The ICAS Lectures


Q and A:
The North Korean Military Threat: Paper Tiger or Ongoing Menace?

Bruce Bechtol, Jr.
David S. Maxwell
Larry Niksch
Kathryn Weathersby

ICAS Winter Symposium

February 12, 2010
United States House Rayburn Office Building Room B 318
Capitol Hill, Washington, DC

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.
965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422

Q & A Session following presentation by Bruce Bechtol, Jr. on:
The North Korean Military Threat: Paper Tiger or Ongoing Menace?

ICAS Winter Symposium, February 12, 2010

MODERATOR: Thank you, Bruce, for your insightful presentation. David, would you like to throw a first shot?
DAVID S. MAXWELL: First I'd like to . . . caveat . . . these are my personal opinions and not those of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government. Bruce, you make a compelling argument that North Korea is a complex, very, very difficult threat and is still a threat to security on the peninsula and I think, as you've outlined, it is a global threat. You point out that even in the face of their economic problems, their military is still transforming and evolving. They're dealing with their problems but they are becoming and remaining a formidable military. The problems and challenges in the North are multiple - the missile, nuclear, conventional (?) threat, asymmetric (?) threats, and then proliferation of terrorism, and one you didn't mention, a threat near and dear to my heart is potential for regime collapse and what happens after. One of the things that I'm concerned about is what I would call the dual use of those asymmetric (?) threats particularly - what happens when there is regime collapse. Many of those threats, particularly the SOF threat, nuclear, and what happens to those missiles, that technology, those weapons of mass destruction when there is no longer central control by the regime, and military coherence - what happens? Given that North Korea that some have called a gorilla dynasty and their emphasis on developing their special operations forces - I would ask what do you foresee when the regime collapses the kind of security challenges that South Korea and the international community will face in the north with those threats? And not to discount the conventional tack - you know, the decision to go to war, which I think first and foremost we have to deter and prepare for, but the long-term threats I think will exist, and I think those same threats would exist in post-conflict or post-collapse. I'd be interested to hear about that. I'd like to take exception to one point you made about South Korean special operations forces and C130s. If they are going to conduct counter-SOF operations in South Korea, the most effective air platform is not a C130 but is a helicopter. Just like in counter-insurgency today, it is the helicopter force, the mobile capability to counter South Korean SOFs. So I think though C130s are important for infiltration into the North, it is the helicopter capability that is most important for mobility in the South. And lastly, I'd ask you - given that we're in the winter training cycle and looking at it over time, and you've . . . .


BRUCE E. BECHTOL: . . . . for those of who don't know Col. David Maxwell, he's a very, very respected analyst on North Korea . . . so I would yield to him on those issues. In fact, he brought up a question that I would like to ask him. The threat from SOF (?) after the attack. Well, we don't know for sure, but I think there's an interesting corollary that we can look at, and that's happened with the Romanians after the attack. I mean the Romanian army, when the communist government collapsed, essentially- they turned it over to the people, with one notable exception and that was with their Spetsnaz type forces, their special forces . . . And as some of you probably know, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il studied the Romanian collapse because it bothered them. So that's a very good question about the SOF - what they will do, because those SOF guys are not only well trained, they're more brainwashed than the remainder of the North Korean Army. Certainly most of it. And if one is to look at past precedent, it's very interesting. When that submarine, that Sang-0 Class submarine was captured, washed up on the South Korean shore, a lot of the members of the crew killed themselves instead of being captured. Rather than be captured, they killed themselves, so these guys are pretty serious. I think that will be - I think that the majority of the North Korean Army, should we fight a war again and I hope that doesn't happen as much or more so than anybody else because I understand the destruction that it would involve, but should we ever have to, heaven forbid, fight a war, many of their army units when they look like they're going to be defeated, if that's the case, will surrender or give in. I don't think that's going to be the case with the SOF. That would be a challenge - a challenge for the ROK, clearly, since they are going to have the lead on that mission.

I would say another challenge is missiles. We didn't bring up missiles, but if there is a collapse of the North Korean regime and there are forces that are competing for power in North Korea, and perhaps one of them is trying to get outside powers involved, one of the most frightening scenarios would be if they decided to shoot a NoDong off at someplace like Japan. That's really very frightening and something that I think folks that are still on active duty and civilians in DOD who work in planning circles are planning for. . . . . . . . . .

