This screen-grab image taken from North Korean broadcaster KCTV in 2019 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watching the launch of a ballistic missile at an unknown location. Photo: AFP / KCTV

SEOUL – As Russia storms toward the half-year mark in its assault on Ukraine this weekend, North Korean war planners are almost certainly watching carefully from the wings.

They, too, border a Western-backed neighboring state and national competitor, with a near-identical language and culture. And the kit used by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s forces is almost entirely Warsaw Pact standard – either Soviet/Russian originals or local-production versions, often with modifications and upgrades.

Moreover, the doctrine used by Kim’s late grandfather, Kim Il Sung, in his 1950 invasion of South Korea was pure Soviet: Deep penetration assault by combined-arms, motorized spearheads. They decimated the South Korean Army in the invasion’s early weeks but were blunted, then routed, by massive US air power and ground reinforcements.

Hence, if North Korea initiates a Korean War redux, analysts largely agree it would have to fight in a different way. Though Pyongyang fields approximately double the number of soldiers under arms as Seoul, its doctrine leans heavily toward asymmetric measures and fields major commando and cyber assets

But could it command, control and coordinate a 21st Century invasion?  While its hardware is extensive and impressive, there is less clarity over the software it would require to fight a network-centric war.

Like Russia, it possesses massive artillery, rocket artillery and missile forces. Again, the same question rises: Does it have the signals and guidance capabilities to accurately land this arsenal on precise targets?

North Korean special forces armed with modified AK rifles fitted with what are believed to be high-capacity magazines parade through Pyongyang. The weapons photographed generated extensive discussion online among military pundits and Pyongyangologists. Photo: AFP

Decapitation successes, decapitation failures

North Korea’s Russian mentors have managed two notable decapitation operations: In Czechoslovakia in 1968, they overthrew a restive Prague government, and in Afghanistan in 1979, wiped out the Kabul government.

However, Moscow’s most recent attempt – an airborne assault on Hostomel Airport, supported by special force attacks and backed by a road-bound invasion – failed to displace the Kiev government or capture the capital.

North Korea, too, has failed in a decapitation operation. A 1968 commando strike on Seoul’s presidential residence failed to kill the sitting president – who had been evacuated – and ended in the assassins being gunned down.

The only survivor, who was captured and turned by South Korea, told this writer that had the assassination succeeded, a massive North Korean special forces operation would then have been unleashed.

The aim: Take over the South’s communication hubs and logistical nodes while agent provocateurs led local leftists in a revolution against a paralyzed government.

This failure, combined with the colossal risks of a storm across the DMZ, suggests a future offensive would be very different.

Chun In-bum, a retired general who formerly led South Korea’s Special Warfare Command, believes North Korea would use a combination of cyber and special forces assets along with massed fire from artillery and missiles.

The stratagem: To paralyze Seoul with decontrol while preventing US reinforcements from arriving in the theater. That aim could, possibly, be achieved by threatening Washington with a nuclear attack while rendering reinforcement channels unusable.

In the time window thus opened, Pyongyang might – just – be able to defeat South Korea’s forces.

Multi-dimensional asymmetric assault

Pyongyang would need “shock and awe to overwhelm coalition airfields, ports, and HQs,” Chun said – noting that the locations of all these assets are known to North Korea. “If they were to conduct an attack, they would use their asymmetric capabilities – not just cyber and missiles, but the ability to plan one-way missions.”

North Korea is noted for its hackers and South Korea is one of the world’s most digitally-centric – so vulnerable – societies. But cyber strikes have not had a game-changing impact on Ukraine.

Ukraine’s infrastructure, from power to trains to hospitals, continues to operate. Russia’s cyber warriors have been unable, so far, even to spoof Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites, which supply Ukraine with crucial wireless Internet.

However, North Korea fields what some believe to be the world’s largest special operations capability, approximately 200,000 strong. That, combined with the non-necessity to plan withdrawal or recovery operations for its various commando units – air-dropped, sea-delivered, or infiltrated into South Korea in plain clothes – grants Pyongyang “a very critical capability,” Chun said.

As North Koreans look identical to South Koreans and speak the same language – albeit with an accent – the infiltration/reconnaissance phase looks highly feasible.

“The North Koreans have dedicated units whose mission is to infiltrate and avoid contact,” said Chun. “Just by looking at the terrain you can figure out where the opponents’ assets will be, so they will get there and radio information back.”

But how would the muster, assault and continuation phase be coordinated and commanded?

In the early days of their Ukraine invasion, the Russians suffered severely from failing to concentrate their forces, instead launching multiple units on multiple axes nationwide. That increased complexity, diluted “punch” and led to humiliating logistical failures.

Signals proved to be a surprise weakness. Russian individuals and units have been geo-located by communications, many sent in plain language without encryption.

Drones – Asia Times has seen two which successfully penetrated South Korean airspace but crashed – may be one answer.

“They probably have pretty good UAVs,” Chun said of the North Koreans. Indeed, unmanned aerial vehicles were mentioned as being a priority in a Party Congress announcement on future weapons development in 2021. “These drones can be used for targeting and for communications relays.”

The question of communications and guidance also hangs over North Korea’s most fearsome asset: Its massed artillery arm.

A demonstration firing of a tactical guided weapon at an undisclosed location in North Korea. Photo: AFP/ KCNA / KNS

Missile war to the max

While North Korea possesses a strategic nuclear arsenal, Ankit Panda, Stanton Senior Fellow of Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, disputes a common narrative: That Ukraine’s removal of nuclear arms from its soil in 1994 provided logical backing for North Korea’s continued possession and development of such arms.

