SEOUL – In a startling disclosure, North Korea’s leader has posed a massive new set of security challenges to the Joe Biden administration as it prepares to enter the White House.
The country aims to bolster its deterrence via qualitative upgrades to its army and its command and control capabilities, and is adding tactical nukes to its massive conventional artillery forces, state leader Kim Jong Un said over the weekend.
On the strategic front, it is increasing the range and sophistication of its nuclear delivery systems and completing a “super-large” hydrogen bomb,” Kim said.
In the wake of Donald Trump’s failed diplomacy with North Korea, expectations for any Pyongyang-Washington breakthrough remain low, but the stakes are now higher than ever before. And Kim – who has successfully tested ballistic missiles and nuclear devices – looks set on providing his military with new assets.
It is unclear what development stage the announced new systems are at. But prior experience demonstrates that North Korea is willing to sacrifice its economy to acquire weapons, meaning that Pentagon contingency planners must consider these capabilities in their defense calculations.
At the very least, the announced new assets provide a set of potential new bargaining chips in any upcoming denuclearization negotiations. This is particularly so as the assets will likely be revealed to the world in the form of attention-grabbing weapons tests.
Still, there is likely to be an upcoming grace period. Experts say that due to Kim’s multiple internal problems, Biden and his brain trust should enjoy a honeymoon before any serious provocations are unleashed.
The time, the place
Kim largely evaded global spotlights in 2020 in the wake of the failed diplomatic engagement with US President Donald Trump in Hanoi, Vietnam, in 2019. Kim’s woes include the ravages of Covid-19, which have forced border closures of unprecedented length, and economic havoc caused by natural disasters and international sanctions.
He chose the ongoing 8th Worker’s Party Congress to storm back into the news. The high-profile, widely-monitored event granted him the opportunity to seize attention at a politically opportune moment.
While global and US eyes were focused on the extraordinary events unfolding in Washington as the Trump administration imploded, Kim’s announcements almost certainly turned heads in the Pentagon.
And in another eye-catching development, South Korean media reported on Monday that that North Korea either held a military parade in Pyongyang on Sunday night to coincide with the Party Congress, or was rehearsing a parade.
In his statements to the assembled party members, Kim made clear that he still sees the US as his biggest enemy.
That was an uptick in rhetoric compared with Pyongyang’s milder statements while conducting diplomacy with Seoul and Washington a mere two years ago. Then, summits in the DMZ, Pyongyang and Singapore promised much. After the failure of Hanoi, they delivered nothing.
Kim de facto admitted these failures by referencing real-politick. “Whoever takes power in the US, its entity and the real intention of its policy toward [North Korea] would never change,” he said.
Though Kim and Trump bonded via summits, letters, and negotiations, Kim said that despite his best efforts for the sake of peace, “the hostile nature of the American policy towards [North Korea] has gone to an extreme, instead of becoming weakened,” the state-run Korea Central News Agency’s reported.
He went on: “The reality shows that only when we bolster up our national defense capability without a moment’s halt will we be able to contain the military threat from the US and achieve peace and prosperity of the Korean peninsula.”
For a state noted for extreme opacity, the amount of information released about that “bolstering” is unusual. The KCNA’s foreign language websites were being updated daily with details of the Congress meetings.
Kim’s capabilities: strategic
During the fourth day of the Congress on January 8, Kim spent significant time detailing military ambitions. He repeatedly mentioned the goal of modernizing the nation’s nuclear force while emphasizing North Korea’s status as a “nuclear weapons state.”
Kim hailed the Party’s “new great victories” on nuclearization. He said the atomic force has been further developed “to cope with the enemy’s desperate arms buildup, thus making our state’s superiority in military technology an irreversible one and putting its war deterrent and capability of fighting a war on the highest level.”
In terms of devices, the KCNA mentioned North Korea’s plans “to complete the development of a super-large hydrogen bomb.”
With North Korea already hydrogen-capable, security experts in Seoul sat up and took notice.