I'd also ask how capable is the helicopter for the South Korean military? I guess we could talk about that off-line. But that was a very interesting point. And you asked me something that was very good about the WTC - the winter training cycle. Was it more unusual than normal? And that's a very good question. I have an answer for you on that. The North Koreans - I've been watching the North Korean winter training cycle since I was a Lance Corporal in 1978. Before a lot of you - some of you were born, anyway. But you know, it's always been - What is going to be the "Gee whiz" thing that the Kimster does this winter to make us go, "Say! That's interesting." And the Kimster used to be Kim Il Sung and now it's his son Kim Jung Il obviously, but I mean, there's been stuff like in 1998 for example, they took a bunch of their armor out and ran it around. I mean, we're talking hundreds and hundreds of tanks, sometimes tanks we didn't even know were in their order of battle, and some of them so close to the DMZ, you could look down from Panmunjom and see them. That was very interesting. They've had winter training cycles where they had large, huge mechanized forces training exercises, which have been seen. And they've had this winter's training cycle - there's been lots of stuff. They've had this winter's training exercise where they actually did a very, very, very clever thing, in my view, in the NLL live artillery firings. Up to 400 shells have been fired so far. They may fire more. That's a lot of shells. That's a lot of artillery firings. They've been trying to find a way for the past two or three years that they could intimidate South Korea over the NLL, make that issue important in the geo-political scheme, and not end up taking a lot of casualties. So how do you do that? Well, they did a pretty good job of doing it. And some people think - I haven't seen this in the press, but I've seen it in different places, but I think it has a lot to do with the fact that General Kim Kyok-sik, who used to be, as some of you probably know, on the general's staff, was put in a position that some people thought was a demotion, but I mean, he was made the corps commander for the 4th Corps. The 4th Corps is the corps that sits on the northern limit line. This is a smart guy. He's one of Kim Jong Il's most trusted guys, and he was made the corps commander about nine months ago. So they probably did - they planned this intimidating exercise where they're firing shells right up to a kilometer away from this border, and in order to not only show us that they have this great artillery capability, but to kind of bring up the issue of the northern limit line again. Didn't take any casualties. The first day they did it, the ROK marines fired back 100 shells, basically fired them off into the air, and after that didn't do anything - so . . . .

Was this unusual this year what's happened so far? Yes. Is it unprecedented? No. Because next year they'll probably try to do something else that's unusual to catch our attention. The point is, and I think you said it very well, Dave - the North Korean army, conventional forces, non-nuclear forces, is something that they continue to work on, something that they continue to spend a very big amount of resources on, and the capability that continues to evolve in order to threaten the South. That's their specific intent. So I think it's something we should take seriously.

MODERATOR: Larry, what you've got on this?

LARRY NIKSCH: I'd like to say a couple of words about Bruce's comments on proliferation. Basically, this is to supplement what he said about what North Korea is doing . . . President Obama came out with a statement just a few days ago stating that there were no statutory reasons - no reasons in U.S. statutes to put North Korea back on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. And a high-ranking administration official was quoted as saying that North Korea has not supported terrorism or terrorist groups since the 1980s. Now the reason for this decision really is a decision to try to sustain the nuclear talks that the Administration is trying to revive with North Korea aimed at getting North Korea back into some kind of participation in the six- party talks. That was the rationale for the Bush Administration removing North Korea from the terrorism list in 2008 and that is the same rationale for the President' statement that there is no statutory justification for restoring North Korea to the terrorism list. I just wish that the Administration would be honest enough to state this reason - that this is the real reason why they don't want North Korea on the terrorism list, rather than disputing what Bruce has laid out quite accurately about the actual nature of North Korea's support and cooperation with the Iranian revolutionary guards and, through the Iranian revolutionary guards, its active arms and training support for Hezbollah. And we need to look no further than these North Korea shipments to Iran which have been intercepted this year, in the last six months - a big shipment that was seized in Dubai in July, a shipment that was seized in the Aleutian 76 aircraft in Bangkok. Huge shipments of rockets, rocket launchers, short range, short fire surface-to-air missiles, tons of this stuff. Where does - what does Iran use such large quantities of these kinds of weapons for? This is what the Iranian revolutionary guards send to Hezbollah. This is what Hezbollah is armed with. And these North Korean rockets and rocket launchers and short range surface-to-air missiles are exactly those kinds of weapons. And to try to argue that such large quantities of these weapons are not ultimately bound for Hezbollah, and also possibly even Hamas, I think frankly crosses the line into the ludicrous realm at this point in time. The Israelis know all about this. The Israeli press talks about this all the time, and the only reason it seems to me the Israeli government does not come out publicly and lay out what it knows about all of this is that it doesn't want to embarrass the U.S. government and its policy of keeping North Korea off the U.S. list of state-sponsors of terrorism. Not embarrassing the Bush administration and not embarrassing the Obama administration. Remember, looking back at the Bush administration, it was only after - and Dennis H..... who is here, knows all about this - it was only after some very strong threat from Congress that the Bush administration revealed any information at all about North Korean involvement in that Syrian nuclear reactor that Bruce has told us about, and even then, I would argue that the Bush administration didn't tell the whole story because the whole story is also about Iran's involvement in that reactor. The Israelis have photographs of Iranian nuclear officials visiting the reactor and according to reports in the German press, citing German intelligence sources, Iran was the financier for that Syrian reactor. So there is really an issue of what I would call "truth telling" here in terms of the real reasons why North Korea is not on the U.S. list of state-sponsored terrorism.

