North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, speaks to military leaders in front of an ICBM display at the Defense Development Exhibition Oct. 12. Explore DPRK
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Strategy & Policy: North Korea’s Game Plan and Capability

Nov. 5, 2021

North Korea’s approach to deterring an attack from the U.S. and South Korea is asymmetric: leaning heavily on strategic missiles and a nascent nuclear program to compensate for a large but obsolescent conventional force. So said the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), in its first-ever “North Korea Military Power” report.

Patterned on the “Soviet Military Power” series of the 1980s, and signed by DIA director Army Lt. Gen. Scott D. Berrier, the report assesses North Korea’s military capabilities, ranging from force structure and organization to strategy and qualitative assessments of weapon systems.

North Korea is “one of the most militarized countries in the world and … a critical security challenge for the United States,” Berrier wrote. The Pyongyang regime believes that it’s “free to take destabilizing actions to advance its political goals,” including attacking South Korea, developing ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons in defiance of United Nations edicts, conducting cyber attacks and committing cybercrime worldwide. The “closed
nature” of the regime also makes gathering information about it all “extremely difficult,” he said.

Although “on the brink of collapse” 30 years ago, the Hermit Kingdom has bounced back from a 1990s famine that killed 3 million of its citizens. Under Kim Jong Un, “it has become a growing menace” to the U.S. and its Indo-Pacific allies, the DIA assessed. Kim’s plan is to have long-range missiles with nuclear warheads, such that he can “directly hold the United States at risk, … deter Washington,” and compel it to make policy decisions that benefit Pyongyang. This vision is “plainly articulated” in national rhetoric, Berrier wrote.

Engagement with North Korea by President Donald J. Trump a few years ago merely bought the regime time to advance its missile and nuclear programs, the DIA said. Though Kim and Trump agreed in principle in 2018 to a “denuclearization” of the Korean peninsula, pledged to reduce tensions and aim for a “lasting peace,” Kim has since stepped up the pace of missile development, has “displayed a new, potentially more capable ICBM and new weapons for its conventional force,” and “there continues to be activity at North Korea’s nuclear sites.”

The DIA noted that North Korea tested its Hwasong-14 and -15 long-range missiles in 2017, and these are capable of reaching the U.S. An unnamed new ICBM was also shown in a 2020 military parade. The DIA did not estimate how many of these missiles Pyongyang has, and emphasized that they are still in development. Coincidentally, North Korea tested a new submarine-launched ballistic missile in October, just days after the DIA report said it would soon resume such tests. Pyongyang understands that “the character of war has changed” since it last openly fought the U.S. in 1953, and that its military is “largely unprepared to engage in modern warfare.” It appreciates that the U.S. has “overwhelming advantages in power projection, strategic air superiority, and precision-guided standoff strike capability.” It also judges itself at a “qualitative disadvantage” versus South Korea.

Still, the DIA views North Korea’s conventional forces as highly dangerous, due to their size. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) army can “launch a high-intensity, short-duration attack on the south” with thousands of artillery and rocket systems, causing thousands of casualties and severely disrupting a “regional economic hub.” Pyongyang realizes most of its armed forces field obsolescent weapons and can’t hope to
compete with the U.S. or South Korea in advanced systems such combat aircraft. North Korea lacks much of a military industrial base, and either has to import major weapons or struggleto modernize the old hardware.

Though the national economy is ostensibly one of Kim’s priorities, he’s shown a willingness “to endure financial losses in order to advance other goals.” Nuclear and missile tests trigger U.N. sanctions; one of which, the closing of the dual-nation Kaesong Industrial Complex, cost the North about $100 million a year. North Korea wants Washington to believe that “the cost of … intervention” in a peninsula conflict “would be unacceptably high” to the U.S., even if North Korea lost the engagement. If deterrence fails, the DPRK military would fall back on its defensive advantages, such as “inhospitable terrain, widespread use of underground facilities, and a population conditioned from birth to resist foreign invaders,” all to raise the cost of taking and holding North Korean territory.

With “the fourth-largest” military in the world, North Korea has 1.3 million people under arms out of the population of 25 million. Although the military has historically been better off than the general population, “this trend has declined precipitously since the 1990s,” according to the DIA. Troops are now subject “to the same deprivation as the general population outside of Pyongyang.” Military defectors to the South have reported “malnutrition and harsh service conditions.” Troops are frequently diverted to farming activities.

While Pyongyang says little about the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on its citizenry, “border closures, quarantines, lockdowns and steep reductions in trade to prevent the spread of the virus” have “exacerbated North Korea’s already-weak economy.” North Korea has both a biological and chemical weapons capability. The DIA assesses that it might use either in a conflict: It used the VX nerve agent to assassinate Kim’s half-brother in Malaysia. The DIA assesses that North Korea “may consider the use of biological weapons during wartime or as a clandestine option,” and could employ chemical agents using artillery and ballistic missiles.

Pyongyang excels in special operations forces, the DIA determined, and they are designed for “rapid offensive operations, infiltration, and limited attack” on South Korean targets. Their primary mission would be to attack government facilities and leadership at the outbreak of war, or as a preemptive move. The DIA noted that North Korea has “the largest and most fortified” complex of hardened and deeply buried facilities and tunnels in the world, which are specifically designed “to withstand U.S. bunker-buster bombs.” The facilities would be used in wartime to conceal regime leaders, hide ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction, war materiel and other high-value
assets. These facilities range from small, narrow tunnels to huge complexes. Within them is a concealed road network to move senior leaders around during wartime. They are so formidable the DIA worries Kim may “take more belligerent action if he perceives he is safe from counterattack.”

