North Korea Threat

North Korea Threat

The North Korean military is not powerful in the sense that it can win any likely war scenario it may get involved in. But it is powerful in that it can cause a lot of grief for its neighbors. It is surprising and disconcerting to the international community that North Korea managed to build nuclear weapons and long-range missiles that sometimes work. Both these technologies used to require sophisticated societies and advanced economies. Power is relative to purpose, which is the whole principle of asymmetric warfare. The U.S. military has an enormous capability, but both Congress and the Pentagon are still concerned it is not powerful enough to meet its commitments. The reverse is also true; North Korea has focused on specific areas aligned to their key objectives, rather than being strong everywhere like the U.S. Those objectives include (a) making the price of any U.S. or South Korean incursion prohibitively costly (b) domestic security (c) mass indoctrination (conscripts serve for ten years) and (d) concessions in return for not starting a regional war.

Most people instantly think it is the ballistic missiles armed with nuclear weapons that could hit Japan or even U.S. However; this is not their main threat since it is known that their ballistic and nuclear capabilities are relatively limited (Cho& Lim, 2018). Ballistic missiles can be intercepted with the U.S. ABM shield. The strategic missile submarine they have under development may change the picture, but not by much.The main North Korean threat is its thousands of mobile, long-range, large-caliber artillery systems against which there is no defense. Some of these systems are nuclear-capable. They can be hidden within the terrain, and they change location after firing, so it is tough to deal with such a force without taking considerable losses. Seoul, the South Korean capital, is only 55 km from the border, geographically this is an advantage for North Korea, as it can mold its military doctrine according to these factors and keep the other side hostage. Also, North Korea, other than its missiles and nuclear capability, is its artillery and the damage it can cause to Seoul in the city of 25 million people. U.S. war plans suggest that 500,000 artillery shells/rockets can land in Seoul every 2 hours, provided North Korea has the stockpiles to keep up that rate of fire. This is the main deterrent that prevents the U.S. from launching a strike to either destroy North Korea’s nuclear weapons facilities.North Korea also has an S-300 equivalent, the KN-06 missile defense system. With a range of at least 150km, coupled with advanced phased array radar, this system is more than capable of providing anti-air cover for the North Korean artillery. The U.S. has never invaded a country with an S-300 or equivalent system.

Also, another major factor is that since the 1950s war, the North Koreans have been experts in underground fortifications, and they have an extensive network of tunnels, some of which run into South Korean territory. Some people laugh at the PPSh of the North Korean military, but that is still one of the best firearms as far as rate of fire goes, and it is elementary and reliable and very effective in close quarters (Choi, 2015) One of the main reasons the U.S. lost in Vietnam was the extensive tunnel networks used by the Viet Cong, who were instructed by North Korean specialists. Additionally, the North Korean military doctrine is not reliant on submarines or air power. People laugh at their old planes, but that plane is only the vehicle of delivery; if it can launch a modern long-range cruise missile, then the age of that plane or a delivery vehicle is not so relevant just as it is not relevant whether the North Korean military is powerful or not overall, because it is powerful enough for its purpose and that is to provide enough deterrent so as not to become another Libya or Iraq.

However, the problem is now that North Korea directly threatens U.S. cities with a nuclear attack, which they have stated many times and have now tested missiles with the range to carry out those threats the equation has changed. Now U.S. Warplanes have to factor in, if they do not strike North Korea first to destroy its nuclear weapons/missiles, then U.S. cities and civilians by the millions are at risk(Kim& Roland, 2012). So it is either risk lives in Seoul or risk U.S. cities. The U.S. could also be hit with an EMP attack to take out much of the electronics in the continental U.S. We are not talking about threat if any of these attacks get through, it can change the entire globe. A sudden strike by North Korea with ICBM’s targeting Hawaii, which has 26 ships 16 of them nuclear attack subs plus tens of thousands of military personal, San Francisco home to 110,000 Marines and multiple large military bases. Naval Base Kitsap, which is Naval Base Kitsap home to 2 Nimitz Carriers and 13 nuclear submarines including 8 Ballistic missile subs. You hit these three areas, and it cripples a lot of the U.S. Pacific forces, which would follow up the forces in Japan, South Korea, and the Western Pacific in any conflict with North Korea. If you include shorter-range missiles targeting bases in Japan, South Korea, then much of the U.S. capability to respond is destroyed or damaged(Kim& Roland, 2012). These attacks would affect Air, Land, and Naval forces. A sudden strike by North Korea with nuclear weapons could render U.S. pacific forces powerless for months if not longer. I would think China would very happen at such an outcome, not firing a shot yet have the U.S. removed from the pacific as a significant power in 30 minutes or less. Could this be why China and Russia both continue to sell North Korea oil despite U.N. sanctions, trying to sneak around them with the ship to ship transfers.It is sad to consider that the people of North Korea are indoctrinated to believe they have a modern military with a chance to win against potential adversaries. It simply is not valid. If you could imagine an old Gateway P.C. with a 486 processor being marketed as the most modern, capable computer available and having people believe it, that is an equivalent scenario. The N.K. military is hopelessly dated, but the people there believe that their system is the best of the best. Unfortunately for them, they will be slaughtered.