Now, on the North Korean military, here I'm going to take a little bit of a contrary view. It seems to me we need to say a little bit more about their weaknesses. The weaknesses of North Korean conventional forces, and those weaknesses are severe and they have deepened year after year since the cracks in the Soviet Union that began in the 1980s. And I'll just briefly go over three points.

North Korean conventional forces have no sustainability. They could not wage a major war after just a few days. Yes, the army gets more food, as Bruce pointed out, than the masses of North Koreans do. But the caloric intake of North Korean rank and file infantrymen is only 600 to 700 calories a day, compared to 200 or 300 for the masses of North Koreans. This is not a sustainable diet in a war-fighting situation. And part of the reason why the North Korean rank and file troops were getting more food over the last few years than the North Korean population as a whole was getting was that South Korea was providing much of this food, and we saw the photographs in March 2008 of those North Korean trucks delivering South Korean Red Cross- marked vans of rice to their troops on the DMZ. This is an example of what poor shape they are in.

Another related element in sustainability is what I think are greater limits, frankly, on their ability to insert these special operations forces into South Korea. The information that I have is that for the last two years, those AN-2 infiltration aircraft which our military used to stress so much in their testimonies to Congress as part of the North Korean conventional threat have been shut down for lack of fuel. And they are no longer able to operate and train with these aircraft on a sustained basis.

But perhaps their greatest weakness lies I think in their armor and massed (?) infantry. Here I have a different view than Bruce in terms of their ability to penetrate to any degree South Korean territory across the DMZ. I believe they have lost much of this capability. Their armor is extremely old, vintage 1950s, 1960s for the most part. Their infantry is made up of those 16- year-old draftees who have come up through years and years of malnutrition. Four years ago they reduced the minimum height requirement for their draftees from 4'11" to 4'2". There's only one explanation for this and that is malnutrition of these troops. Food and fuel requirements go way up for a force like the North Korean military in a war-fighting capability compared to their requirements for food and fuel in a peacetime capability. They do not have the fuel and the food to boost their resources in a war-fighting situation and they know it. Moreover, Bruce mentioned U.S. air power. A very good point. The combination of hundreds of tactical fighters that we could deploy in South Korea within 2 to 3 days of the outbreak of a conflict, plus squadrons of massed heavy bombers that we would bring over there within 2 to 3 days again, would obliterate their massed armor and their massed infantry before they would have a chance to make any kind of significant penetration into South Korea.

We need to accurately assess the North Korean military threat, all of its components, for no other reason than that the requirements on our military globally are so extensive now, and the strains on our military are so great, be it Afghanistan, Iraq, possibly Iran in the future, Yemen - we need to accurately assess exactly what we need to contribute to South Korea's defense. I do believe that in the past there has been a tendency to exaggerate the North Korean threat of an all- out invasion of South Korea, and I think for too long, the Pentagon ignored the evidence of deterioration of North Korea's conventional military. Now, the Pentagon I think is beginning to talk more about this and it's beginning to make more judgments on that basis. So there is another side to I think what Bruce said. Certainly South Korea needs to take many of the steps that Bruce laid out. The United States needs to keep a very robust naval and air presence in South Korea and offshore of South Korea to send the right kind of message to the North Koreans. President Obama promised South Korea discussions on enhanced deterrence last June. I don't know whether those discussions are underway or not. We need to get them underway because it seems to me there are some things that the United States could do to enhance our deterrence capability, especially with regard to our naval and air power and, in doing so, send a stronger message to the North Koreans that if they should ever contemplate attacking South Korea, they will be obliterated. And I think that's the message we need to keep sending to them and again, I think there are some things we could be doing that we aren't doing now to send perhaps a stronger message in their direction.

MODERATOR: Kathryn, would you add further?

