North Korea Races to Strengthen Its Offensive Capabilities

North Korea, which had been in a wait-and-see mode for some time after the United States-North Korea summit, has gradually transitioned to a strategic hardline stance from July of this year.

By Kinichi Nishimura


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North Korea, which had been in a wait-and-see mode for some time after the United States-North Korea summit, has gradually transitioned to a strategic hardline stance from July of this year. Perhaps it felt that there was a limit to waiting for changes in the U.S.

North Korea’s economy was exacerbated due to the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. sanctions, and border closure. Meanwhile, the country began to beef up its outdated ground forces and upgraded to modern tanks, armored vehicles, and self-propelled artillery units, which were displayed in the parades in October last year and January this year.

In July of this year, North Korea gathered the entire force’s regimental commanders and those above. In September, it paraded its military hardware and passed on Kim Jong Un’s strategic policy to the military.

All the regular forces, reserve forces, and veterans were informed of the country’s military strategic policies and were prepared to respond immediately in an emergency. The generals were prepared to ambush in an unlikely event in which the negotiations with the U.S. leads to unforeseen circumstances, as North Korea keeps its hardline stance.

North Korea also developed short-range ballistic missiles and achieved the capabilities to successfully attack South Korea. In September, it experimented with a new short-range ballistic missile that could reach Japan, a long-range cruise missile, and a new anti-aircraft missile. It seems that they are also developing a supersonic ballistic missile that is also being developed by China and Russia.

In this report, I analyze these details and explain the preparedness of the soldiers, changes in the way North Korea fights, and the threats to Japan.

A Turning Point toward Hardline Measures

In late July of this year, the North Korean Army gathered about 5,000 of all regimental commanders and higher and political officers. A gathering of such a large number of active soldiers and veterans, political commissars is extremely rare and was the first of its kind.

At the meeting, Kim Jong-un ordered his regimental commanders and political commissars, soldiers of the military unit to implement his new military strategies.

The details are as follows: (1) Strengthen the subordinate troops to achieve new victories (2) Establish a military strategy to rapidly modernize the forces (3) Develop a strategy to win if the enemy strikes (4) Prepare and respond to all forms of war (5) Forces must follow the party’s instructions.

This can be interpreted as an indication to prepare the military to respond to an attack from the U.S. should the U.S. act on its hardline stance. It seems like this was North Korea’s turning point to take hardline measures.

No matter how modern the military hardware is, it is of no use unless there is a military strategy to operate the weapons, and trained soldiers to handle the operational weapons based on the strategy.

For example, Afghan government forces possessed modern weapons donated by the U.S. military but were easily defeated by the Taliban which had only civilian vehicles such as Toyota cars and automatic rifles. Taliban took over the capital of Kabul, barely exchanging fires. It’s a case in point of how crucial it is to maintain troop fighting capabilities based on a military strategy.

During the Korean War, there was a case when as soon as the U.S. military started landing in Incheon, the line collapsed even though North Korea was close to occupying Busan, and the North Korean army fled to the north at once. If North Korean forces fall into a predicament, it is possible that the troops may yet again escape as they did at the time. As part of the preparations for possible war, North Korea implemented thorough education and training of the soldiers.

Showing Off a Strong Reserve

Since the North Korean military parades so far mainly displayed their regular forces, the weapons at the center of the parade were mainly those possessed by them such as missiles.

The military parade on September 9 seemed to have made some cringe at the sight of tractors pulling military weapons. However, it should not go unnoticed that this time it was a parade for the paramilitary which fights jointly with the regular forces.

Participants included the Worker-Peasant Red Guard, comprised of workers from steel machinery companies, coal mines, textile factories, farmers, and firefighters.

Looking at the soldiers, it’s only natural that multiple rockets and anti-tank missiles were towed by the tractors. The paramilitary was physically trained, even though they work in farming and factories. There is no other reserve army in the world as unified and seemingly strong.