North Korea has fallen behind the rest of the world in just about everything. It is bad enough that their agricultural system has little modern mechanization. Still, by trying to maintain a large standing army, they have to cannibalize the farming system they do have, by depriving their society of the 18 to 35-year-old men and women, who are the muscle, and much of the brains necessary to get things done (Kim& Roland, 2012).The naïve calculations of Kim Jong-un were, to remain a threat, at all, he could spend his money on nuclear weapons development, or starve his conventional military of pay, modern equipment, and the maintenance thereof. Conventional military forces, and the generals who lead them, are a threat to his lifestyle. He has to shoot or be-dungeon one of his generals once in a while, just in case.Rockets capable of reaching sub-orbital altitudes have been around since the German V-2 reached nearly 200 km in mid-1944. German rocket design data and the fuel composition was made available, and widely published since 1960, but better information on rocket design can be Googled.The same applies to nuclear weapons. You can find out about all you might want to know about the Hiroshima bomb on the internet. Any good undergraduate in physics could build one for you, given the resources. Isolating U235 or Pu239 is more complicated, and expensive, but doable with information readily available.All Kim Jong-un needs is one good, sub-subterranean nuclear detonation, and a few V-2 style rocket launches to maintain his lifestyle. That is all that matters to him, and he can let his rockets sit around in underground facilities with very little maintenance for decades to come. At the same time, he brutalizes and deprives his people, with his basic, fake modern army.

The military of North Korea in the early ’80s was a reasonably credible threat. Since then, however, there have been no significant updates in tactics or equipment (Kang, 1998). People sometimes give their asymmetric warfare units (Special Forces) an oversized impact, but the reality of North Korea is that their forces are hopelessly dated. Any war effort of the North would be suicide, en masse. If Kim managed to threaten his troops to continue fighting, they would build up a wall of human remains and twisted and burned metal. The push by North Korea to obtain nuclear weapons is the last gasp to be taken seriously in the region. The human tragedy of a North to South invasion is devastating to consider because the war would be so lopsided (in favor of the South). Even with Chinese intervention, which is not going to happen, the North would be devastated.

In conclusion, People keep on asking themselves if North Korea is an economic wreck: how could it have such a powerful military machine? Well, yes, it did go into a deep economic crisis in the 1990s when hit by major floods and the loss of Soviet aid, and it is still struggling. However, back in the 1970s, its economy was performing better than the South’s. It does have an industrial base, which has enabled it to build nuclear bombs and missiles. It is also worth pointing out that North Korea has tended to come out on top indirect engagements with the allegedly far more sophisticated South Korean military, and their target is not the U.S. but Japan and other regional allies. That makes direct comparisons between the U.S. military and North Korea far less relevant.


Cho, P., & Lim, J. C. (2018). North Korea’s Foreign Policymaking and Nuclear Weapons. Asian Survey58(2), 320-340.

Choi, K. (2015). The North Korean Nuclear Problem. Asia Policy, (19), 28-36.

Kang, D. (1998). North Korea: Deterrence Through Danger. Asian security practice: Material and ideational influences, 234-263.

Kim, B. Y., & Roland, G. (2012). Scenarios for a Transition to a Prosperous Market Economy in North Korea. International Economic Journal26(3), 511-539.

Moon, C. I. (2017). Managing North Korean Nuclear Threats. Asia Policy, (23), 7

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