‘Great war coming’: North Korea is finally at the brink

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Global Information System / Defense & Foreign Affairs

DPRK leader Kim Jong-Un, besieged by the U.S., continues to threaten all-out nuclear war against any who threaten North Korea. But this represents only part of the equation: the DPRK’s Korean People’s Army (KPA) also prepares for non-nuclear surprise attacks of strategic significance.

Whether the DPRK can be contained before an all-out war is launched is the key unknown. Presently, not only the U.S. has no viable response to these KPA contingency plans short of a major escalation to an all-out war, but the U.S. is directly responsible for the deterioration of the situation on the Korean Peninsula.

The hubris of the U.S. Korean policy since the beginning of the 21st Century has consistently escalated the threat perception (and consequent response) by the DPRK leadership.

The DPRK is already capable of implementing the bulk of its nuclear doctrine. The incomplete ability to hit the continental U.S. is an add-on for Pyongyang: lucrative, but not crucial.

The DPRK’s nuclear doctrine was originally adopted around 1990 under Kim Il-Sung in the context of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the nascent ascent of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The North Korean doctrine is a direct evolution of the PRC’s early plans for a regional nuclear war drawn by Marshal Lin Biao in the late 1960s.

Lin Biao was one of the main professional mentors of the DPRK’s military elite during and after the Korean War. The PRC had a minuscule nuclear arsenal in the late 1960s, and Lin Biao sought to overcome this hurdle and still successfully confront the U.S.

The PRC identified three targets in Japan and one in South Korea, the destruction of which by nuclear weapons would cause significant numbers of U.S. military casualties. At a time of crisis, The PRC could serve the U.S. with an ultimatum. Beijing believed that “because America lacked nerve … any American President would choose to retreat in such a situation.”

Should the PRC decide to launch a surprise strike against these targets, a major worldwide pressure to avoid an escalation to a global nuclear war would further restrain the U.S. from launching massive retaliation. Under such circumstances, Beijing believed, “a weaker China could conquer [triumph over] a stronger America” in a regional war.

The North Korean unique character of the nuclear warfare doctrine and the subsequent development of missiles and warheads were formulated in accordance with a master-plan prepared and continuously perfected by Gen. O Kuk-Yol (also spelled Ryol) since 1988. He was educated in the Air Force and Frunze Soviet military academies, and speaks English, Russian, and Chinese.

O Kuk-Yol rose in ranks to become the Chief of General Staff of the KPA. In 1988, he was removed from this position by Kim Il-Sung in order to educate and prepare Kim Jong-Il for his eventual succession as leader, as well as chart the course of North Korea’s national security in the post-Soviet era and particularly in lieu of the ascent of the PRC.

O Kuk-Yol is a military reformer and advocate of hi-tech weaponry and the development military industries. He established the Mirim Electronic Warfare Institute and the North Korean electronic and cyber warfare capabilities. He also founded the DPRK’s defense industrial base, insisting on the development and self-production of all weapons from small arms ammunition to ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons. In late-2000, O Kuk-Yol was nominated as the tutor for national security affairs of Kim Jong-Un in order to prepare him for the eventual succession of his father.

O Kuk-Yol is now a Vice Chairman of the National Defense Commission and also a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party (WPK).

The enduring power and influence of O Kuk-Yol are also the result of the special relations between Kim Jong-Un and O’s son O Se-Won. Officially, O Se-Won is a special advisor to Kim Jong-Un on political-economic relations with the PRC.

In reality, O Se-Won is the leader of a small unofficial group known as “Ponghwajo” (“Torch Group”). Between 2000 and his ascent to power in December 2011, Kim Jong-Un was an active member.

All the members of the “Ponghwajo” are North Korea’s princelings; that is, the sons and daughters of Communist Party, intelligence/security and military leaders who have amassed fortunes through the ruling system.

As well, O Se-Won and the “Ponghwajo” are running the dark side of the DPRK economy, from narcotics smuggling and counterfeit money (including counterfeit $100 notes) to acquiring hi-tech for national security, as well as to handling the foreign currency stashes of the uppermost élite and the importation of luxury items for them.

The importance and strength of O Kuk-Yol and O Se-Won was clearly demonstrated in 2004. O Se-Uk, another child of O Kuk-Yol, was ensnared in economic criminality abroad and was convinced to defect to the U.S. as the sole substitute to lengthy and most unpleasant incarceration. The position at the top of both O Kuk-Yol and O Se-Won was not affected. Nor was O Kuk-Yol’s analysis of the threats and opportunities facing the DPRK challenged.

