North Korea is by any international
standard a failed or failing state. Yet it has a
massive missile arsenal, a considerable and
successful nuclear-weapons program, and one of the
largest armed forces in the world.
For its huge conventional military power, the
answer is usually to both suppress its own
civilian population and to protect against a
US-South Korean invasion.
Neither is a
satisfactory explanation, for in truth a highly
pervasive internal security infrastructure and a
people cowed by 60 years of unbending communist
rule are probably more than enough to ensure the
survival of the current regime for the foreseeable
future. The United States and South Korea are
highly unlikely to launch a
ground invasion of North
Korea individually or jointly. Nor is the North
likely to make another attempt to conquer the
Pyongyang's forces may be
sufficient to achieve some success on the ground
in the first week, but after that their limited
logistic support combined with ferocious US-led
air strikes would have so degraded the offensive
capability of the main combat units as to lead to
only one conclusion: another military disaster.
This time, and more important, it is
highly unlikely that there would be a repeat of
the Korean War intervention by hundreds of
thousands of seasoned Chinese troops pouring
across the Yalu River to rescue the North Korean
regime from the consequences of its own stupidity.
It would be an act of state suicide for
North Korea to resort to the use of nuclear
weapons to attempt to win or indeed even to
prevent its eventual defeat. The US response would
undoubtedly be to turn the whole of North Korea
into a radioactive wasteland for generations to
North Korea's conventional armed
forces are truly impressive on paper, but
significantly probably still lack the logistic
support, technological infrastructure and mobility
that would make them as effective in war as their
sheer weight of numbers might otherwise suggest.
The regime's massive investment in
conventional defense, which goes well beyond any
genuine strategic need, appears to be more a
symptom of national insecurity and international
paranoia than having any basis in a
950,000-strong, organized into one armored, four
mechanized, 12 infantry, two artillery and one
capital-defense corps, the North Korean army can
deploy a large part of its forces in combat units,
which include 27 infantry divisions, as well as 15
armored and 14 mechanized brigades. There is a
heavy concentration on artillery and battlefield
missiles, with some 35 gun and 15 missile
Of particular importance are
some 120,000 special-operations troops, the
largest such force in any of today's armed forces.
There are some 25 attack, seaborne and airborne
brigades, including a very large number of
specialist sniper units. North Korea is reported
to have the ability to transport some 10,000
special forces by air at any one time.
army is deployed in an offensive rather than a
defensive manner, with the first operational
echelon made up of the 1st, 2nd, 4th and 5th
Forward Army Corps; the second operational echelon
with the 806th and 815th Mechanized, and the 820th
Armored Corps; the strategic reserve has the 108th
and 425th Mechanized Corps; while the rear echelon
has the 3rd, 6th, 7th and 8th Rear Army Corps.
Combine these with the other combat units
and a total of some 800,000 men appear to be in
actual fighting units - a very high proportion of
teeth to tail indeed.
Weapons Arms and
equipment are mostly obsolete Russian and Chinese
in origin, although attempts have been made to
modernize, mainly through the production of
modified designs or new developments by North
Korea's burgeoning arms industry.
are currently believed to be some 4,100 T34/85,
T54/T55, Type-59, T62 and PT76 tanks, 2,800
armored personnel carriers, 3,500 towed artillery,
4,500 self-propelled artillery and more than 2,600
mobile multiple rocket launchers, some 8,000
mortars, 9,000 anti-tank rocket launchers and more
than 8,000 man-portable anti-tank missile systems.
North Korea is probably one of the most
heavily fortified nations in the world, with some
600 kilometers of tunnels and more than 8,000 deep
bunkers, plus caverns that have been enlarged to
protect command centers, missile and nuclear
facilities, combat aircraft and indeed entire
units close to the Demilitarized Zone along the
border with the Republic of Korea. Most have been
constructed within granite mountains, with the
main service entrances facing north.
the most significant military facilities have now
been moved to underground facilities believed to
be capable of withstanding US bunker-busting
bombs. Some 5 million tonnes of ammunition, food
and fuel are thought to be stored underground for
Air defense North
Korea has a very large number of SAM
(surface-to-air missile) systems, though once
again of older design, mainly Russian, or Chinese
copies of the SA-2, SA-3 and SA-5. Some 15,000
man-portable Wha-sung copies of Russian SA-7 and
SA-16 are known to be available. These are backed
up by some 12,000 static and mobile anti-aircraft
guns, most of which are manually operated and
therefore not so vulnerable to modern electronic
warfare. Radar early warning and target tracking,
command and control, however, are all likely to be
overwhelmed in the first few days of a major
conflict with the US.
defense North Korea's long and rugged
coastline is covered by at least six major missile
bases with anti-ship systems with a range of up to
160km and many hundreds of well-protected gun
Air force The 1st
(Kaechon AB), the 2nd (Toksan/Hamhung AB) and the
elite 3rd (Hwangju AB) air-combat divisions have
about 70 modern fortified air bases, many with
underground hangars and multiple runways. However,
the command-and-control systems, radar, fighter
control and aircraft fleet are now largely
obsolete and would provide little long-term
opposition to the US and South Korean air forces.
