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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Sticks and Stones…

by and Marcus Noland | June 8th, 2012 | 05:47 am
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Are military risks on the Korean peninsula rising?

Seoul’s vulnerability to rocket, artillery and mortar attack from the North has always been a central feature of the strategic landscape on the peninsula. The obvious military advantages enjoyed by the US-ROK alliance are offset by the risks that escalation could end in unacceptable damage to the capital city. The shelling of Yeonpyeong-do—although far from major population centers—was a reminder that the threat was real.

Seoul has not been standing still, however, and is now playing a much more aggressive defense.  Some markers:

  • Defense Update has a concise explanation of the ROK’s missile defense ambitions. Seoul has traditionally relied primarily on the U.S. air defense umbrella, augmented by the Navy’s Aegis systems at sea. The ROK military is now contemplating a more integrated, three-tier aerial and missile defense system that includes radar and new interceptors; in December, the ROK rolled out a new medium-range surface to air system.
  • Real money is being spent. President Lee has apparently supported a Defense Ministry request to pour $2.7 billion into missiles, guided bombs and other precision munitions over the next five years.
  • Nor is this all prospective. Yonhap reports that the Defense Security Cooperation Agency has formally notified Congress of $325 million in planned sales to South Korea of 367 cluster bombs (formally the sensor-fused CBU-105D/B Wind Corrected Munition Dispenser) and associated parts, equipment, logistical support and training.
  • The Korea Herald offers a useful summary of a quiet negotiation between the US and the ROK to extend the allowable range of South Korean missiles. Under a 2001 revision to a Carter-era agreement, Seoul is banned from developing ballistic missiles with a range of more than 300 kilometers (cruise missiles are exempt, and South Korea is developing that option as well). Seoul is now seeking a 550 km limit, which would return the North Korean favor by blanketing the DPRK. The US is being coy—the issue will probably be resolved one way or the other at the June 2+2 meeting. But the interesting story is in changed South Korean preferences.

The problem is that these renewed defensive efforts are playing out against a particularly intense “wag the dog” politics in the North. As noted in an earlier post, the succession has been accompanied by a vitriolic PR campaign against the Lee Myung Bak clique of traitors; check out the incredible You Tube video brought to our attention by Aidan Foster-Carter, which shows whipped up extras dismembering Lee Myung Bak dummies.

It is hard to imagine what an escalation of rhetoric would look like. But only if you have not followed North Korea; Pyongyang always finds a way to outdo itself.

Apparently, South Korean news outlets found the lavish celebrations of the 66th anniversary of the Korean Children’s Union last week to be more than a little preposterous; a perfect entry in our “not satire” category given ongoing child malnutrition, on which we will report next week. The response? None other than the General Staff of the KPA issued an “ultimatum” to the South that included this zinger:

“Officers and men of the army corps, divisions and regiments on the front and strategic rocket forces in the depth of the country are loudly calling for the issue of order to mete out punishment, declaring that they have already targeted Chosun Ilbo at coordinates of 37 degrees 56 minutes 83 seconds North Latitude and 126 degrees 97 minutes 65 seconds East Longitude in the Central District, Seoul, Choongang Ilbo at coordinates of 37 degrees 33 minutes 45 seconds North Latitude and 126 degrees 58 minutes 14 seconds East Longitude in the Central District, Seoul, the Dong-A Ilbo at coordinates of 37 degrees 57 minutes 10 seconds North Latitude and 126 degrees 97 minutes 81 seconds East Longitude in Jongro District, Seoul, KBS, CBS, MBC and SBS, the strongholds of the Lee group orchestrating the new vicious smear campaign.”

The coordinates given above are wrong—sort of.  As an acquaintance in the IC observes, “37 degrees 56 minutes 83 seconds North Latitude and 126 degrees 97 minutes 65 seconds East Longitude is not at all accurate for Chosun Ilbo.  But when you take the numbers and throw them in sequence behind a decimal point — i.e., translate the above to 37.5683 N 126.9765 E — then they turn out to be right.  True for all the others too.”

Crikey!  One wonders where the Committee to Protect Journalists is when you really need them.  In the meantime, the press organizations have to make do with conventional police protection as shown in the photo above taken outside KBS headquarters.

But rhetoric is one thing; movement of military assets is something altogether different. Chris Nelson brought to our attention a VOA Korean Service report that a North Korean fighter jet flew over the western island of Ganghwa the other day, approaching within 15 miles from the Southern side of the border and scrambling two squads of South Korean Air Force fighters in response.

Strong defensive capabilities are usually considered a good thing, and we generally agree. But the defensive build-up also reflects a post-Yeonpyeong-do effort on the part of the Ministry of Defense not to be played for a sucker again. If the regime in Pyongyang has its “wag the dog” campaign completely under control, essentially as a propaganda tool, then maybe our concerns are misplaced. But the potential for miscalculation rises precisely in such circumstances: when offensive bluster confronts a more resolute defense. Let’s hope Kim Jong Un–and his generals–know what they are doing.