KATHRYN WEATHERSBY: Thank you. It's a great pleasure to be here. Thank you to Sang Joo for organizing yet another very interesting and worthwhile seminar. Thank you particularly to Bruce for answering the question I've had for a long time which is - what is the current state of . . . . conventional armed forces. So I really appreciate your good work on that. I would like to add first of all just one brief comment to what Larry said about the weaknesses of the soldiers. I was struck when I was in North Korea the summer . . . a year and a half ago, by the appearance of soldiers. I saw quite a number of units of soldiers in the southern part of the country, north around Pyongyang and several different areas, all the way down to the DMZ and southwest to Shin Jung (?). And all of the groups of soldiers that I saw on the road, at the DMZ, wherever, at checkpoints, were considerably thinner and more obviously malnourished than ordinary people I saw in Pyongyang, on the road or just walking along the road, along the fields in the southwestern part of the country. I was surprised by that. The soldiers' faces were drawn. Their bodies were extremely thin - they were small. So I think when we talk about diverting the food to the military, something else is going on other than . . . . . That's what I observed.

My other comments are about the issue of intent. I'll try to say this briefly. I don't know - we're a bit running out of time I think, but - as is well know, when we talk about a threat, the threat is the combination of capability and intent, not simply capability. And that's where I think we need to focus a bit more attention as we discuss the North Korean threat. My field is history. What I've done is study the history of communist countries, particularly the Soviet Union, China and North Korea, also Eastern Europe. And so I look at them over their whole trajectory and teach about it this way, and so I see it in terms of evolution and these countries all of course have evolved as all countries do. We have the tendency in the case of North Korea to treat it as some sort of static phenomenon, particularly because we don't know enough about it. We tend not to think of it as . . . But if we look at it as this sort of static thing, we are inevitably going to misread the situation. What I see just briefly from the historical evidence and contemporary evidence is that by the 1980s, the Kim Il Sung realized that their system was not working, that they couldn't provide economically for their people. This is what he said in no uncertain terms to Gorbachev in confidential conversations that we have records of now. So the overwhelming reality already by that time was the need to protect themselves, given the fact that they were not able to succeed economically at even the most basic level. Then with the collapse of the Soviet Union in '91, the overwhelming reality was extreme economic vulnerability with the loss of Soviet sustenance (?), extreme political vulnerability and extreme security vulnerability with the loss of the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc countries. The reaction, to put it simply, was naturally to enhance their own security by means of the kinds of steps that Bruce has outlined very effectively, to enhance their economic situation by means of proliferating as Bruce outlined very effectively, and to - but as we seek to counter the very real negative consequences from their proliferation in particular, and also the very real potential threat that exists simply by virtue of their remaining military capability, if we're going to do that skillfully and effectively, we've got to understand what's actually happening inside the country, among the elite, because if we're going to strike an effective bargain with them, we have to understand what their motivations are, what's driving them.

I think there's ample evidence today that the elite has lost confidence in ideology - I would say quite absolutely that the ideology is dead. That they are aware their system is not working, and they are very actively seeking to gain the skills, the contacts, and the resources needed to survive in the larger world as individuals and as a country - primarily as individuals however. And so they are very actively engaging with people in China, in Vietnam, in a number of European countries and attempting also to enlarge their .... with institutions and individuals in the United States in order to survive, in order to have the kind of skills that will enable them to cope with the larger globalized economy as an individuals and also for their country as long as it remains to be able to cope. And I think it's really essential to understand that this process if already happening .... And so what we have is an opportunity to harness that, to make it more profitable for them to expand this kind of learning that they are doing and collaborate on all kinds of peaceful enterprises - agriculture, energy, all sorts of things, and make the cost of negative and threatening behavior such as proliferation increase. But if we attempt to simply stop things such as proliferation without providing any effective alternative for them economically, that's unlikely to succeed. I'll stop with that.

MODERATOR: Bruce, would you be brief?

BRUCE E BECHTOL: I'll be brief. Larry and I have a lot of respect for each other's analysis, but we disagree on the North Korean military and we argue about it frequently, including - as I recall - the last time over a lot of beers in Atlanta. But - great city, by the way! But let me address some of his comments, if I may - they were very good comments and well thought out. Specifically, North Korean weaknesses. Defectors I talk to say a few days is what they are planning for and at a minimum they think they can take Seoul under the right conditions, and that's all she wrote! I mean, if they take Seoul, they wipe out Kyonggi Province, South Korea is no longer your country with the world's 13th largest GDP. They're now back to being a 3rd World country again. So - just something to think about.

