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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

DoD’s Korea Security Report

by | March 17th, 2014 | 07:00 am

Scott Harold alerted us to the release of a new DoD series mandated by the National Defense Authorization Act for 2012. The act called for an annual report “in both classified and unclassified form, on the current and future military power of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” paralleling similar reports DoD has done on China. The latest edition, entitled “Military and Security Developments Involving the DPRK” is now available (in .pdf).

The report provides a useful overview of grand strategy, the composition of North Korean forces and the security challenges the country poses. However, the report also confirms something we argued following North Korea’s last missile test: that the emphasis on missile development is a response to the rapid deterioration in conventional capabilities virtually across the board.

This conclusion comes through repeatedly in the report:

  • Although parades reveal some efforts to upgrade tanks, artillery and armored vehicles, “the KPA primarily fields legacy equipment, either produced in, or based on designs of, the Soviet Union and China dating back to the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.”
  • The Air Force’s most capable combat aircraft are its MiG-29s, procured from the Soviet Union in the late 1980s; the most recent purchases were MiG-21s from Kazakhstan in 1999. As its aircraft continue to age, the military relies increasingly on ground-based air defenses such as conventional anti-aircraft artillery and a new SAM system, and on hiding or hardening of assets to counter air attacks.
  • The navy is dominated by coastal forces composed of small patrol craft that carry a variety of anti-ship cruise missiles, torpedoes, and guns and a submarine force of approximately 70 attack-, coastal-, and midget-type submarines. However, the navy has shown little capacity to command the resources to modernize and remains the weakest branch.

Forward-deployment of the ground and artillery forces is one way to compensate for these weaknesses; it implies that the KPA could do a fair amount of damage before being defeated. A second implication is that there is likely to be increasing emphasis going forward not only on missiles but on asymmetric capabilities: cyber and special operations forces that could be inserted even if on virtual suicide missions.

But above all the report rightly emphasizes that missile development—and of all sorts—is where the regime and military are placing their central security bets. Since 2012, the newly renamed Strategic Rocket Forces seem to enjoy a status that is virtually on par with the navy and air force. Despite the bluster, these forces appear to play an increasingly important deterrent as other capabilities decline.