To try to gain combat experience, it has
been reported that North Korea sent more than 200
pilots to fight in the Vietnam War, where they
helped to defend Hanoi with some success. A
further 25 pilots went to Syria during the June
1967 war with Israel and 30 pilots to Egypt and
Syria during the Yom Kippur War of 1973.
Equipment North Korea is
believed to have about 85,000 personnel and some
700 air-defense and strike fighters, including 40
Chinese A5, 140 F5 (MiG-17), 120 F6 (MiG-19) and
40 F7, 180 Russian MiG-21, 18 Su-7BMK and a few
more modern types: 36 Su-25, 50 MiG-23 and 40
MiG-29; up to 75 elderly Chinese H-5 (Il-28)
bombers, more than 300 helicopters, including 50
Mi-24, and a large fleet of 200 or more
transports, mostly ancient Y5 (An-2).
Navy The North Korean navy has a
strength of about 46,000 and some five to six
naval squadrons in the West (Yellow Sea) Fleet
based at Nampo (headquarters), Pip'a-got and Sagot
and another 10 squadrons in the East Fleet at
T'oejo-dong(headquarters), Najin and Wnsan.
The main surface combatants and submarines
are sheltered in more than 20 reinforced pens,
each up to 900 meters long and 22 meters wide.
There are some 26 Russian Romeo and Whisky
ocean-going submarines and about 65 coastal and
mini-submarines used for covert intelligence or
special-forces operations; three missile frigates;
more than 30 fast missile craft; 110 fast torpedo
boats; and several hundred minesweepers,
minelayers, patrol and amphibious-warfare craft.
Weapons of mass destruction North Korea can produce about 100 missiles a
year. It began to make ballistic missiles around
1981, with copies of Russian Scuds purchased
originally from Egypt. These became operational as
the Hwasong 5 in 1984. There are now 900-1,000
Hwasong-5/6 and Nodong 1/Rodong 1 (improved Scud)
and more than 100 medium-range Taepodong 1/Nodong
2 ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads
deployed in underground silos or hidden in caves.
Within the next couple of years,
development of the Taepodong 2/Nodong 3
intercontinental ballistic missiles will be
completed and North Korea will gain a genuine
strategic deterrent with a range of at least
8,000km, though some observers have suggested as
much as 12,000km. This missile was test-fired in
July, and despite media speculation that the
flight was aborted after just 42 seconds, it now
seems likely that it flew for seven minutes and
was a significant technical success.
observers would undoubtedly argue that there is a
rather more pernicious reason behind North Korea's
long-range-missile and nuclear-weapon programs.
With a failing economy to support, the temptation
must be strong for the Pyongyang regime to use its
advanced technology to underpin its survival.
While North Korea is undoubtedly a poor
country, it has still managed to develop advanced
and effective missile systems. Not even economic
failure, famine and a severe lack of human
resources have prevented the headlong dash for
While such arms are
obviously considered vital for defense or even a
preemptive strike, the major overriding reason has
been financial: such technology is available for
export to the highest bidder.
hard-currency transactions help keep North Korea
afloat and the regime in power. Over the past 20
years or so North Korea has earned substantial
revenue from the sale of missiles, and the
relevant technology, to a number of states high on
Washington's hit-list. Among these are the Nodong
to Pakistan as the Ghauri and to Iran as the
Shehab 3, while both Syria and Libya received
Hwasong-5. It is reported that missile parts and
technology have also been exported to Egypt, the
United Arab Emirates and Vietnam.
appears certain that North Korea's nuclear-weapons
program has been largely funded by the sale of
missiles and other conventional arms to countries
around the world.
North Korea is believed
to have some 120 nuclear weapons, including a
small number of hydrogen bombs to go with its
growing arsenal of operational long-range
ballistic missiles. It has built a considerable
capability since the early 1960s with
nuclear-research facilities at Yongbyon, Taechon,
Pyongyang and Kumho. Significantly for North
Korea, it is fortunate to have its own uranium
mines, with more than 4 million tonnes of
exploitable high-quality uranium.
advanced chemical and biological warfare program
has produced a considerable number of chemical
warheads for battlefield missiles, aircraft bombs
and artillery shells. These are known to include
modern nerve agents. It is believed that a serious
attempt has also been made to weaponize anthrax
and that a small number of warheads may have been
With such a willing market for
its missile technology and the financial
advantages gained from the exportation of such
weapons, why not offer the secrets of the nuclear
bomb as well?
With the looming
confrontation with the West over Iran's own
nuclear program and an economy rich in
petrodollars, Tehran would be a prime market for
Pyongyang's weapons know-how. Tehran is North
Korea's closest ally in the Middle East.
This would be the ultimate nightmare
scenario for Washington, a determined Iranian
enemy secure behind the unexpected deployment of
an operational long-range missile system armed
with a nuclear warhead.
Bennett is an international intelligence and
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