According to the O Kuk-Yol doctrine, the virtually only casus belli as far as Pyongyang goes is a U.S.-led attempt to impose a regime change in Pyongyang. Although Pyongyang repeatedly warns about impending U.S. and RoK attacks and invasions, the ruling Kims know this is not a viable threat. However, there is a fixation among the Pyongyang élite with threats to the Kims and their inner-most coterie, mainly from the U.S., but also from the PRC and Russia.

The anticipated threats include machinations with dissatisfied princelings, conspiracies with power-hungry members of the security elite to launch a military coup, all the way to assassination by the U.S. in order to bring in puppet-leaders from the outside (just as the Soviet Union brought in grandpa Kim Il-Sung).

The DPRK’s national doctrine is based on attaining victory in the non-nuclear “initial period of war” (a Soviet term) under the umbrella of nuclear blackmail. The North Korean drive was designed to be reinforced by a comprehensive global cyberwarfare, and, should the need arise, “sub-nuclear demonstration [of resolve]” (a Chinese term) in the form of EMP strikes which would darken South Korea, Japan, and beyond (eg: Guam, Hawaii, and parts of mainland China and Russia).

EMP is the result of a nuclear burst on the edge of space which would fry all modern electronics, thus bringing the modern state into paralysis and devastation. In case of battlefield setbacks or unanticipated strong reaction by the world powers, the DPRK would launch surprise nuclear strikes in order to compel the U.S.-led West into ending the war. Pyongyang is convinced that under such circumstances the PRC and Russia would be able to contain the U.S. before the DPRK was destroyed by nuclear counter-attacks.

That said, the DPRK is presently focusing on a major brinkmanship and provocations escalating into a limited and self-constrained use of force across the DMZ. The real threat to the Republic of Korea (ROK: South Korea) and the U.S. comes from old fashioned artillery and special forces. The main threat comes from the 620 Artillery Corps which is deployed in the Hwanghae-bukto (also spelled bukdo) province just north of Seoul. The 620 Artillery Corps has over 8,000 artillery systems, 500 of them heavy, long-range pieces, hidden in more than 4,000 underground facilities.

The North Korean special forces field more than 100,000 elite and 150,000 auxiliary forces, as well as dedicated transportation systems.

Pyongyang has repeatedly threatened to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire” through conventional artillery and rocket barrages. Indeed, massive barrages by the 620 Artillery Corps would be enough to inflict heavy civilian casualties in, and huge damage to, Seoul. The best U.S. estimates are that casualties in the larger Seoul metropolitan area alone would surpass 100,000 within 48 hours.

Meanwhile, special forces would cause disruption of life throughout South Korea and, if necessary, also Japan. Detachments of special forces, many in RoK uniforms, would be rushing south through tunnels, on foot through mountain passes, as well as by hard-to-detect semi-submersibles and An-2 bi-planes. Their main mission would be to create widespread chaos which would make the country ungovernable. There would be attempts at spectacular attacks on the Blue House and other key national and strategic objectives, but the success of these is not considered by Pyongyang crucial to the overall outcome.

For Pyongyang, this is a political sub-war.

The ultimate objective would be to convincingly demonstrate the U.S. impotence. Indeed, there is a limit as to what the U.S. can do to ameliorate the damage, particularly in the first hours and days following a surprise attack. Air power is extremely limited when coming to hunting down individual pieces of artillery coming out of caves to fire a few salvos over the mountains and then pushed back in for reloads and maintenance, all the more so since the area is also saturated with low- and medium- altitude air defense.

There is also a limit as to what could be done to stop the swarms of special forces. Allied forces committed to hunting down the North Korean special forces in the RoK rear would be forces not available for the front-lines. All-out cyberwarfare would vastly complicate the U.S. and RoK ability to assume control and react in a timely manner.

The flow of civilians rushing southwards would clog all roads and highways. Even limited use of chemical and biological weapons, or even rumors of such use, would add to the chaos and panic. These waves of humanity fleeing southwards would slow down the flow of reinforcement forces northwards. In the current state of the KPA, the DPRK could launch this type of surprise attack on a moment’s notice and with the U.S. and RoK having no forewarning at all.

Whether North Korean forces would then invade the RoK depends solely on Pyongyang’s decision. The KPA has several dedicated armored and mechanized Corps at the ready for the swift thrust and envelopment of virtually the entire South Korea.

The KPA’s main thrust formations are likely to gain major achievements in what the Soviets called “the initial period of war”. Indeed, all the simulations of a KPA surprise invasion since the Soviets reorganized the KPA in the late-1980s have had the KPA achieving major initial gains. The reversal of these gains would require the amassing of huge ground forces overtime and an ensuing protracted and costly land warfare which would all but destroy South Korea in order to liberate it.