As to the food coming from South Korea - absolutely. I concur - because the North Koreans take food that they get from everybody, no matter who it is, and they give it to the army, including from South Korea. Certainly they got a lot of food from South Korea, particularly during the sunshine policy on steroids that existed during the Roh Moo-Hyun Administration.

Infiltration platforms, AN-2 - and how that affects training for the North Korean special operations forces - certainly I've heard the same rumors that they have not flown a lot in the past year or so. By the way, the AN-2 does not use gas. The AN-2 flies off kerosene, so if they're short on kerosene or they were short on kerosene recently, certainly those AN-2 pilots may not have had a lot of training - I'm not sure how much active training a pilot needs to fly a plane that's essentially a crop-duster that carries troops, because that's what the AN-2 is - it's a bi-plane. That is not affecting the jump capability of the special operations forces though because they, like their South Korean counterparts, jump out of balloons or off towers. They do not almost ever jump out of aircraft. So it doesn't affect the readiness of the special operations forces troops. Shortage of fuel - understood. Got it. Pilot proficiency perhaps - but it doesn't affect the proficiency of those special operations forces troops themselves, because they're jumping out of towers. Just thought I'd pass that on. Much of the ROK armor is old too, they still have M48 tanks, by the way. They've also got some very good tanks, but I agree - the difference between the ROK armor and the North Korean armor is - the North Koreans have more, but the South Koreans have more modern armor. So that's a legitimate thing. Their maneuver units are "pri two." I think we talked about that - they have some issues with fuel and food. I think I talked about that. We know what their "pri one" is." As far as stopping large scale mechanized forced or armored forces - they have one armored division which is really a Corps level division. It used to be called the 820th Armor Corps, they changed the name back to the 105th armor division. Which by the way was the armor division that invaded South Korea back in 1950. That's why they renamed it. The first thing our guys are going to go after is air superiority. Now it depends on how long that takes. The North Korean air force is big. About 740 fighters. But we could probably take them out fairly quickly. It depends how fast they can move through the Kaesong-Munsan corridor and the Choron valley after they have provided that softening up from their SOF and artillery and missiles. And it also is based on the hope that when those maneuver forces - infanty, mech, armor, get down into Kyonggi Province and start moving, it's assuming they're not going to stop at a grocery store and get something to eat first.

Well, you know - what you said, Larry, about the Pentagon exaggerating the decline in the North Korean threat, I agree. During the 1990s it was a constant fight. I was an analyst back then at our nation's Defense Intelligence Agency and we were constantly trying to say, "Look, they're evolving, they're changing. Their focus isn't on these forces anymore." And nobody wanted to admit that. And that was wrong. But the forces have evolved and I think it's also wrong to go in the other direction and say, "Well, you know, they've had some units with food and fuel problems; they've had some guys with malnutrition problems therefore they can't fight anymore. They're not capable." That's just not the case. They know their resource problems. They know the issues they face, and they have made a concerted effort to adjust. So - I just think we should keep that in mind. And also I agree with a strong response. I would just ask that we all keep in mind that if they fight a war - and the North Koreans know this as we do - if they fight a war, the North Koreans don't need to take the whole peninsula. They just need to wipe out large areas of Kyonggi Province, and having that threat means that we've got mutually assured destruction in miniature on the Korean peninsula with a face-off between North and South Korean militaries, and when it comes to asymmetric forces, the South Koreans are at a disadvantage. I'm talking about stuff besides their traditional maneuver forces. So great stuff, Larry. As Always - I just thought I would throw my spin in this. This is great stuff to talk about.

Kathryn brought up - I'd just like to comment on one thing Kathryn brought up and that's intent. I believe from talking to many people, North and South Korean -- obviously North Koreans that have come south and are now South Korean citizens... The North Koreans know they cannot beat a combined ROK and U.S. force in a war. Therefore, the intent if one is to talk about that is to get the U.S. off the Korean peninsula. When and if this happens, the paradigm changes significantly. North Korea has not given up its dream of defeating or dominating South Korea. This is why, every time the North Koreans talk to the South Koreans, and every time they talk - frequently when they talk to us, it's like " Well, you know, you really need to ask the Americans to leave." When the Americans aren't there, when they don't have a commitment to South Korea, a real commitment with real forces, the paradigm changes considerably, and that's why I think it's a little dangerous to downplay what the capabilities are of the North Korean army. They have many weaknesses. They also have strengths that they've gone after because of those weaknesses. So it's just something to keep in mind. That's it.


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