“1994 comes up a lot, but the Ukrainians never controlled those weapons, so North Korea is focused more on Iraq and Libya,” said Panda, who spoke at last week’s Asia Leadership Conference in Seoul. The latter states, which abandoned their own weapons of mass destruction programs, subsequently suffered catastrophic invasions.

But strategic nukes have no battlefield use and tactical nukes have yet to be used in Ukraine – or any war, for that matter.

In 2021, North Korea announced the development of tactical nukes but has not yet tested one.

And due to the lack of strategic depth in Korea – i.e. the peninsula’s constricted geography – it is questionable what use they would have: Would Kim want to take over a country polluted by radioactive hot zones?

That leaves conventional munitions – and Ukraine is suffering massive bombardments from tactical artillery and rocket artillery, as well as operational-level ballistic and air-launched missiles: “The largest use of missiles in warfare that we have ever seen,” in Panda’s words.

Given North Korea’s recent tests of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, including hypersonics and long-range MLRS, this diorama of destruction is likely to be of great interest to Pyongyang’s commanders.

In the second phase of the war, a humbled Russia has used fire to attrite Ukrainian defenses in the Donbas. Photographic evidence of cratered warscapes show much of these are old-school, mass bombardments.

In terms of precise, long-range fire, Russia has successfully struck multiple Ukrainian bases and depots far behind the front lines with missiles. Yet despite the unprecedented deployment of missiles, neither Ukraine’s will nor ability to fight has collapsed.

“President Zelensky said [last week] that Russia had employed 2,960 missiles against Ukraine,” Panda said. “The strategic effect is not commensurate with the munitions expended.”

Noting Russia’s failure, thus far, to break Ukrainian resistance with “targeting and combined maneuvers” he suggested that – for North Korea, “there are lessons.”

In Korea, vast US bases, such as Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, some 40 miles south of Seoul, would provide target-rich environments for any first strike.

That could feasibly cause massive loss of life. But once hostilities have commenced, surviving personnel would then take cover, disperse and deploy, making second strikes far less effective.

Russian forces use direct fire on a target in an apartment building in Mariupol, Ukraine, on March 11, 2022. Photo: Screengrab / CNN

‘Missile sniping’ comes of age

It is not only Russia firing missiles. North Korea is almost certainly perusing the use being made by Kiev of long-range, precision systems. There are “lessons to be learned” from the use of “HIMARS against depots, command posts, etc,” Panda said.

Indeed, this tactical system may well be having a strategic impact.

Evidence is emerging that just a handful of long-range, high-precision weapons – notably the US HIMARS MLRS and the French Cesar mobile howitzer, are having an impact, despite the small numbers deployed.

This month, Russia retreated from Snake Island – a target with both prestige and strategic value – in the Black Sea due to Ukrainian drone and long-range artillery strikes.

HIMARS is reportedly striking Russian command posts, transport nodes and ammunition dumps behind the front. Ammunition supply is critical for Russia, given its reliance on massed artillery fire.

Destruction at dumps has been compounded by Russian errors. Reportedly, its munitions storage protocols and related equipment do not separate munitions with pallets. Hence, hits lead to chains of sympathetic detonations and resultant massive explosions – some of which have been captured on camera and shared on social media.

The situation has become so serious that Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu this week told generals in Ukraine to make the destruction of Ukrainian artillery their key focus.

That could prove critical. Since the capture of Lyschansk on July 3, which completed the seizure of Luhansk Oblast in the Donbas, the Kremlin’s troops have made no significant gains.  

It seems likely the Russians will devise effective countermeasures. But their lost momentum, combined with the diversion to counter-battery efforts, is eating into Russia’s timing, for the summer campaign season will be curtailed by the autumn rains.

For North Korea, this overall spectacle presents both encouragement and challenge. In terms of encouragement, it has one of the largest artillery forces on the planet, including deeply dug-in howitzers, ballistic missiles and small and large MLRS.

South Korea’s military and logistical targets have almost certainly been mapped by North Korean targeters using open-source information and on-ground reports from spies.

In terms of challenges, it is far from clear how capable Pyongyang is at network-centric warfare.

Ukraine is almost certainly being supplied with Western satellite data, signals intelligence and GPS guidance systems. It also benefits from the GIS Arta system, an easy-to-use Ukrainian Android app that enables the near-instantaneous sending of targeting data via satellite-supplied wireless Internet to artillery, missile and/or drone units.

This combination of real-time data chain and long-range, high-precision assets is something Russian forces are struggling to devise countermeasures against.

As far as is known, North Korea has none of these assets at its disposal, though China or Russia could feasibly supply it with reconnaissance satellite data.

People watch a TV news report showing file footage of North Korea’s projectile weapons, at a railway station in Seoul on May 9. Pyongyang welcomed a US envoy’s visit to Seoul by firing at least 2 short-range missiles, the South’s military said. Photo: AFP / Jung Yeon-je

While the range of North Korean arms can be calculated from their design and the tests they have undertaken, the accuracy, and the competency of their guidance systems, are unknown.

Of course, older classes of missiles are “fire and forget” – using gyroscopes and internal navigation systems, Chun said. When it comes to guiding missiles, Chun – quoting an unnamed expert – said that North Korea could hack into civilian nets.

“For military-grade GPS, you need access codes, but civilian-grade GPS is accessible to anyone,” Chun explained. “And you know how accurate GPS is in South Korea – even with taxis.”

Part 1 of this 2-part story can be read here.

Follow this writer on Twitter at ASalmonSeoul