North Korea: The Real Elephant in the Room


*I began writing this piece several weeks back when I realized the prudent thing to do would be to wipe it from my desktop and forget about it until I got back from North Korea. I was aware they would go through my computer files – just not every file. Good thing I waited.
On March 2nd the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) slapped North Korea with some of the harshest sanctions in decades through Resolution 2270 for its’ provocations, which include nuclear weapons and ballistic missile testing. Amid international outcry, the Kim Jong-un regime has continued to habitually cross the line by conducting additional missile tests in the wake of sanctions from the international community. The internal environment in North Korea highlights its provocations equally as well as the responses those provocations have warranted both regionally and globally. The solution however, is just as muddy as the problem itself. It is therefore imperative to look at this problem – because it clearly is a problem – holistically, and not in isolation. Due to the complex nature of escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula, it is useful to look at the DPRKs aggressive behavior with three things in mind: the parliamentary elections in South Korea, global economic volatility, and the joint military exercises involving the US and South Korea. If there is one absolute, it is this – there are the way things seem, and there are the way things are. With regard to anything, it can be useful to first address the facts before taking a specific course of action. In this way, by establishing a rough timeline of recent events and assessing the capacity of the DPRK it will be simpler to take a more pragmatic approach towards any useful discussion about it. This post will briefly address the merit and potential blowback of strategies global actors are pursuing to quell the persistent behavior of the DPRK.
Keywords: sanctions, THAAD, nuclear weapons, DPRK


The following map  will help to provide some context for the timeline below as well as the rest of this (and the next) post.




North Korea no doubt boasts one of the most robust militaries in the world. With a population of only 24.9 million people, roughly 5.25% are active military. The quandary it faces is that most of its equipment is severely outdated. Associated Press reporters and the U.S. Secretary of Defense refer to most of their equipment as “legacy equipment.” That is to say that many of the tanks, artillery, and infantry weapons are based upon Cold War era designs from the Chinese and former Soviet Union. The combat aircraft that they do possess was acquired in the 1980’s from the Soviet Union. The closest thing to a competitive advantage it has lies in its navy, even though it is the smallest branch of their military. Nearly seventy submarines significantly bolster the capacity to attack coastal areas while strengthening its defense and providing stealth. Although it has an enormous standing military and routinely conducts unconcealed missile tests, North Korea focuses a large portion of its energy to developing asymmetric warfare tactics, including cyberwarfare.

The following tables I’ve constructed represent the most recently available information on the North Korean military:

 Table 1


Table 2


Table 3


Table 4


As evidenced in the rough timeline below, there clearly exists a causal relationship between the hostilities the DPRK has engaged in and the overwhelming response from the international community. Clearly triggered by the hydrogen bomb test in January and the subsequent ICBM satellite launch, sanctions were introduced with the full intention of applying strong pressure in order to disengage the DPRK. Provisions of Resolution 2270 include mandatory inspections of any and all cargo ships en route or leaving North Korea, a ban on import of aviation and rocket fuel, and choking off the supply of its key exports – which include coal, iron, and iron ore. Both China and Russia, however, have strongly encouraged certain exceptions to be made. Strongly reliant upon Chinese crude oil, under the current framework North Korea is permitted to continue importing crude oil from Beijing. The pipeline, which supplies roughly 500,000 tons annually, directly supplies the DPRKs military. On the other side of the coin, Russia insists that the Rajin port – which is connected to Khasan – remains operational for exports of Siberian produced coal. As one may conjecture, geography alone makes this demand a little suspect. Quite a farce if Russia intends to undercut the UNSC resolution by importing DPRK coal disguised as Siberian coal. These examples (among others) raise concerns over the efficacy of the sanctions if they are not strictly enforced and multilateral. China in particular has taken the moral high ground (with arguably ulterior motives) by voicing its concerns about potential adverse humanitarian consequences sanctions (among other things) may have. While the current sanctions on the DPRK are the harshest in decades, it has essentially faced sanctions varying in the degree of severity for years. The problem with the Kim Jong-un regime is that it seems to be largely unconcerned with the adverse effects that any sanctions have on individuals, and will ultimately scapegoat them in order to generate internal support among the people. Internal support is one particular lens through which these events can be examined.


