Missiles and madness
North Korea is by any international standard a failed or failing state. Yet it has a massive missile arsenal, a considerable and successful nuclear-weapons program, and one of the largest armed forces in the world.
Why? For its huge conventional military power, the answer is usually to both suppress its own civilian population and to protect against a US-South Korean invasion.
Neither is a satisfactory explanation, for in truth a highly pervasive internal security infrastructure and a people cowed by 60 years of unbending communist rule are probably more than enough to ensure the survival of the current regime for the foreseeable future.
The United States and South Korea are highly unlikely to launch a ground invasion of North Korea individually or jointly. Nor is the North likely to make another attempt to conquer the South.
Pyongyang's forces may be sufficient to achieve some success on the ground in the first week, but after that their limited logistic support combined with ferocious US-led air strikes would have so degraded the offensive capability of the main combat units as to lead to only one conclusion: another military disaster.
This time, and more important, it is highly unlikely that there would be a repeat of the Korean War intervention by hundreds of thousands of seasoned Chinese troops pouring across the Yalu River to rescue the North Korean regime from the consequences of its own stupidity.
It would be an act of state suicide for North Korea to resort to the use of nuclear weapons to attempt to win or indeed even to prevent its eventual defeat. The US response would undoubtedly be to turn the whole of North Korea into a radioactive wasteland for generations to come.
North Korea's conventional armed forces are truly impressive on paper, but significantly probably still lack the logistic support, technological infrastructure and mobility that would make them as effective in war as their sheer weight of numbers might otherwise suggest.
The regime's massive investment in conventional defense, which goes well beyond any genuine strategic need, appears to be more a symptom of national insecurity and international paranoia than having any basis in a rational-defense policy.
Some 950,000-strong, organized into one armored, four mechanized, 12 infantry, two artillery and one capital-defense corps, the North Korean army can deploy a large part of its forces in combat units, which include 27 infantry divisions, as well as 15 armored and 14 mechanized brigades. There is a heavy concentration on artillery and battlefield missiles, with some 35 gun and 15 missile brigades.
Of particular importance are some 120,000 special-operations troops, the largest such force in any of today's armed forces. There are some 25 attack, seaborne and airborne brigades, including a very large number of specialist sniper units. North Korea is reported to have the ability to transport some 10,000 special forces by air at any one time.
The army is deployed in an offensive rather than a defensive manner, with the first operational echelon made up of the 1st, 2nd, 4th and 5th Forward Army Corps; the second operational echelon with the 806th and 815th Mechanized, and the 820th Armored Corps; the strategic reserve has the 108th and 425th Mechanized Corps; while the rear echelon has the 3rd, 6th, 7th and 8th Rear Army Corps.
Combine these with the other combat units and a total of some 800,000 men appear to be in actual fighting units - a very high proportion of teeth to tail indeed.
Arms and equipment are mostly obsolete Russian and Chinese in origin, although attempts have been made to modernize, mainly through the production of modified designs or new developments by North Korea's burgeoning arms industry.
There are currently believed to be some 4,100 T34/85, T54/T55, Type-59, T62 and PT76 tanks, 2,800 armored personnel carriers, 3,500 towed artillery, 4,500 self-propelled artillery and more than 2,600 mobile multiple rocket launchers, some 8,000 mortars, 9,000 anti-tank rocket launchers and more than 8,000 man-portable anti-tank missile systems.
North Korea is probably one of the most heavily fortified nations in the world, with some 600 kilometers of tunnels and more than 8,000 deep bunkers, plus caverns that have been enlarged to protect command centers, missile and nuclear facilities, combat aircraft and indeed entire units close to the Demilitarized Zone along the border with the Republic of Korea. Most have been constructed within granite mountains, with the main service entrances facing north.
All the most significant military facilities have now been moved to underground facilities believed to be capable of withstanding US bunker-busting bombs. Some 5 million tonnes of ammunition, food and fuel are thought to be stored underground for wartime use.
North Korea has a very large number of SAM (surface-to-air missile) systems, though once again of older design, mainly Russian, or Chinese copies of the SA-2, SA-3 and SA-5. Some 15,000 man-portable Wha-sung copies of Russian SA-7 and SA-16 are known to be available. These are backed up by some 12,000 static and mobile anti-aircraft guns, most of which are manually operated and therefore not so vulnerable to modern electronic warfare. Radar early warning and target tracking, command and control, however, are all likely to be overwhelmed in the first few days of a major conflict with the US.
North Korea's long and rugged coastline is covered by at least six major missile bases with anti-ship systems with a range of up to 160km and many hundreds of well-protected gun emplacements.
The 1st (Kaechon AB), the 2nd (Toksan/Hamhung AB) and the elite 3rd (Hwangju AB) air-combat divisions have about 70 modern fortified air bases, many with underground hangars and multiple runways. However, the command-and-control systems, radar, fighter control and aircraft fleet are now largely obsolete and would provide little long-term opposition to the US and South Korean air forces.
