18.10.2022 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

DPRK exercises: Pyongyang has revealed its cards and the dangerous line is half a step closer

Since the publication of the visit of the US carrier group to the ROK, the vicious circle of tensions has taken another turn or two.

The previous digest was ended with Pyongyang launching two short-range ballistic missiles on October 6, while 8 North Korean fighter jets and 4 bombers flew near the line of emphasis on the inter-Korean border.

On October 7-8, the ROK and US Navies conducted a joint exercise in the East Sea.

On October 8, North Korea said its missile tests were “a regular and planned self-defense move to protect the security of the country and the regional world from direct US military threats that have persisted for more than half a century” and that Pyongyang was observing joint naval exercises of Seoul and Washington.  On October 8, the DPRK held its own large-scale air force demonstration exercise with live firing, involving up to 150 combat aircraft of various types. In response, Seoul promptly raised its F-35A fighter jets to the sky, which have been patrolling ROK airspace for a long time.

On October 9, North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles towards the Sea of Japan, prompting reactions in Seoul. The ROK spoke of needing a more serious response for such a source of provocation, ranging from a new round of unilateral sanctions to the termination of the 2018 inter-Korean agreement to reduce military tensions. It should be recalled that the agreement of September 19, 2018, signed after the summit between then President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, calls for an end to all hostile military activities between the Koreas and includes plans to turn the demilitarized zone into a peace zone, develop military guarantees to boost cross-border exchanges and establish military confidence-building measures. It calls on the two Koreas to stop hostile activities against each other, including field training exercises near the inter-Korean border, creating buffer zones in water and air in addition to the DMZ.

On October 4, during a parliamentary inspection, Minister of Defense Lee Jong-sup touched on the need to revise the document, noting the undesirability of a situation in which only the South Korean side abides by the clauses of the agreement.  Lee said the effectiveness of the agreement could be considered depending on the extent of Pyongyang’s unfriendly actions.

On October 7, ROK President Yoon Suk-yeol said he was gradually preparing a response in case Pyongyang goes ahead with another nuclear test, but noted it was difficult to say in advance what it would contain.

It seems that Yoon Suk-yeol, as a pragmatist, has decided to sacrifice inter-Korean relations for relations with the US. And there is a rationale behind it. It will not come to war or heated incidents and it can be seen that they are trying to stop those actions that really annoy the North (like launching leaflets). Yes, the sides will call names and carry out exercises that the other side will call “provocations”, but Yoon is well aware that this is an acceptable bottom level of relationship.  It will not be allowed to descend to the level of armed conflict, and there is neither the will nor the ability to rise to the higher level.

Of course, the Conservatives have a plan for an inter-Korean settlement, but these are rehashes of Lee Myung-bak’s “denuclearization-openness-3000 ($ per capita as the estimated level of income the North will reach thanks to South Korean economic aid after disarmament)” initiative. However, even in the late 2000s the validity of these proposals was highly questionable. And then first Libya and then Crimea happened. So perhaps the Conservatives can’t help but talk about dialogue, but would probably be happy for the North to reject it.

Meanwhile, the KCNA remained silent for the time being, but on October 10, the day the Workers’ Party was founded, the North “opened the maps and posted the photos” and this showed the extent to which Western or South Korean analysts draw their conclusions not from secret sources or images, but from photos from the KCNA.

Well, their time has come. For, as it turned out, all these launches were part of a comprehensive “nuclear counterattack” exercise, undertaken in response to a visit by a US aircraft carrier group and other less significant events. High-quality and numerous photos demonstrated both the missiles flying and the level of propaganda, but rather it is more interesting to talk about what the “exercise plan” looked like from the perspective of the Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party of Korea.