The Road to Worker’s Party Congress 2016

January 6      DPRK conducts fourth nuclear test (hydrogen bomb)
January 10     US flies B-52 Stratofortress bomber over Osan Air Base, South Korea
February 7    DPRK launches satellite aboard intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)
February 17   US sends four F-22s to Osan and USS North Carolina (nuclear-powered) to Korean peninsula
February 26   Naval base at Jeju, South Korea opens
March 2         UNSC implements Resolution 2270 – sanctions DPRK
US sanctions for key DPRK Worker’s Party officials
March 3         DPRK fires six short-range (KN-01) missiles into the East Sea
March 4         SK/US establish Joint Working Group for Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD)
March 7         Joint military exercises Key Resolve and Foal Eagle begin (US/SK)
March 8         South Korea implements addt’l sanctions on DPRK companies and individuals, freezes assets
DPRK unsuccessfully attempts to hack Seoul Metro and networks of financial institutions
DPRK successfully hacks smartphones of 40 South Korean security/military officials
March 9         DPRK publishes photos of ICBMs (KN-08) with miniaturized nuclear warheads
March 10       DPRK fires two short range Scud-missiles from West coast into East Sea
DPRK nullifies cross-border agreements, liquidates SK assets in Gaeseong Industrial Park
March 11       DPRK fires two mid-range Rodong-type missiles into East Sea – within Japanese airspace
US and South Korea send letters to UNSC sanctions panel to respond to DPRK violations
March 13       USS John C. Stennis (nuclear-powered) arrives in Busan, SK for Foal Eagle exercises
March 15       DPRK announces it has secured re-entry technology for ICBMs
March 16       DPRK tests submarine-launched ballistic missile (KN-11)
March 17       US President Barack Obama levies more sanctions on DPRK
DPRK sentences detained American student Otto Warmbier to 15 years hard labor
March 18       Key Resolve computer-simulated joint military exercise concludes
March 20       South Korea restores DPRKs crashed UAVs from 2014
Kim Jong-un observes large-scale military exercises using replicas of targeted sites in Seoul
March 21        China notifies regional government on procedure for implementing UN sanctions
DPRK announces it is ready to conduct a fifth nuclear test
DPRK fires five short-range (KN-01) missiles from multiple launch rocket system to East Sea
March 22        DPRK diplomat to Egypt faces deportation after being blacklisted
DPRK announces it has deployed new multiple launch rocket system (puts SK
military headquarters in Gyeryongdae and US military bases Pyongtaek & Osan within range)
March 24        UN Human Rights Council convenes, adopts resolution
Council creates legal team to explore widespread human rights abuses in DPRK
South Korea confirms that DPRK has developed solid-fuel rockets (meaning, more launches)
March 31      Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC
April 21        THAAD locations disclosed following South Korea parliamentary elections
April 30        Foal Eagle joint military exercise concludes
May 6            Worker’s Party holds first Congress in the DPRK since 1980

The 7th Workers Party Congress – the first to be held in 36 years – began a few days ago. Ahead of this landmark event, it was been widely speculated that the Kim Jong-un regime has ratcheted up low-level provocations such as short-range ballistic missile testing and specific cyberattacks in an attempt to rally around the flag. For each event in the timeline (above) there is an action and a reaction. For example, the onset of the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle joint exercises between South Korean and United States military was countered by a strong reaction from the DPRK. To preface this, Key Resolve was a ten-day largely computer-based simulation of war games. Foal Eagle is a two month long venture consisting of coastal defense and land exercises which aims to integrate South Korean and American troops more seamlessly on a contingency basis. A day after these exercises began, on March 7th South Korea chose to levy additional sanctions on North Korean companies. North Korea responded in kind. By coordinating cyberattacks on the Seoul railway system, financial institutions, and national security officials, the DPRK attempted to counter the Key Resolve joint exercise by flexing its tech savvy muscles. In the following days it also launched several waves of short range and medium range missiles – one of which traveled over 800 meters – inside the Japan Air Defense Identification Zone. On March 10th the DPRK posted photos of its’ KN-08 ICBM fitted with a miniaturized nuclear warhead. Following the publication of these photos, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) quoted Kim Jong-un as saying that the “DPRK possesses true nuclear deterrence.” This perhaps was an effort to downplay the significance of the arrival of nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and submarine John C. Stennis and USS North Carolina to participate in the Foal Eagle exercises. In this way, the DPRK tested a submarine launched ballistic missile (KN-11) just days after and also announced it had successfully developed missile re-entry technology for ICBMs, which was widely challenged among skeptics in the international community. Posturing or not, these few examples indicate that for every action seen as challenging the DPRK, it is willing to take the next step in this dangerous game of brinksmanship. The underlying problem for North Korea may not just be what is seen as invasive military exercises and multilateral sanctions, but rather the passive aggressive response to its provocations. It may be troubling for the DPRK that the capacity of its nuclear threat is widely debated, and that the overwhelming majority of the international community would like to quash the situation with as little fuss as possible. Ergo, the Kim Jong-un regime seems to have developed a dual mandate: counterpunching adversarial actions to forecast strength – which generates internal support – and counterpunching adversarial actions to emphasize equality.