Indeed, U.S. retaliation for non-nuclear fire strikes on Seoul and massive use of special forces, and even a swift invasion, is limited at best and possibly futile.

Nuclear first use is highly unlikely (particularly since both the PRC and Russia are bound to warn the U.S. not to use nuclear weapons near their own borders). Therefore, a U.S. nuclear ultimatum against a non-nuclear invasion would be all but ignored by Pyongyang.

The U.S. might attempt a regime change by force. Should escalation continue, the U.S. could launch a massive air-war destroying the North Korean economy and state infrastructure, leading for an all-out war short of the use of nuclear weapons. However, both Moscow and Beijing are petrified of Pyongyang’s likely nuclear extortion and threats in order to get support – military, political, economic – against the U.S. in case of a war going badly.

It is the PRC and Russian self-interest to avoid the risk of spillover, rather than support for Pyongyang, that would decide their reaction to the crisis and war.

The PRC and Russia factor in the Korean crisis is focused on preventing the above scenario from ever coming even close to eruption. Both Beijing and Moscow are cognizant that the Kims’ determination to guarantee the leadership’s self-survival and immunity to decapitation is at the core of the current instability and slide toward regional eruption.

There is no love in Beijing or Moscow for the Kim dynasty or a commitment for their enduring in power.

However, there is the historic PRC perception of the acceptable grand-strategic posture in the Far East which Beijing is loathe to sacrifice. Moreover, Moscow has long concurred with the PRC strategic and regional calculations. It is Washington’s persistent ignoring of these grand-strategic calculations which prevents the defusing of the Korean Peninsula.

The PRC sought to bring prudence and pragmatism to U.S. policy in the Far East since George Bush (43) took office in 2000. Beijing sought to remedy the aftermath of Clinton’s mercurial decade. When presidents Jiang Zemin and Bush met in late October 2002 in Crawford, Texas, Jiang articulated China’s position and offered assistance to the U.S. in resolving the Kim quagmire. By then, Kim Jong-Il was openly acknowledging the violation of the 1994 Agreed Framework to the point that by the second half of 2002 the agreement fell apart with the U.S. and the DPRK blaming the other for its failure.

Pyongyang was accelerating the nuclear build-up in order to acquire doomsday insurance against decapitation of the leadership by the U.S., as Washington demonstrated in Serbia, Afghanistan, and, soon was to do in Iraq. The PRC position, as articulated in 2002 by Jiang Zemin, was raised several times with U.S. leaders, the last time by President Xi Jinping to Donald Trump in April 2017 in Mar-a-Lago, Florida.

The quintessence of the PRC grand strategy is that there can be no U.S. forces and no “U.S. puppet” or “U.S. colony” on the banks of the Yalu River under any circumstances.

Significantly, the recent PRC explanation of its own and the Soviet intervention in the Korean War stresses this point. Their invasion of North Korea and the attacks on the U.S./UN forces were not in order to save Kim Il-Sung, but in order to prevent U.S. forces from reaching the PRC border. These strategic imperatives remain valid to this day. The PRC would, therefore, actively prevent the U.S. from reaching its border at a heartbeat should the need arise again.

Thus, Beijing has always been extremely worried about the Kims’ penchant for brinkmanship and provocations, and there was no love lost between the mercurial Kims and the prudent Forbidden Palace. Hence, Beijing has been ready to accept, and even actively support, a “regime change” in Pyongyang under the overall acceptable strategic posture of no U.S. forces and/or allies on the Yalu. At the same time, Beijing is cognizant that there can be no drastic changes in Pyongyang without cooperation with, or the agreement of, Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo.

Therefore, since 2002, Beijing has repeatedly raised two possible solutions for the post-Kims Korean Peninsula.

Preferably, Korea would remain divided with North Korea becoming a neutral buffer state; a type of Cold War Finland or Austria. Given the U.S. insistence on unification, the PRC has been willing to consider the Finlandization of the entire united Korea. But this would require the U.S. abrogating all pertinent treaties and agreements with Seoul, and withdrawing all U.S./UN forces.

In response, Washington has adamantly insisted that the united Korea would continue to adhere to all treaties with the U.S., and that U.S. forces would remain in, and be based throughout, the entire united Korea. The U.S. push of NATO eastwards in blatant disregard and contradiction of promises to Soviet leaders Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin convinced Beijing they could not trust U.S. assurances.

Having to choose between the mercurial Kims and a U.S.-dominated Korea on the PRC’s border, Beijing has chosen the Kims as the lesser evil, and would continue to prop up Kim Jong-Un’s Government.