Although North Korea has publicly said that it is a paramilitary parade, the Japanese and Korean media emphasized that there were no missiles and tanks and that the scale was reduced from the previous time. Many commentaries said that it was because of poor domestic financial conditions or that it was a message requesting negotiations with the U.S. These evaluations miss the point.

One of North Korea’s four major military strategies is: “Arm all citizens.” In other words, almost all male citizens belong to either the regular forces, reserve forces, or paramilitary forces. There are 1.3 million soldiers in the regular army (of which 1.1 million are ground force soldiers) and 600,000 in the reserve army. The paramilitary army has 5.7million soldiers.

Kim Jong Un had displayed his reserve and paramilitary forces that he had never shown before. He wanted to appeal to the world that he has 7.6 million soldiers ready to attack South Korea at any time.

Capabilities of New Missiles

North Korea has successfully launched experiments with the trajectory-shifting short-range missile. This missile, which cannot be easily shot down by South Korea, can accurately destroy U.S. and South Korean air forces, navy, as well as missile bases throughout Korea.

If North Korea were to make a preemptive ambush using this missile, it will significantly reduce U.S. and South Korea’s capabilities to retaliate. In conjunction with this, if armored ground forces equipped with tanks that closely resemble the U.S. M1 Abrams and self-propelled artilleries that appeared from last year’s parade start invading the South, it will be possible for them to occupy South Korea in a short period.

Following the military commanders’ gathering, North Korea tested the following hardware: (1) new short-range missiles (2) long-range cruise missiles (3) new anti-aircraft missiles (4) HGV.

[(1) Increase in the range of new short-range ballistic missiles so they can reach Japan.]

North Korea launched two short-range missiles on September 15. It had a travel distance of 750 km and a maximum altitude of about 50 km above sea level. In addition, it can change trajectory in low orbit and rise again after flying in a parabola.

The missile, which appeared at the parade in October last year and January this year, seems to be a larger version of Russia’s Iskander.

North Korea seems to be planning to extend the range of new short-range missiles so that it can change its orbits at low altitudes to reach all over Japan.

It has changed the configuration of the missiles so they can be launched from moving trains. The rail-mobile ballistic missile was also developed during the former Soviet Union era and is also used by the Chinese military. It’s not a new idea and it doesn’t require complex technology. North Korea is likely aiming to disrupt the U.S. and South Korean missile defense systems by using various launching methods.

[(2) North Korea is developing long-range cruise missiles that can reach all of Japan]

On September 11 and 12, North Korea successfully launched a long-range cruise missile over the surface of the earth at a cruising speed of 750 km /hr with a predetermined precision circle and a figure-8 flight trajectory. Evaluating this, the cruise missiles set a relatively simple course and flew along it. It has not reached the level of flying toward a target along the terrain.

Cruise missiles compare and modify the topographical data of the route with the signals they sense while flying. In recent years, it can perform more accurate guidance by also receiving GPS signals from geodetic satellites.

It is probable that this missile was a copy of the technology of the U.S. military Tomahawk and was provided to North Korea by China.

In addition, since North Korea does not have a terrestrial satellite, it likely receives topographical data from reconnaissance satellites and military GPS signals from China’s terrestrial satellites, as the two countries have a military alliance.

North Korea will likely complete its development of cruise missiles in the near future. Fighter jets and cruise missiles are quite different in size. The radar cross-section of a cruise missile is about one-thirtieth that of a fighter jet. If a missile with a small radar cross-section hides in the terrain and approaches at a low altitude, it will receive also ground-reflected waves, making it difficult to detect.

Is Japan’s defense prepared to respond to North Korean cruise missiles? There are flaws to the defense system: (1) The air defense zone is large and there are many areas that cannot be protected (due to interception omissions). (2) defense is limited to air defense at important bases (3) Old-fashioned anti-aircraft missiles will not be able to shoot down some missiles. It won’t be enough to start preparing after North Korea develops the missile.

[(3) Can North Korea’s new anti-aircraft missile counter the U.S. and Korean ballistic cruise missiles and stealth aircraft?]