North Korea’s air force and air defense system is, in large part, out of date, the DIA said. The most advanced fighters it has are 1980s-vintage, Russian-made MiG-29s, but the bulk of the air force is “much older,” and North Korea is “one of the only air forces in the world that still operates MiG-21s, MiG-19s, MiG-17s, and MiG-15s,” the latter of which date back to the Korean War. The DPRK air force would “struggle to penetrate South Korean air defenses in an attack role,” the DIA said. North Korean pilots only get about 15 to 25 flying hours a year, so they have only basic proficiency.

Though Pyongyang’s industry was capable of assembling combat aircraft from kits supplied by Russia and China in the 1980s and 1990s, “that capability has waned,” the DIA judged. To maintain “its dated force,” North Korea must rely on “cannibalization and the purchase of spare parts from overseas markets.”

Pyongyang has a very basic capability to build “small to medium” unmanned aerial vehicles, mostly based on Chinese designs, and is importing others. Some of these have been used for “reconnaissance missions over South Korea and which could be equipped with rudimentary armaments.” Models that crashed on South Korean territory have been studied, showing no advanced capabilities.

The sole exception is one based on the American MQM-107D Streaker, “that probably was acquired from Middle Eastern sources.” Pyongyang is expected to graduate to larger UAVs in the near future.

Ground-based air defenses in North Korea tend to be clustered around Pyongyang. “The capital has one of the most dense concentrations of (anti-aircraft artillery) in the world,” the report noted. They are “primarily fixed, but transportable” air defense missile batteries, capable of “basic air defense operations.” The bulk of air defense missile systems are Soviet-era SA-2s, SA-3s, SA-5s, and SA-13s. The latter, though a “double-digit” surface-to-air missile system, is a vehicle-based system designed to hit aircraft at “medium to low altitudes,” the DIA said. The rest
are systems the U.S. overcame 30 years ago in the 1991 Gulf War. Some new systems are being introduced in very small numbers; “During a 2020 military parade, North Korea first displayeda new mobile SAM launcher and accompanying radar that externally resembled the Russian S-300 and Chinese HQ-9,” the DIA noted. It added that North Korea has “a large number of aging early warning and intercept radars that provide basic detection of large aircraft at long distances to support the defense of its airspace.”

The DPRK military puts high value on electronic warfare, the DIA said. It is viewed as “an essential tool” in countering western advanced systems and precision-guided munitions, as well as defeating or disrupting enemy command and control and intelligence-gathering. The North has operated GPS jammers near the demilitarized zone on a number of occasions, and this has interfered with “navigation systems onboard commercial aircraft flying in the area.”

Likewise, Pyongyang openly says it will try to defeat U.S. space capabilities with jamming of GPS and others satellites; these capabilities “have been tested on multiple occasions in the last decade,” the DIA cited. Having ballistic missiles also “theoretically suggests” that Pyongyang could have a kinetic anti-satellite capability.

North Korea’s indigenous space capabilities have allowed it to put two satellites in orbit by 2016, but not in recent years. Cyber is viewed as one of North Korea’s key fighting domains. Pyongyang sees cyber capabilities as “a low-cost and deniable tool” that can disrupt enemy operations and even attack adversary domestic infrastructure in peacetime “with little risk of reprisal,” the DIA said. The cyber enterprise also allows Pyongyang to gather intelligence and “generate currency that circumvents international controls.”

The DIA, citing its own sources and the FBI, attributes several well-known cyber attacks to North Korea. One was the 2014 attack on the Sony Pictures Entertainment network after Sony refused to accede to Pyongyang’s demands to cancel the release of a movie depicting the assassination of Kim Jong Il. The attack deleted data and blocked employee access. The 2017 “WannaCry “ computer worm attack, which hit “over 250,000 computers in over
150 countries” was also the work of Pyongyang, and disrupted networks worldwide, including Britain’s National Health Service. Some of the regime’s operating funds also stem from cyber crime. The DIA said North Korea was behind the 2016 theft of $80 million from the Bank of Bangladesh, and that “more than 100 banks” worldwide have been robbed “using a combination of malware tools and harvested user credentials.” Using the internet, North Korea does business that evades economic sanctions using both domestic and foreign-based cyber entities.

“Theft, fraud, blackmail, online gambling, and other cyberactivities” have raised revenue of about $860 million annually for the Kim regime, the DIA reported.

Given increasing sanctions as Pyongyang ignores bans on ballistic missile and nuclear tests, the regime is likely to “continue turning to cybercrime as a means to generate currency to fund its weapon programs while sidestepping international efforts to freeze [its] funding.”

While DPRK doctrine calls for maintaining a six-month of supply of food, ammunition and other war materiel, it may only have “sufficient supplies for … two to three months,” the DIA determined. “Subsistence supplies could last up to three months, and ammunition could last slightly longer.” Inadequate fuel and transportation capability, poor maintenance of ground lines of communication, and insufficient training “all constrain North Korea’s large-scale conventional offensive operations.” North Korea’s roads, in particular, are all “in poor condition,” and many are little more than “unpaved gravel or dirt surfaces.” While this helps in defense, it hampers the North Korean army “in the offense.”

North Korea’s military problems stem mainly from “the loss of direct Soviet and Chinese military-to-military support in the early 1990s,” and an attendant “major economic decline” in that decade, the DIA recalls. But Pyongyang is making the best of the capabilities it has and continues on a path “to a nuclear breakout,” making it a continuing “critical security challenge”to the U.S. and its allies for “years to come.”