Patricia Lewis
Research Director, International Security

It is impossible to say whether the recent threats from North Korea constitute a clear and immediate danger or whether the strong threats are just bluster in order to extract food aid and technical assistance from the international community. 

Over the decades the DPRK has carried out a series of intermittent attacks including, for example, an attack on the South Korean President’s residence and attacks on officials abroad; the mid-flight bombing of a KAL plane and more recently, the artillery bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island killing four and injuring nineteen people. Furthermore, cyber attacks are now a regular part of conflict – they are capacities possessed by all sides and could lead to increasing confusion and escalation.

North Korea's armed forces

Although terrorist-style attacks could be employed again, the predominant threat that North Korea presents is to South Korea through the use of large-scale conventional forces. North Korea has a million-strong army with just fewer than five million active duty reservists. The quality of the reservists’ training and nutrition is in no doubt very poor but the large numbers must be factored into any equation for military planning. The land forces comprise of approximately 3,500 main battle tanks – many of which are very old Soviet models such as the T54s, first built in the mid-1940s but still in use with refits and upgrades, and there are estimated to be about 800 T62 tanks that were manufactured between the early 1960s and the mid-1970s. There are estimated to be about 10,000 artillery pieces, including mobile systems and rocket launchers. For a peninsula, North Korea has a poor naval capability. It possesses approximately 40 missile boats, 100 torpedo boats, 25 old Soviet diesel submarines and 65 miniature submarines.

Missile forces

North Korea has invested considerable energy into its missile programme, in part for self-defence and in part to generate income through sales to other countries and non-state armed groups. The International Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation has put in place voluntary restrictions on the export of ballistic missile technology but North Korea has not signed the Code. It has successfully tested short and medium range missiles such as the Hwasong 5 and 6 (Scud variety) missiles that have ranges of 200-500km and could easily reach Seoul. These are notoriously inaccurate, which is true for most ballistic missile systems due to the dependability and variance in launch conditions, weather conditions and old or non-existent guidance systems. The lack of accuracy is one of the technical and tactical factors that prompt ballistic missile possessors into developing nuclear warheads as the large devastation caused by a nuclear explosion compensates for missing the target by miles. However, there is no finesses in nuclear targeting and likely blow-back of radiation - the fear of which is generating anxiety in China - and other effects, such as unleashing an attack in kind, are factors that temper nuclear ambitions in other countries, but obviously not in North Korea.

The medium-range missiles such as the Nodong missile (range 1,000km), the Taepodong I (2,000km) and the Musudan (4,000km) could reach targets in Japan, the Philippines and Guam. The range of a missile depends on many factors, including the weight of the warhead or payload that it is tasked with delivering. The newly developed long-range missiles that have not yet undergone a full testing programme – the Taepodong 2 and the KN08 (called also the Nodong C) – both have ranges of some 6,000km or greater and could reach Hawaii or Alaska or further into the US. It is important to note however that North Korea’s missile testing programme has had sporadic success and many failures. 

Nuclear threat?

North Korea is not a member of the global Chemical Weapons Convention and has never revealed the extent of its chemical capabilities. It is believed to possess a significant chemical weapons capability, but there are few trusted sources on this aspect of their military capability. The DPRK engaged in low-level nuclear weapons development following the 1957 US announcement of the abrogation of part of the 1953 Armistice in order to allow the positioning of US nuclear weapons in South Korea. These nuclear forces were removed in 1991, opening up a discussion that led to the 1992 Joint Declaration on Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. 

North Korea has clearly breached that agreement via its plutonium programme and its formerly covert HEU programme and its nuclear weapons tests, in addition to announcing its withdrawal from the NPT in 2003. However, all subsequent actions from the 1994 Agreed Framework between the US and DPRK to the 2005 Six Party Joint Statement, and the UN Security Council Resolutions on the North Korean nuclear programme depend on framing the Joint Declaration as a basis for commitments and accountability. 

North Korea has carried out three nuclear weapons tests. The first, in 2006, was a flop in terms of yield (a fizzle in nuclear parlance) although the CTBTO’s International Monitoring System detected a radioactive signature. The second and third were apparently successful tests in that they created large seismic disturbance – although there were no radioactive signatures detected. 

Speculation is rife that North Korea may be able to deliver a warhead by ballistic missile as the regime has claimed. It is important to remember however that nuclear bombs can be delivered by aircraft, by boat or by truck or train – ballistic missiles are not compulsory. The basis for the DPRK’s warhead designs has been plutonium extracted from the spent fuel of the Yongbyong reactor. It is estimated that North Korea has between 24-42kg of weapons grade plutonium and the regime recently announced that it has 38.5kg. Depending on design, this could be enough for somewhere between three and eight plutonium bombs. It is also believed that North Korea has developed a highly enriched uranium feed but there is no certainty about how much HEU it may have manufactured or whether it has a working HEU warhead design. The announcement recently that Pyongyang intends to restart the mothballed reactor at Yongbyong is not of immediate, but longer-term concern. Within some three-four years, approximately 6kg per year of plutonium could be extracted. 

Leap of faith 

Just over a year ago on 29 February 2012, following the induction of Kim Jong-un, and as a result of direct negotiations with the US and a generous food aid offer, North Korea agreed to suspend nuclear tests, long-range missile launches and enrichment of uranium at its Yongbyon nuclear facility. It also allowed IAEA inspectors back into the country. However, all that soon fell apart when in April 2012 North Korea launched a rocket that was ostensibly to place the Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 Earth observation satellite into orbit. That launch failed rather spectacularly but a successful repeat was made in December and the 'Leap-Day' agreement was dead in the water.

Provocative rhetoric

It is all too easy to dismiss the bellicose rhetoric emanating from North Korea this spring following UN Security Council Resolution 2094 in March, the election of South Korean President Park Geun-hye in December and the recent joint US-ROK exercises. Certainly Kim Jong-un's father took several years from 1994 to establish himself in the North Korean polity. It is no easy 'walk-in' role, despite the popular characterization of the young leader. 

However, Aesop’s lesson on the boy who cried wolf should temper complacency. There is much scope for misinterpretation and miscalculation, and colossal mistakes could be made. The conventional military capabilities of North Korea are all too real and all too close to Seoul. Any incursion could escalate involving the US and Japan, China, perhaps Russia and others. The scale of the conventional forces, let alone the use of any non-conventional weaponry including chemical and nuclear, would mean that any mistake would incur huge costs in lives lost. Just under a hundred years ago, an assassination triggered the devastating World War I in Europe. Constant vigilance, cool heads, steady hands and a full examination of the range of possible unintended consequences of action and inaction are required for the uneasy maintenance of peace on the Korean Peninsula. 

More on the Korean Peninsula