North Korea conducted an anti-aircraft missile launch experiment on September 30 and announced that the guidance was rapid and accurate, and it verified a substantial increase in the distance of downing air targets. What kind of anti-aircraft missile experiment did North Korea conduct this time and what was its aim?

Before 2016, North Korea possessed old-fashioned missiles SA-2, SA-3 and SA-5 provided by the former Soviet Union. They were anti-aircraft weapons for shooting targets in the middle and high airspace. These types of missiles do not hit fighter planes directly, but when approached by missiles, the fragmentation warheads detonate using proximity fuses. They were effective weapons during the Vietnam War, but after about 1980, it lost their effectiveness as the fighter jets gained evasion capabilities.

For this reason, the U.S. and South Korean troops were able to fly in North Korea’s airspace as if it belonged to them and assumed that they could make air attacks in any area of North Korea at any time.

However, North Korea has significantly strengthened its missiles in recent years. It has corrected its major deficiencies in air defense capabilities. For example, it conducted experiment launches of the Russa-made anti-aircraft missile S300 (North Korean name is Pongae-5) in 2016 and 2017. Unlike the old-fashioned ones, it hits enemy planes directly. North Korea is now possessing 156 of them and has created a comprehensive air defense network.

Nevertheless, the U.S. military’s air weapons far exceed North Korea’s air defense capabilities. The S300, for example, is ineffective against U.S. military stealth fighters, bombers, and unmanned aerial vehicles. It is also extremely difficult to hit a cruise missile with a small radar cross-section.

So which weapon was used in this experiment? The missile used looks like the same one displayed in this year and last year’s military parades and looks very similar to the Russian-made S400. It seems like North Korea conducted an experiment with an S400-level missile.

However, even the S400 is at the level of the improved version of U.S.-Japan Patriot missile or PAC 3. It is not at the level of the SM-3 on board the Aegis ship or the THAAD (High Altitude Area Defense) deployed in South Korea. South Korea completed the development of SLBM (submarine-launched ballistic missile) and the 3,000-ton class submarine for launching pad and succeeded in their experiment.

North Korea has commented that “South Korea’s SLBM is rudimentary,” although one can sense a hint of regret from them for falling behind. Although North Korea has succeeded in conducting a test with a missile larger than South Korea’s SLBM, it does not yet own a submarine that it can launch the missile from. And North Korea is still not fully prepared for this SLBM attack.

The biggest flaw in North Korea’s air defense network is its inability to respond to ballistic missiles. It would want to fix this flaw as soon as possible.

[(4) Successful experimentation of hypersonic ballistic missiles is in the distant future]

North Korea conducted a launch test of its hypersonic missile Hwasong-8 on September 28th. The photos released by North Korea appear to have an HGV (hypersonic gliding vehicle) mounted on the warhead of the missile.

The South Korean military authorities have stated that the flying object has a flight distance of less than 200 km, an altitude of about 30 km, and a flight speed of Mach 3. In addition, the contents and photographs released by North Korea have many unnatural details and do not match the data released by the South Korean military.

Is North Korea aiming to emulate Chinese or Russian HGV? If we analyze the past experiments of hypersonic missiles conducted so far, they are classified into the Russian type (Avangard), which uses a glider to bounce and fly up and down the boundary of the atmosphere at an altitude of about 100 km, and the Chinese DF17-type, which flies like a glider around an altitude of 50 kilometers. In fact, with the DF17 experiment, after the HGV warhead re-entered, it flew about 1,400 km at 60 km high.

Judging from the contents released, photos, and data captured by the South Korean military, it seems that North Korea is conducting research and development to emulate the China-type.

What does North Korea’s experimental launch of the supersonic glider tell us about their capabilities?

The announcement only stated that it had succeeded in the HGV experiment and provided a single photo. It gave no other details. It prompts many questions such as the following.