“If he is talking about the kind of huge, 50-megaton device the Soviets exploded – holy crap!” Chun In-bum, a retired general in the South Korean Army told Asia Times. “That is one device that can destroy a good part of the peninsula and pose an increased danger to the world.”
Regarding delivery systems, Kim set the goal of attaining an advanced capability for both preemptive and retaliatory nuclear strikes. Moreover, his missile forces are working on the ability to “strike and annihilate any strategic targets within a range of 15,000 kilometers with pinpoint accuracy.”
Given that the distance between Pyongyang and Washington DC is 11,035 kilometers, that would bring the entire US mainland within range. The analytical consensus is that North Korean ICBMs can hit US West Coast targets.
Another platform for nuclear weapons delivery is a submarine – and like the massive Transporter Erector Launch (TEL) vehicles that Pyongyang rolls out at military parades, a submarine adds elements of mobility and survivability that fixed missile bases do not have.
“New planning research for a nuclear-powered submarine has been completed and is to enter the final examination process,” Kim told the Congress. The country has already showcased elements of a submarine-launched ballistic missile program, and a nuclear-powered submarine would be able to remain out of sight for long periods without needing to refuel.
“That is a game-changer because now we must assume the worst: a nuclear sub with nuclear weapons,” Chun said. “That means the North Koreans are trying to get closer to far-off potential adversaries – which is, of course, the US.”
In the context of ballistic missiles, Kim also mentioned Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicles, or MIRVs. A MIRV enables the emplacement of multiple warheads on one missile, upgrading defense-penetration capabilities.
“This, again, is a significant capability increase and a game changer,” said Chun. “It is a nightmare to try and shoot them down.”
While North Korea has proven ICBM capabilities, it is unclear whether it has a working atmosphere re-entry vehicle. The precision of its targeting systems are also unknown.
Similarly, Kim said research is being conducted on “hypersonic gliding-flight warheads for new-type ballistic rockets,” and preparations to manufacture them are underway.
These weapons, pioneered by Russia, present a new spectrum of challenges to missile defense systems thanks to their speed and unpredictable flight paths.
“That is good enough to scare and intimidate Japan,” Chun said. And it gives [North Korea] a lot of flexibility.”
Shifting from strategic to tactical, Kim mentioned plans to further develop “ultra-modern tactical nuclear weapons including new-type tactical rockets and intermediate-range cruise missiles whose conventional warheads are the most powerful in the world.”
North Korea already possesses the world’s largest artillery arm, with both rockets systems and long-range tubes potentially capable of firing tactical nuclear devices. But given the small geographic size of the Korean peninsula, one rule of tactical nukes – creating a “hot zone” of area denial, thereby channeling enemy forces – is moot. However, tactical atomic weapons have two more roles: intimidation and point strike.
“You could use it to intimidate, more or less like a demonstration – say, you kill 5,000 men and destroy 2,000 vehicles, you make the point you are willing to up the ante,” Chun said.
The second use could be taking out US forces stationed in South Korea, heavily concentrated in a hub of bases, airbases and ports on Korea’s Yellow Sea, which are designed to be massively reinforced in the event of hostilities.
Tactical nukes “can destroy ports and airfields,” Chun said. “That could cripple US reinforcement capabilities.”
Turning to command-and-control systems, Kim said that “designing of unmanned striking equipment, means of reconnaissance and detection, and a military reconnaissance satellite” have been completed.
Ironically, these sophisticated big boys’ toys are exactly what South Korea is investing billions of dollars in as it seeks to take over the wartime operational control (“OPCON transfer”) of its military from the US by 2022.
“This ‘Christmas List’ of capabilities is state-of-the-art,” Chun said of Kim’s announcements. “Weapons of mass destruction programs are more than a bomb. He is getting the whole kit and the capabilities to hit anywhere in the world.”
Regarding the satellite reference, Leif-Eric Easley, an associate professor of international studies at Ewha Woman’s University in Seoul, said Kim could be hinting at a long-range missile test disguised as a reconnaissance satellite launch.