In mid-April, 2017, upon Xi’s return from Florida, Beijing articulated the PRC doctrine for North Korea in a most authoritative statement distributed to the military and diplomatic élites.

“China very much hopes that the DPRK nuclear issue can be solved as soon as possible. But no matter what happens, China has a bottom line that it will protect at all costs, that is, the security and stability of north-east China.” Beijing’s Korean policy is based on two crux issues about which there would be no compromise.

First, “DPRK’s nuclear activities must not cause any pollution to north-east China”. The focus on pollution means that China would not tolerate nuclear pollution from U.S. nuclear strikes, as well.

Second, “the DPRK must not fall into the turmoil to send a large number of refugees, it is not allowed to have a government that is hostile against China on the other side of the Yalu River, and the U.S. military must not push forward its forces to the Yalu River”. The document asserted in no uncertain way that “China will not allow the existence of a government that is hostile against China on the other side of the Yalu River, and the U.S. military must not push forward its military forces to the Yalu River”.

Beijing threatened military action if these crux interests were threatened. “If the [above] bottom line is touched, China will employ all means available including the military means to strike back,” the document asserted. “By that time, it is not an issue of discussion whether China acquiesces in the U.S.’ blows, but the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will launch attacks [on] DPRK nuclear facilities on its own.”

To reiterate China’s commitment to a military intervention should the U.S. encroach on the Yalu, Beijing brought back the ghosts of the PRC intervention in the Korean War. It was “an advance such as this” by the U.S.-led forces in October 1950 that compelled Beijing to commit “the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army” to attacking the U.S.-led forces and pushing them back to the 38th Parallel. Beijing stressed that the PRC military intervention and the turn-around of the U.S. fortunes in Korea could have been avoided had the U.S. complied with PRC demands that U.S. forces stop a short distance from the Yalu.

Beijing noted that during the Korean War, “the United States-led united army troops from multiple countries announced that the united troops would not advance the battlefront to the Yalu River, but would stop at 40 miles (64 kilometers) south of the Sino-DPRK border. They called this line MacArthur Line back then.” When the U.S.-led forces failed to stop along the MacArthur Line as demanded by the PRC, the PLA moved in and launched the major offensive. The message is clear: Washington must not repeat the mistakes of 1950 for it would risk another PRC intervention and war.

Subsequently, this theme has been elaborated on to new extremes as a message to the Trump White House that the Forbidden City is focused on guaranteeing the PRC’s vital interests rather than shielding the Kims’ Government.

Shen Zhihua, one of the most prominent experts on the Korean War, formally distanced Beijing from Pyongyang. “Judging by the current situation, North Korea is China’s latent enemy and South Korea could be China’s friend,” he observed. “We must see clearly that China and North Korea are no longer brothers in arms, and in the short term there’s no possibility of an improvement in Chinese-North Korean relations.”

Shen Zhihua emphasized that his statements were the result of a professional analysis rather than reinterpretation of the past. “The fundamental interests of China and North Korea are at odds.” He opined that the PRC should lead the quick resolution of the North Korean challenge and menace before the U.S. had an excuse to intervene unilaterally. He alluded to the North Korean nuclear blackmail doctrine. “If North Korea really does master nuclear weapons and their delivery, then the whole world will have to prostrate itself at the feet of North Korea,” Shen Zhihua explained. “The longer this drags out, the better it is for North Korea.”

In mid-April 2017, the PRC started to undertake military moves in order to prevent U.S. occupation of North Korea and deter U.S. nuclear strikes but not to save the Kims’ Government. Beijing ordered the activation of wartime readiness of the eastern parts of the Northern Battle Zones (Theater), mainly in areas that used to be the Shenyang Military Region (MR) before the February 2016 military reform. Beijing ordered the main formations at all five military regions “to maintain preparedness because of the situation in North Korea” and to be ready to move in the event of a crisis or conflict in the Korean Peninsula. Additional units all over the PRC were ordered to prepare for a possible move eastward.

Beijing is preparing for the eventuality of a major and protracted war in Korea. In the Northern Theater, the North-eastern District Defense Command ordered more than 150,000 troops to mobilize all resources and prepare to move toward the Yalu. The main units affected are the 16th, 23rd, 39th, and 40th Group Armies (in the former Shenyang MR) and the 26th Group Army (in the former Jinan MR). Most important are the 39th and the 40th Group Armies; both with headquarters in Yingkou and Jinzhou in Liaoning Province. The 39th is a heavy armored-mechanized unit and the 40th is the regional rapid reaction force. The 16th and the 23rd are armored-mechanized units. The 26th is part of the PLA’s strategic reserve, so its activation implies that Beijing is anticipating a lengthy conflict.