(1.) The tip, which seems to be the HGV, is separated and it did not fly. In addition, there is no supporting information that it flew changing the altitude and trajectory many times. (2.) The flight speed was about Mach 2.5 to 3, which is less than half of Mach 6 to 7 of the Iskandar version. (3.) If launched with a similar rocket as that of Hwasong-12, it will pass through the Japanese archipelago with a range of 4500 km. It would not have been suitable for the first experiment. (4.) They might have produced a photo of a mockup of HGV using a black silhouette of the missile.

Looking comprehensively at the content of the announcement by North Korea and the data provided by the South Korean army, the photograph of the launch released by North Korea is highly likely to be fake. It is unlikely that an experiment like the one in the photo was actually carried out.

So why did North Korea create this image? It is experimenting with HGV and it wanted to make it seem like it was successful. North Korea also probably wanted to bring Japan, the U.S. and South Korea to the negotiating table as soon as possible.

However, the U.S. Department of Defense said it was “not an imminent threat,” and the South Korean military calmly said that it is possible to counter this at this stage.

What about the future development of HGV in North Korea? The United States, Russia, and China are racing to develop HGV. If North Korea were to catch up with these countries or develop similar weapons, it would be in the distant future.

Threats to Japan

Until around July this year, North Korea was waiting to see if the U.S will come to the negotiating table. I analyze that North Korea had turned to a hardline stance since July’s first conference of military commanders. It has switched from the past brinkmanship diplomacy in which it creates a sudden military crisis, to showing a bullish card. I think the reason is that they gained the confidence to militarily occupy South Korea.

North Korea’s regular army of 1.3 million soldiers, the reserve army of 600,000 and the paramilitary army of 570,000 are prepared to invade South Korea. They have completed the developments of ballistic missiles and super-large rocket artillery that can preemptively attack South Korea. In addition, it has tanks and armored vehicles that can launch a surprise attack and rapidly invade South Korea and advance to Busan. It also has self-propelled artilleries.

If North Korea invades the South, the U.S. military will use Japanese bases to counterattack with fighter jets and warships. The Self-Defense Forces will defend the U.S. Forces in Japan. For this reason, the North would try to accurately destroy the U.S. military bases in Japan and SDF bases. It will also attack or threaten major cities in Japan so that Japan does not cooperate with the U.S. military.

Attacks using North Korean missiles such as Rodong may be intercepted by the missile defense system. To avoid this, North Korea may use a short-range missile that can change trajectory at low altitudes to hit Japan’s territory. In fact, the missile’s range was extended in the September experiment. Although North Korea’s long-range cruise missiles are not yet at the level of the U.S. military’s Tomahawk, they can be expected to reach that level in the near future.

In any case, it is necessary for Japan to be able to respond to missiles that are capable of flying at low altitudes at the speed of Mach 6 to 7 with changing trajectories, as well as long-range cruise missiles.

North Korea has been increasing its new anti-aircraft missiles in order to improve its air defense combat capability, which has been its biggest weakness. The U.S. and South Korean forces can no longer easily attack North Korea with their air-to-ground missiles and cruise missiles. Although North Korea’s capabilities are still under development, it can now destroy cruise missiles with an altitude of 50km to 60km or lower.

North Korea has begun to insist on declaring the end of the Korean War, at the suggestion of South Korean President Moon Jae-in. If we read the remarkable increase in the military power of North Korea, the “declaration of the end of the war” could be a signal gun for the “start of the southern invasion.” In that case, it is very possible that it will launch a missile attack on Japan. As pointed out in the June issue of this magazine, Japan must urgently prepare for this situation including the evacuation of Japanese residents in South Korea.

This article is a translation of the Japanese original published in the Dec. 2021 issue of Seiron magazine.

Nishimura Kinichi
Director of Military Intelligence Strategy Research Institute. Born in 1952. Entered the Ground Self-Defense Force Youth Technical School. Graduated Hosei University. Completed the JGDF Officer Candidate School, Command and General Staff Course. Served as an information analysis officer for the Ministry of Defense and the Self-Defense Forces, and instructor for strategies at the Command and Staff College. Author of “Discussion, the Real State of North Korea” (in Japanese, from Harashobo), and others.


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