To try to gain combat experience, it has been reported that North Korea sent more than 200 pilots to fight in the Vietnam War, where they helped to defend Hanoi with some success. A further 25 pilots went to Syria during the June 1967 war with Israel and 30 pilots to Egypt and Syria during the Yom Kippur War of 1973.
North Korea is believed to have about 85,000 personnel and some 700 air-defense and strike fighters, including 40 Chinese A5, 140 F5 (MiG-17), 120 F6 (MiG-19) and 40 F7, 180 Russian MiG-21, 18 Su-7BMK and a few more modern types: 36 Su-25, 50 MiG-23 and 40 MiG-29; up to 75 elderly Chinese H-5 (Il-28) bombers, more than 300 helicopters, including 50 Mi-24, and a large fleet of 200 or more transports, mostly ancient Y5 (An-2).
The North Korean navy has a strength of about 46,000 and some five to six naval squadrons in the West (Yellow Sea) Fleet based at Nampo (headquarters), Pip'a-got and Sagot and another 10 squadrons in the East Fleet at T'oejo-dong(headquarters), Najin and Wnsan.
The main surface combatants and submarines are sheltered in more than 20 reinforced pens, each up to 900 meters long and 22 meters wide. There are some 26 Russian Romeo and Whisky ocean-going submarines and about 65 coastal and mini-submarines used for covert intelligence or special-forces operations; three missile frigates; more than 30 fast missile craft; 110 fast torpedo boats; and several hundred minesweepers, minelayers, patrol and amphibious-warfare craft.
Weapons of mass destruction
North Korea can produce about 100 missiles a year. It began to make ballistic missiles around 1981, with copies of Russian Scuds purchased originally from Egypt. These became operational as the Hwasong 5 in 1984. There are now 900-1,000 Hwasong-5/6 and Nodong 1/Rodong 1 (improved Scud) and more than 100 medium-range Taepodong 1/Nodong 2 ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads deployed in underground silos or hidden in caves.
Within the next couple of years, development of the Taepodong 2/Nodong 3 intercontinental ballistic missiles will be completed and North Korea will gain a genuine strategic deterrent with a range of at least 8,000km, though some observers have suggested as much as 12,000km. This missile was test-fired in July, and despite media speculation that the flight was aborted after just 42 seconds, it now seems likely that it flew for seven minutes and was a significant technical success.
Some observers would undoubtedly argue that there is a rather more pernicious reason behind North Korea's long-range-missile and nuclear-weapon programs. With a failing economy to support, the temptation must be strong for the Pyongyang regime to use its advanced technology to underpin its survival.
While North Korea is undoubtedly a poor country, it has still managed to develop advanced and effective missile systems. Not even economic failure, famine and a severe lack of human resources have prevented the headlong dash for weapons technology.
While such arms are obviously considered vital for defense or even a preemptive strike, the major overriding reason has been financial: such technology is available for export to the highest bidder.
Such hard-currency transactions help keep North Korea afloat and the regime in power. Over the past 20 years or so North Korea has earned substantial revenue from the sale of missiles, and the relevant technology, to a number of states high on Washington's hit-list. Among these are the Nodong to Pakistan as the Ghauri and to Iran as the Shehab 3, while both Syria and Libya received Hwasong-5. It is reported that missile parts and technology have also been exported to Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Vietnam.
It appears certain that North Korea's nuclear-weapons program has been largely funded by the sale of missiles and other conventional arms to countries around the world.
North Korea is believed to have some 120 nuclear weapons, including a small number of hydrogen bombs to go with its growing arsenal of operational long-range ballistic missiles. It has built a considerable capability since the early 1960s with nuclear-research facilities at Yongbyon, Taechon, Pyongyang and Kumho. Significantly for North Korea, it is fortunate to have its own uranium mines, with more than 4 million tonnes of exploitable high-quality uranium.
An advanced chemical and biological warfare program has produced a considerable number of chemical warheads for battlefield missiles, aircraft bombs and artillery shells. These are known to include modern nerve agents. It is believed that a serious attempt has also been made to weaponize anthrax and that a small number of warheads may have been deployed.
With such a willing market for its missile technology and the financial advantages gained from the exportation of such weapons, why not offer the secrets of the nuclear bomb as well?
With the looming confrontation with the West over Iran's own nuclear program and an economy rich in petrodollars, Tehran would be a prime market for Pyongyang's weapons know-how. Tehran is North Korea's closest ally in the Middle East.
This would be the ultimate nightmare scenario for Washington, a determined Iranian enemy secure behind the unexpected deployment of an operational long-range missile system armed with a nuclear warhead.
Richard M Bennett is an international intelligence and security analyst.
AFI Research provides expert information on the world's intelligence services, armed forces and conflicts. Contact [email protected]