A warlord with his warriors: On July 27, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un takes part in the First Workshop of Korean People's Army Commanders and Political Officers in Pyongyang. Photo: AFP / STR / KCNA VIA KNS

SEOUL – Militaries around the world are keenly following events in Ukraine, where a Western-supported defender is facing a massed, multi-dimensional Russian assault.

Strategies and tactics, weapons and technologies, are being put to the harshest test in a brutal contest of blood, gold, iron and will. Lessons are being drawn by politicians and diplomats, scientists and engineers, generals and corporals.

Half a world away, quivering pundits have fretted that if Russian President Vladimir Putin prevails in Ukraine, Xi Jinping might be encouraged to launch a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

Less attention has been paid to the lessons North Korea’s Kim Jong Un might be drawing from the conflict, in the event he ever seeks to – or feels compelled to – ignite Korean War II.

For decades, that possibility looked remote – even ridiculous. Now, however, it is not so easily dismissed.

North Korean tanks on parade. While the world has focused on North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction, it is now rebuilding more tactical capabilities. Photo: AFP

Korean War, redux

For decades, South Korea’s survival looked firmly underwritten by its strength and North Korea’s weakness.

How could North Korea, which failed to capture South Korea in 1950 when barely a handful of US troops were deployed on the peninsula at the war’s outset, hope to prevail against an alliance in full-on defensive mode, including 28,000 American GIs “ready to fight tonight?”

This analysis was buttressed by the precipitous plunge of North Korea’s economy in the early 1990s. That left it unable to invest heavily in conventional forces. Instead, Pyongyang spent its dwindling national treasure forging a long-range nuclear deterrent to keep America at bay.

Pundits further comforted themselves with the analysis that the Kim regime would not risk its own survival with a major provocation.

True, violence has simmered over the last two decades, ranging from deadly naval incidents to the shelling of an offshore island to DMZ clashes. But there seemed throughout little threat of a big new war.

Then came 2021. That year, following the failure of his high-profile dalliance with US President Donald Trump, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un publicly announced a massive new weapons-build.

Many of these weapons – drones, short- and mid-range rocket artillery and ballistic missiles, tactical nuclear warheads – are designed for use, not non-use. And they are ranged for close, not intercontinental operations.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has further spooked some, who fear that if Moscow’s adventure in Eastern Europe is successful, it could encourage similar moves in East Asia.  

Strategic lessons, testing resolve

Strategically and diplomatically, North Korea stands to benefit – arguably, it already has – from the strife in distant Europe.

The most obvious lesson for Kim is Putin’s dual-headed strategy of simultaneously war-fighting while deterring others from joining the fray. His method has been to ring-fence his conventional invasion by threatening nuclear use against any who dare to intervene. And so far, it has worked.

“North Korea is seeing how just some saber-rattling on the nuclear front has dominated the discourse on how to respond to Russian aggression,” said Markus Garlauskas, a senior fellow with the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a former US National Intelligence Officer for North Korea.

“The North Koreans have also probably learned that you can keep a conflict limited,” he continued during a panel discussion at last week’s Asian Leadership Conference (ALC) in Seoul. “They can focus significant aggression and not have it develop into a [wider] conflict.”

Ukraine was neither a member of NATO nor a US treaty ally. South Korea enjoys a mutual defense treaty with the US and has US troops based on its soil. Even so, a matter that is much debated among pundits – though not (at least, not publicly) by politicians – is the stickiness of US commitment in the face of a potential kinetic crisis.

US soldiers rest after military exercises by US and South Korea troops at Daegu in March 2005.  Washington and Seoul have just signed a long-term military agreement, although a key aspect is still unclear. Photo: AFP / Kim Jae-hwan
US soldiers rest after military exercises by US and South Korea troops at Daegu in a file photo. Photo: AFP / Kim Jae-hwan

Some worry that Washington would weigh its treaty obligation to Seoul against the risk of losing one or more American cities to North Korean nuclear strikes, and back down. Hence, Pyongyang will likely be watching Ukraine as a test of US will.

“If Ukraine falls or compromises, then China or North Korea can use that case as a narrative…that Taiwan or South Korea cannot rely on US resolve,” Cho Sung-min, a professor of the College of Security Studies at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, and also a speaker at the ALC, said.

Diplomatic win, material possibilities

With the Ukraine war broadening the global cleavage in geopolitics – one that pits the “Global North” (the Anglosphere, the West, and US-allied Japan and Korea) against an emergent China-Russia partnership – North Korea has already benefitted diplomatically.

 “The Chinese and Russians have basically knee-capped the UN Security Council in terms of North Korea,” said Victor Cha, another ALC speaker.

He was referring to Beijing and Moscow’s May 26 veto of a US-drafted resolution to sanction North Korea for its extensive program of missile tests – 31 so far this year. That veto shattered the prior unanimity among the UN Security Council’s permanent members regarding North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction.

Pyongyang did not take long to repay Moscow. On July 13, it became the third country on earth – after Russia and Syria – to recognize the pro-Russian, breakaway Ukrainian republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.