Elsewhere in the PRC, several armored and mechanized-infantry brigades in the provinces of Shaanxi, Shandong, Zhejiang, and Yunnan received “the state mandate” to raise their readiness level, mobilize resources, and be ready to move eastward. By mid-April 2017, 25,000 troops of the 9th Armored Brigade (HQ in Chengcheng, Shaanxi Province) of the 47th Group Army (HQ in Lintong, Shaanxi Province, former Lanzhou MR) were the first to begin the deployment eastward.

Additional civil defense, medical and back-up support units from all over the PRC were informed they would be dispatched to “train for North Korean refugees” along the border.

Concurrently, the Northern Theater started raising the readiness levels of the regional strategic assets, including nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles. These are under the command of the 51st Rocket Army with HQ in Shenyang, Liaoning Province. The Army includes 12 Dongfeng-03 ballistic missiles, 24 Dongfeng-21 “Carrier-killer” missiles, and a number of the new Dongfeng-31A mobile ballistic missiles. One was test-launched.in order to expedite the operational status of the Dongfeng-31A elements.

The Northern Theater also issued “the orders for full-scale pre-emptive” deployment to all the submarines and submarine units under their command. The People’s Liberation Army Air Forces (PLAAF) of the former Shenyang MR were also put “on high alert” in order to “reduce the time to react to a North Korea contingency.” These units included “land-attack, cruise-missile capable bombers” whose missions include “an invasion of that country to eliminate its nuclear weapons making program”. In addition, a large number of PRC military aircraft – mainly tactical fighter-bombers and helicopters – were being brought up to full readiness through intensified maintenance. The PLAAF units were informed specifically that these undertakings were aimed to “reduce the time to react to a North Korea contingency”.

Meanwhile, the Russian Armed Forces on the Pacific coast also began mobilization and force movements. Local units, mainly air defense missiles and heliborne special forces, were being rushed to the North Korean border. These forces include units normally earmarked for the defense of Vladivostok and nearby strategic installations, a reflection of Moscow’s sense of urgency.

The tension in and around the Korean Peninsula keeps rising.

Beijing is increasingly petrified that a small incident would spark a regional war which might escalate into a nuclear exchange. There is plenty of blame to go around, PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi explained on April 14, 2017: “The United States and South Korea and North Korea are engaging in tit for tat, with swords drawn and bows bent, and there have been storm clouds gathering. If they let war break out on the peninsula, they must shoulder that historical culpability and pay the corresponding price for this.”

Yet, Trump’s Washington still misunderstands, or simply ignores, the legitimate concerns of both Beijing and Moscow. In his April 12, 2017, interview with the The Wall Street Journal, President Trump acknowledged that the situation in Korea was more complicated than he had estimated. He attributed this to his exchange with Xi in Mar-a-Lago. “He then went into the history of China and Korea. Not North Korea, Korea. And you know, you’re talking about thousands of years … and many wars. And Korea actually used to be a part of China. And after listening for 10 minutes, I realized that it’s not so easy,” Trump explained.

In this discussion, President Xi stressed that Korea has been a crucial part of China’s historic buffer and sphere of influence, and that this posture must continue. President Trump listened carefully, but there is no indication that the White House internalized, let alone accepted, Beijing’s concerns. U.S. rhetoric continues to insist on the imperative of a U.S.-dominated unified Korea once the Kim dynasty was overthrown by agreement or war.

Official Pyongyang remains defiant and bellicose. On April 22, Pyongyang warned that a “great war is coming” to the Korean peninsula. Such a war might escalate into a nuclear exchange. “Now that we possess mighty nuclear power to protect ourselves from U.S. nuclear threat, we will respond without the slightest hesitation to full-out war with full-out war, and to nuclear war with our style of nuclear strike, and we will emerge victor in the final battle with the United States,” the latest statement of the Foreign Ministry read.

The official newspaper, Nodong Sinmun, warned that the DPRK would not hesitate to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike if threatened and provoked. “The U.S. has now gone seriously mad. It is mulling frightening the DPRK and achieving something with nuclear strategic bombers, nuclear carriers, etc. However, the army and people of the DPRK will never be browbeaten by such bluffing,” the April 22, 2017, Editorial read. “Under the situation where the U.S. hurts the DPRK by force of arms, we have nothing to be bound to. The DPRK will answer to such war moves and provocations with pre-emptive strike of its own style and a great war of justice for national reunification.”

Pyongyang means every word, and Beijing and Moscow dread the ramifications of both Pyongyang’s reckless bellicosity and Washington’s profound stubbornness and refusal to understand the situation.