  • On September 25, ballistic missiles simulating missiles with a tactical nuclear warhead were launched from an underwater launch pad in a reservoir in northwest Korea. The purpose of the launch was to confirm the rapid and safe operation and handling of tactical nuclear warheads during their removal, transport and use.
  • On September 28, there was an exercise to launch ballistic missiles simulating tactical nuclear warhead missiles, aimed at neutralizing airfields in South Korea’s operational zone.
  • On September 29 and October 1, tactical ballistic missiles of various types were launched: “designated targets were hit by an air blast combined with a direct precision strike and a spray shot”.
  • On October 4, the Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party of Korea “having decided to give its enemies a stronger and clearer warning in response to the ongoing unstable situation on the Korean Peninsula, ordered a strike by a new type of medium- and long-range surface-to-surface ballistic missile against a designated target at 4,500 km in the Pacific Ocean through the Japanese islands”.
  • On October 6, a large-caliber MLRS (de facto firing short-range missiles with appropriate firing rate) and tactical missile launches were conducted, simulating a strike against the main targets of the enemy’s military command.
  • On October 6 and 8, front-line long-range artillery units and KPA air detachments conducted a firing exercise. On October 6, units of the Western Front “worked”: first, the air detachments of the Air Force performed the tasks of striking with medium-range air-to-ground guided bombs and cruise missiles, making a flying raid and a bombing raid on a target – an island simulating an enemy military base, then the front-line long-range artillery units carried out a firing attack on a target in turn.
  • On October 8, the KPA Air Force held a large-scale integrated air attack exercise that, for the first time ever, involved more than 150 different fighter aircraft simultaneously. The exercise was aimed at assessing the ability of combat pilots in air divisions and air regiments to strike a ground target and engage in aerial combat, practise flight control and enhance the ability of units to conduct joint operations. This was followed by a large-scale exercise of long-range artillery units of the Eastern Front in a concentrated fire strike simulating an attack on enemy operational airfields.
  • On October 9, a super-large MLRS firing exercise was held, simulating a strike against major enemy ports.

Thus there is a very serious integrated combined-attack exercise that “showed the real combat effectiveness of Korea’s nuclear armed forces, which are on full alert to destroy any object at any time, any place and in any quantity”.

However, while the exercise was presented as a “nuclear counterattack”, it did not go as far as a nuclear test.

The author points out that the DPRK has again shown something new during the exercise:

  • Guided bombs – this is presumably an in-house designed loitering munition, the presence of which has not previously been noted.
  • An underwater missile pit rather than a simulated SLBM is an interesting technique, weakening the possibility of a preemptive strike, which has puzzled US military analysts, combined with the emergence of railcar-launched ICBM or mobile launchers.
  • Judging by the photo, the MRBM that flew over Japan was not a classic Hwasong-12, but either a different missile or an upgrade.
  • Previous exercises were more directed against the US, here the North simulated strikes against South Korean airports, military installations and ports, showing it was capable of launching a critical strike against infrastructure.
  • Finally, the exercises were conducted as if the North already had tactical nuclear weapons, and in sufficient numbers to deploy them on missiles. Of course, according to South Korean analyst Go Myong-hyun, back in 2016 the North claimed to have miniaturized nuclear warheads for short-range missiles.

Reactions to the statements about the exercises generally fit the patterns described by the author earlier. On October 11, ROK President Yoon Suk-yeol said North Korea continues to develop nuclear weapons, thereby threatening the world, but Pyongyang stands to gain nothing from this. As the nuclear threat “becomes more serious by the day”, Seoul will continue to build a solid system of countermeasures based on its alliance with Washington and the trilateral security cooperation between the ROK, the US and Japan. The President urged the people of the country not to worry about this and to focus on economic activities.

A Department of State representative said on October 10 that joint field training exercises with South Korea, do not justify the North’s missile provocations.

Yonhap materials had texts coming out with the tag #NK provocation, with some Southern media repeating mantras that “the Kim regime seems to be using the nuclear program to tighten his grip on power and promote internal unity amid the North’s economic hardship”.

According to former IAEA Deputy Director-General Olli Heinonen, the DPRK’s next nuclear test will be a low-yield test (between 1 and 20 kt) to develop tactical nuclear weapons.

Moreover, in a telephone interview with Yonhap News Agency on October 11, a senior official in the ROK presidential administration said that in addition to ballistic missile launches and a possible nuclear weapons test, there is the possibility of unfriendly action by Pyongyang using conventional weapons.

Unsurprisingly, talk continued that in the event of a nuclear test by the North, the South should terminate the 2018 agreement. This was stated on October 11 by the leader of the ruling party, Chung Jin-suk, a man from the President’s team. Moreover, Chung believes that “should North Korea go ahead with its seventh nuclear test, not only the Sept. 19 inter-Korean military agreement signed during the Moon Jae-in administration but also the 1991 Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula should be scrapped”. Kwon Young-se, head of the Unification Ministry, spoke in similar rhetoric.

Spokesman for the Foreign Ministry Lim Soo-suk also hinted at the possibility of unilateral sanctions against Pyongyang. However, experts are skeptical about their effectiveness, as even an international “near-embargo” has so far not particularly affected North Korea’s ability to finance its missile programs, and increased secondary boycott tactics could further exacerbate the US-China rivalry.

What’s the bottom line? It is hoped that, after such an impressive demonstration, tensions will subside for a while and the rest of 2022 will pass without incident after all. But inter-Korean relations are clearly entering a phase of cold pause, and we are back to the days of annual aggravations amid maneuvers. However, Yoon’s inter-Korean course still includes some “bold and interesting ideas” worthy of separate consideration.

 Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia, the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.