“Recognizing the breakaway republics speaks of the willingness of North Korea to be part of the bifurcated system emerging in Northeast Asia,” Cha, the senior vice president for Asia at Washington-based think tank CSIS, continued.

Future benefits for North Korea may be material as well as diplomatic. North Korea likely sees “a lot of opportunities in Russia, be they coming in the form of energy, or future cooperation in missile technologies,” Cha said.

North Korea’s missile programs, from rocket artillery to ballistic, are heavily based on Russian originals, designs and components.

Moscow remains committed to its Far East despite the challenges it is encountering in Ukraine.

There are multiple indications that the Kremlin, fighting an expeditionary war exclusively with professional soldiers, is facing manpower overstretch. It has already deployed depot battalions – usually used for training, reinforcement and rear-area duties – to active service at the front. It is currently raising volunteer battalions nationwide. 

However, with Russia’s two-headed eagle facing both west and east, it maintains significant assets in the Russian Far East. Since the Ukraine war started, it has conducted joint air and naval drills with Chinese forces in the East China Sea.

“Russia maintains a military presence in East Asia and it is not distracted from East Asia,” said Cho. “That sends a strong signal to Kim Jong Un that he has a friend if needed.”

So far, so clear. With its key partners strengthening their united front against the US-led West, North Korea is likely to be drawn closer to their bosom, with related benefits.

But Pyongyang’s tactical learnings from the combat arena are likely to be more nuanced – and more troubling.

Ukrainian fighters in a bunker – essential protection against Russia’s massive artillery forces. Photo: Agencies

Flawed invasion

North Korea has taken not just much of its kit, but also much of its doctrine, from the USSR and Russia. Moscow’s offensive doctrine prioritizes combined-arms, heavily armored, deep-penetration maneuver war.

“Classic Soviet doctrine wise – and according to North Korea doctrine – yes, that is exactly how they would conduct a conventional attack,” Chun In-bum, a retired South Korean general told Asia Times.

Indeed, Russian officers planned Pyongyang’s 1950 invasion of South Korea using these very tactics. But Russia’s vaunted armored assault has borne bitter fruit in Ukraine.

In Phase 1 of their “special military operation,” Russian columns were contained and ambushed on Ukraine’s road net: They could not maneuver off-road due to the spring thaw, which turned soil to mud.

Russian troops also found themselves forced to fight in urban areas – a key force multiplier for defenders – in the suburbs of Kiev, Kharkiv, Chernihiv and elsewhere.

Pyongyang generals will have observed that “a major, broad-front offensive in the face of determined resistance is very difficult to make progress,” said Garlauskas.

And for Kim’s war planners, any southward attack is complicated by problems the Russians did not face.

Firstly, unlike the vastness of Ukraine, the Korean peninsula lacks strategic width, which necessarily channels any north-south attack. Secondly, lacking large-scale airborne or seaborne assets, North Korea’s main ground force would have to punch through the massively fortified DMZ.

That would be murderous, to say the least. However, there is an asymmetric solution: invalidate the DMZ by infiltrating under it using tunnels.

“In South Korea, there are tunnel experts who think they could extend 10 kilometers south of the border, some say 200 kilometers, and some say they have reached [southern port city] Busan!” Chun said. “But everyone agrees there are tunnels.”

Four have been discovered. Their estimated capacities are formidable: They could funnel 30,000 troops, carrying personal kit and light crew-served weapons, per hour.

Even so, once through or under the DMZ, any attack would follow predictable axes. The terrain of the Korean peninsula is mountainous in the east, meaning the key lines of communication are in the west. So, too, is the capital, just 30 miles south of the DMZ.

The key invasion routes into Seoul are the Munsan and Uijongbu corridors. Both are north-south expressways dominated by the cities that bear their names.

And as was the case in early-phase Ukraine, in Korea asphalt will be at a premium: Off-road maneuver is seasonally obviated by waterlogged rice fields. And the roads passing through and beside cities would have to be taken so that second-echelon forces could advance.

The problem for North Korea is that the towns and cities north of Seoul – dominated by high rises, and home to millions – form a defensive carapace. Their capture would consume time that Washington could utilize to marshal its counterattack forces. 

South Korean soldiers patrol along a barbed wire fenced area of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea. Photo: AFP

For these various reasons, North Korea would almost certainly do things differently, experts and analysts say.

“They are going to be focusing on use of fire and other capabilities to achieve their goals,” said Garlauskas.

Chun agreed. “Because North Korea would have the initiative, they would probably focus on [eliminating] our command and control, our airbases and our ports, as well as our missiles,” he said.

That would mean special operations missions, cyber assaults and a massive storm of firepower during which North Korea’s fearsome artillery arm – tube and rocket – would be given full play.

But big questions hover over how effective North Korea would be at high-tech, network-centric operations.

In Part II of this story, Asia Times will examine the kind of tactical learnings North Korea may be drawing from Ukraine in terms of the use of firepower, targeting and command and control.

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