Truman National Security Project

North Korea – Never a Threat to Take Lightly

By Gail Harris | 4.5.13

In a recent talk, the new Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel made the following comment:

“In many respects, the biggest long-term fiscal challenge facing the department is not the flat or declining top-line budget; it is the growing imbalance in where that money is being spent internally.  Left unchecked, spiraling costs to sustain existing structures and institutions, provide benefits to personnel, and develop replacements for aging weapons platforms will eventually crowd out spending on procurement, operations and readiness – the budget categories that enable the military to be and stay prepared.

If these trends are not reversed, former Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead warned, DoD could transform from “an agency protecting the nation to an agency administering benefit programs, capable of buying only limited quantities of irrelevant and overpriced equipment.”

In spite of my jokes about “bicycle back,” my back problems actually began while I was still in the military.  Because personnel and health care costs make up about one-third of the military budget, the government keeps threatening to cut back on health care.  I agree that the defense budget needs to be more efficient, but my concern is if they break faith with veterans of earlier eras on health care, they will set a precedent for breaking faith with the current generation of Iraq/Aghanistan veterans.

Now, to what I’d like to blog about today, the current North Korean crisis.  I wanted to call my book A Woman’s War, War On Any Given Day because for those who choose a career in military intelligence, you are well aware that war can break at some place in the world at any time. North Korea is one of many crises that continually simmer and at points in time start to boil. We are technically still at war because the Korean War ended under an armistice, not a peace treaty. There have been countless crises over the years and tensions along the DMZ have always been high.

At one point in my career, I was assigned to our forces in Korea as Chief of Indications and Warning.  In layman’s term’s I ran the newsroom and was responsible for warning the U.S. and South Korea if the North Koreans were preparing to instigate a crisis and/or war.  I had both U.S. and South Korean military personnel working for me.

I suspect what kept me up at night is still what keeps up whoever is in that job now.  Trash talk by North Korea is nothing new, but the focus is on what are they actually doing with their military forces.  Media reports government officials saying they have not seen signs of North Korea mobilizing its military forces.  I’d say that in and of itself means little.  North Korea has an army of around one million and keeps about three-quarters of those forces near the DMZ.  In congressional testimony, last March,

“…the regime maintains the fourth largest army in the world…with over 13,000 artillery systems, over 4,000 tanks, 2,000 armored personnel carriers, 1,700 aircraft, and 800 surface combatants…North Korea continues improving its ability to attack the ROK’s center of gravity, the capital city of Seoul, the world’s 4th largest city with 24 million residents in the greater metropolitan area…This is a population larger than New York City living and working within artillery range of North Korea…North Korea threatens Seoul with a  mix of conventional artillery, multiple rocket launchers, and ballistic missiles a significant percentage of which are positioned in protected dispersed positions…These systems are capable of ranging Seoul without moving, and can deliver both high explosive and chemical munitions with little or no warning.”

Some would argue the North Korean military equipment is old and inefficient.  That may be the case but those “old” pieces of equipment could still cause much havoc.  It would be irresponsible militarily to not respond or prepare because of feeling this is just the usual trash talk and their military has out of date equipment. At least some of their military is up to date as the suspected cyber attack against South Korea banks a couple of week ago showed.  According to a March 21 New York Times report:

“Computer networks running three major South Korean banks and the country’s two largest broadcasters were paralyzed Wednesday in attacks that some experts suspected originated in North Korea, which has consistently threatened to cripple its far richer neighbor.

The attacks, which left many South Koreans unable to withdraw money from A.T.M.’s and news broadcasting crews staring at blank computer screens…The Korea Communications Commission said Thursday that the disruption originated at an Internet provider address in China but that it was still not known who was responsible.

Many analysts in Seoul suspect that North Korean hackers honed their skills in China and were operating there.”

There have also been some press reports  that Chinese military forces have been mobilizing forces closer to the North Korean border.  When asked about it on 2 April, Pentagon Press spokesman, George Little responded:

“I have not seen anything beyond the press reporting that I could talk about, and I would refer you to the government of China.”

The key phrase for me was “that I could talk about.”  As to what do I think will happen, it’s a tough call.  In the past North Korea has shown a pattern of creating a crisis then backing away when granted concessions.  With a new leader, Kim Jong-un,  it’s unclear how far he’s willing to take a crisis.  I don’t expect if he does launch an attack he will use nuclear weapons.  If he did, North Korea could be reduced to a smoking hole.  Right now it’s a high stakes chess game but a game that can turn deadly if either side miscalculates.  I’ll conclude with the estimate made in the Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence last month by James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence:

“Because of deficiencies in their conventional military forces, North Korean leaders are focused on deterrence and defense. The Intelligence Community has long assessed that, in Pyongyang’s view, its nuclear capabilities are intended for deterrence, international prestige, and coercive diplomacy. We do not know Pyongyang’s nuclear doctrine or employment concepts. Although we assess with low confidence that the North would only attempt to use nuclear weapons against US forces or allies to preserve the Kim regime, we do not know what would constitute, from the North’s perspective, crossing that threshold.”

Gail Harris is a Senior Truman Security Fellow. Views expressed here are her own.