Despite their impressive parade ground moves, the million-plus grunts of the Korean People’s Army are poor cousins to the professional militaries of the nations of the West and even China. Much of the KPA is a peasant force, used for labor rather than deterrence.
At the Congress, Kim vowed to transform the threadbare KPA into “elite forces” wielding “the strongest military muscle in the world.”
Chun, who formerly led South Korea’s Special Warfare Command, said, “What seems to be happening with Kim’s army is that he is conscripting large forces of young men to not only maintain a huge army but also to control his population.
“And he is allocating about 200,000 men into special units, giving them priority in weapons and uniforms.”
The 200,000-strong Reconnaissance General Bureau controls special operations, sabotage, reconnaissance, airborne and marine units. In addition to being highly trained, these politically reliable units have, on recent parades, showcased specialized small arms, unique camouflage and helmet cams.
Is he serious?
Kim said that strengthening military capabilities will remain necessary “until the vicious cycle of the brink of war and detente, tension and dialogue is removed once and for all.”
Few Pyongyangologists expect seismic change to happen any time soon. However, they also don’t expect immediate escalation.
“With the kinds of issues the regime is dealing with – Covid-19 and economic insecurity and food insecurity – I don’t think it wants to take on external problems it can avoid,” said Daniel Pinkston, an international relations expert at Troy University. “I don’t think belligerent activities would serve Kim’s purpose.”
Regardless, Kim’s stated ambitions have dual significance, in the military and diplomatic spaces.
First, they represent real, potential upgrades to the North Korean military. In the past, some overseas experts scoffed at Pyongyang’s grandiose ambitions. And holes still exist in its strategic deterrent.
It is unclear if its ICMB warheads, for example, have atmospheric re-entry technologies, and the precisions of its targeting systems are unknown. But Pyongyang’s steady progress in developing working nuclear arms and ballistic missiles is undeniable.
Second, the new assets upgrade North Korea’s negotiating muscle. By increasing the number of bargaining chips it brings to the table, Kim’s gains have more leverage if Washington re-starts talks.
Given that the next Party Congress will not convene for another five years, Kim’s statements are a roadmap. Chun, the former South Korean general, warned that the disclosures should not be taken lightly.
“As a military planner, you must assume that level of investment and concentration and capability, not to mention the technology thefts that North Korea is capable of,” Chun said. “Your guess is as good as mine, but I’d guess they will be achieving these capabilities in five-10 years.”
But others said the massive capital outlay required to make the new systems operational suggest Kim is bluffing to win concessions.
“In previous nuclear negotiations, Pyongyang tried to sell assets it no longer needs like the Punggye-ri nuclear test site, its Dongchang-ri missile test site, and the aging facilities at [it’s main nuclear site] Yongbyon,” said Easley. “Now it is advertising assets it doesn’t yet have.”
Pinkston pointed out that the requirements of the new systems Kim announced could undermine Pyongyang’s “one-man state” polity.
“The complexity of these weapons systems introduces contradictions in North Korea’s monolithic system,” he said. “You need institutions in place to manage command and control, and for a cult dictatorship to move to a more institutionalized machine has implications in terms of risk aversion and risk acceptance.”
Still, North Korea’s creation of a working strategic deterrent at any and all costs is undeniable.
“Is Kim going to negotiate away capabilities? I won’t be holding my breath,” Chun said. The ex-general assessed Kim’s capability disclosures at the Party Congress as a form of low-risk brinkmanship. “This is another form of provocation in my view,” he said. “Who starts a negotiation that way?”
Whether or not negotiations will reopen with the new US administration is unknown, but Kim’s military ambitions suggest heavy lifting ahead for the Biden administration.
And with the attention of the incoming US administration likely to be focused on the pandemic and domestic political developments, how much bandwidth it will have to deal with North Korea is questionable. But it needs to be taken seriously, given the calculations Kim is making – calculations backed up the regime’s world view.
“A lot of this is design and aspirational stuff,” said Pinkston. “They want it because they are the ultimate realists. Everything is about power.”