 Table 5


Is the DPRK nuclear threat credible?


  • CIA senior analyst publicly states DPRK has miniaturized nuclear warheads for medium-range missiles


  • European intelligence at NATO confirms DPRK Nodong-missiles are armed with nuclear warheads


  • Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency testifies before Senate Armed Services Committee, stating that the DPRK has weaponized nuclear devices to retrofit ballistic missiles


  • National security officials from Reagan & Clinton cabinet warn that DPRK is capable of an EMP attack against United States via satellite armed with nuclear warhead
  • Commander of North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD) warns senior intelligence that DPRKs ICBM (KN-08) is able to reach US mainland with nuclear warhead

An article written by Peter Huessy details just how widely under the radar the DPRK nuclear threat actually is (referenced above). He asserts that even though testimony from top military officials has pointed to knowledge of a real threat for nearly a decade, the media and public sentiment has whitewashed the truth of the matter. Historically, public sentiment has been to write off the threat DPRK poses as illegitimate. This lackadaisical attitude towards nuclear proliferation is not only unsettling but also irresponsible; case in point, the dismissive tone of the South Korean publications from which this research is compiled is sufficiently worrisome. The DPRK nuclear threat should not be treated like a game of Russian Roulette – it needs to be given credence – which is precisely what it seems the Kim Jong-un regime is seeking. Perhaps not tomorrow, but eventually, all parties will sit down at the bargaining table. As opposed to being lorded, North Korea intends to meet as equals. The timing for resolving the issue, however, is important; it will determine the choices that players are forced to take. Three paths are available for global players at the moment – all of which strive for nuclear disarmament of North Korea. The benefits and consequences are specific albeit complex, but for this reason, the discussion will now shift towards strategies and the best way to approach each.

Bonus – Political Cartoon


United Nations Security Council resolutions can be extremely effective for encouraging specific behavior. The problem is that individual states are often left to implement their provisions. For instance, if members are fully aware that they can be adversely affected by restricting trade with respect to sanctions, they may feel less compelled follow suit. With regard to Resolution 2270, one of the permanent members of the UNSC – China – happens to be the DPRKs largest trading partner. Therefore, a discussion about North Korea is just as much a discussion about China. It has put them in a quandary, so to speak, at a time when the global economy remains fearful of a Chinese “hard landing.” In 2015, $1.32 billion – over half of North Korea’s exports – in natural resources such as coal and iron was delivered to China. If China does its part by fully implementing trade restrictions, DPRKs GDP is estimated to contract by 4.3% alone. It has been, and always will be, North Korea’s greatest ally. That figure pales in comparison to Chinese GDP, but it nevertheless has an impact on its own economic growth. US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has done his part to pressure China into taking a stronger position on sanctioning North Korea’s key exports. Amid the escalating tension, his comments (among other things) seem to have found their mark with some level of success, as the National People’s Congress (NPC) – Chinese Parliament – approved its five-year plan, excluding economic cooperation projects with North Korea. Amid steep declines in industrial output growth, waning domestic demand, and a mountain of debt, many agencies have downgraded credit ratings for China-reliant firms. Suffice it to say that this year, Chinese growth is only expected to expand 6.5% after experiencing a decade of double-digit growth. North Korea is not the only player on the Korean peninsula that is significantly affected by a declining Chinese economy, either. Heavily reliant on Chinese consumers, South Korean exports to China declined by 12.9% in 2015. This number is more significant when one acknowledges that 25% of South Korea’s exports ($527 billion) make their way to the Chinese market. For similar reasons to the DPRKs, the Korea Development Institute (KDI) even estimated that for every 1% percentage fall in China’s growth rate, South Korea’s growth rate will be dragged down by up to 0.6%. While the global economic forecast appears gloomy, there is light over the horizon. While managing expectations, South Korea’s Minister of Trade has forecasted a significant uptick in exports amid stabilizing commodity prices and exchange rates, as China and Korea opened up the channel for trade talks and easing trade barriers. China is the most clearly affected (economically) out of the members on the UNSC so it naturally has an incentive to take a more accommodative stance towards North Korea. For this reason, South Korea may be required to cede some of its gains from trade to China in order to persuade them to take a stronger approach to implementing sanctions. This push and pull of economic cooperation is naturally good for policy coordination. By making this tradeoff, Beijing may decide to slow or cut off the channel for crude oil delivery to DPRKs military, which is ultimately good for South Korea’s national defense by putting them in a position of relative advantage…


to be continued



In the meantime, comes highly recommended to satiate your interest in any issues pertaining to North Korea.

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