or decent intelligence systems. Even though many commentators and experts argue that North Korea’s capability is growing, from the military operation perspective, the situation is still at a manageable level.
Some commentators pointed out that North Korea demonstrated a monster ICBM last year and that it will pump up military threats, quoting Kim’s recent announcement. Indeed, the North’s threats are serious. However, there is no need to panic.
Let’s look at the monster-ICBM, for example. The missile seemed like a mock-up and still adopted a liquid propellant. Some experts argued that North Korea needed the monster ICBM because it could not make enough technological progress to miniaturize a nuclear warhead.
SLBM development might have also been motivated in the same situation. Originally, North Korea seemed to have planned to “operate” its SLBM from a diesel submarine ― a submarine that makes so much noise. Recognizing its vulnerability in anti-submarine operations, it has now announced a procurement plan for a nuclear-powered submarine. North Korea does not have such technology.
Do we need to believe what the North is saying? I think, to an extent, North Korea’s plans for new weapons systems are for show, like concept cars displayed at a motor show. Producing a prototype weapon system is somewhat of an easy task. However, mass-producing and fielding the weapons systems is a totally different project.
It costs a lot of money and time. Again, North Korea cannot afford such programs. It has already spent so much money on its nuclear programs. There is therefore a need to further meticulously interpret the North Korean military’s unusual moves. One of the most promising analyses is that North Korea is adopting a show-off strategy ― the aforementioned concept cars display strategy ― to impress the internal and external audience. Nothing more than that.
North Korea’s economy is deteriorating due to sanctions, natural disasters, and COVID-19. Nuclear weapons are its only hope ― but it went too far. Establishing a solid deterrence against the U.S. is an impossible project for North Korea. Nevertheless, it wants to have nuclear-powered submarines, military satellites, hypersonic missiles and much more.
Why is North Korea announcing such unattainable military goals? It may be a signal of frustration. We need to take this moment and make a breakthrough. Our policy direction is still effective. The “phased approach” and the Korean version of a “dual-track policy,” which is to strengthen ROK-U.S. military capabilities and to actively engage with North Korea at the same time, would work.
With this approach, we may realize a Gorby-Reagan moment on the peninsula. The first step is to make clear to North Korea that hoping for sanctions relief and keeping nuclear weapons just cannot be juxtaposed. Having a victim mentality does not help. We need to admit that North Korea is in a very difficult situation and that they need to compromise. If we have the guts, we can make North Korea wake up.
Boo Hyeong-wook is a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. He was deputy presidential secretary for peace and arms control at Cheong Wa Dae.