North Korea had the world on edge last week when it paraded new and improved weapons through Pyongyang right as a new nuclear test was expected, leading to talk of a preemptive strike by the U.S. While the country’s latest missile test was yet another failure, for a time war felt more imminent than ever. Here what happened, and where relations with the belligerent nation go from here.
It has been a busy past week for North Korea, to put things mildly. The nation was said to be “primed and ready” to conduct a sixth nuclear weapons test, and third since January 2016, confronted by a phantom American aircraft carrier battle group that was actually off the coast of Australia despite media reports, held their annual Day of the Sun parade to honor the dead patriarch of North Korea, threatened to “ruthlessly ravage” the U.S, in response to any American attack, but then failed to successfully launch a ballistic missile, ending the week on a highly embarrassing note.
It was a dramatic and tense week for a nation roughly the size of the state of Virginia and with a gross domestic product per capita of just $1,800. (Ours is about $56,000, if you’re curious.)
Kim Jong-un, the supreme leader of North Korea and style icon to its men, stood watch on Saturday in the capital of Pyongyang as the parade of military weapons—including previously unseen ballistic missiles—and soldiers marched to celebrate the 105th anniversary of the birth of his grandfather, Kim Il-sung. The date of April 15 is known as the Day of the Sun, and is North Korea’s most important holiday.
Major weapons systems on parade included mature missile systems like the KN-11 submarine launched ballistic missile and its land-launched mobile version, the KN-15. These weapons are designed to be survivable and represent a second-strike capability for North Korea. Also shown off were the KN-08 and KN-14, ICBMs which have never been fully flight tested, though speculation is that these weapons could reach the U.S. once fully developed.
Additionally, two new previously unseen canisterized ICBM-sized missiles appeared on massive transporter erector launchers (TELs), proving the North Koreans are still pushing forward with new designs even if the canisters were empty. They also showed off the KN-09 multiple rocket launcher, which debuted last year. It is the newest addition to North Korean artillery and represents a huge danger to South Korea.
The world waited with bated breath as foreign journalists in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang began to report via Twitter that they were being awoken early, instructed to leave all electronic equipment behind, and would be taken to a “big and important” event. Instant speculation had the journalists being taken to the mountainous North Korean nuclear testing site at Punggye-ri.
Instead, and not quite as exciting as the nuclear test site, the journalists were taken to a new street opening in Pyongyang. Perhaps in a country that has less than 4 percent of its roads paved, this was a big deal.
The lack of an underground nuclear test was surprising considering the reports of activity at Punggye-ri, and the certain theatric element of conducting the test with the eyes of the world squarely locked on North Korea. The attention garnered would have produced enormous domestic currency for the young and unpredictable Kim Jong-un. North Korea has conducted five precious nuclear tests since 2006, and each has increased in magnitude, with the last test in September 2016 estimated to yield as much explosive power as the atomic weapons dropped on Japan in 1945.
The highlight during the Day of the Sun was the presence of new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and the failed test of a ballistic missile early the next morning, that exploded immediately after launch.
The failed ballistic missile test occurred near the North’s submarine base of Sinpo along the east coast of the country. Last month from the same location a version of North Korea’s submarine-launched ballistic missile, the KN-11, also failed to launch correctly. Six of these KN-11s were paraded on Saturday.
And yesterday, according to Fox News, American defense officials confirmed the failed missile as the newly designated KN-17, which was first seen during the parade the day before. It is believed to be a new type of missile based on the infamous Scud missile and is intended to target ships like American aircraft carriers and their battle groups.
The weapon has to have great appeal to the North Koreans, especially after witnessing the uproar over alleged American carrier vulnerabilities to Chinese anti-ship weapons.
The launch failure of the ballistic missile may be cause for small celebration, but with each failure lessons are learned and North Korea has proven itself to be determined and resilient, steadily moving toward the declared goal of being able to strike the United States with an ICBM. This capability will provide the necessary deterrent to a U.S. strike North Korea believes will happen.
For decades, North Korea has threatened to destroy the South Korean capital Seoul in a “sea of fire,” as North Korea has reportedly over 21,000 artillery pieces at its disposal. Seoul, the capital of the Republic of Korea and a city with more than 25 million people in its metro area, is less than 20 miles from the DMZ. That clearly makes it an inviting target to North Korea, and a high priority has been placed on its destruction.
At this point, the initial artillery and rocket attacks into South Korea are a bigger worry than the ballistic missiles North Korea possesses. Tens of thousands of artillery shells will slam into the border south of the DMZ during the opening hours a new Korean war.
But could North Korea really destroy Seoul as it has promised so many times, and killing as many of the 10 million residents that it can in a non-stop barrage of artillery and rockets?
North Korea may have more than 21,000 artillery pieces in its inventory, but the actual number of self-propelled guns and multiple-rocket launcher weapons they have that can reach Seoul is around 700. The destruction delivered to Seoul and other cities and military facilities directly south of the DMZ would be catastrophic and on a scale the world has not seen since World War II, but Seoul and all its citizens will not perish in the promised “sea of fire”, unless of course attack is immediately followed by a mushroom cloud. Then all bets are off.
Threat of attack from the north is a daily fact of life in Seoul. The city has prepared for a strike that seems to have been imminent for decades by building over 3,900 underground shelters, with addresses and details of each shelter available to the population. The shelters are estimated to hold 20 million people.
Seoul’s subways are part of the shelter system and they prominently feature gas mask kiosks, cleverly named “Relief Goods Storage.” The masks conveniently come in two different types to fit the appropriate emergency. One mask is for your NBC (or nuclear, biological or chemical) disaster and the other is to protect against the presence of smoke. There are not enough masks available to protect the masses who ride the subway, or who would be immediately seeking protection from a North Korean attack. Instead the masks are intended to be used only by officials who are there to help the citizens find their way to a place of refuge during an attack.
In a fantastic study produced in 2011 called ‘Mind the Gap Between Rhetoric and Reality’, retired U.S. Army Gen. Richard Cavazos addressed the issue of North Korean artillery supremacy and determined that the weapons would kill tens of thousands, but they will not kill millions as prophesized by North Korean propaganda.
Nonetheless, the casualties would be horrific. Cavazos has estimated that during the first day of war, 48,000 citizens of Seoul will perish, and by the end of the first week, upwards of 80,000 will have lost their lives. He reaches his conclusions partly on the 2010 shelling of Yeonpyeong island by North Korea, where the rate of unexploded shells was estimated to be 25 percent.
Combined with the knowledge that all the artillery will not fire at the same time, despite the best propaganda videos the North can produce, and the promise of weapons malfunction, the artillery barrage North Korea claims will fall on Seoul will not result in the city’s total destruction. The math simply does not add up to the destructive power claimed by North Korea, and once their artillery begins to expose their firing positions, counter-battery fire from surviving South Korean and American artillery, along with airstrikes, will begin the process of elimination of these units.
The damage and loss of life will be terrible, but not as complete as the North wants everyone to believe—not at present.
The growing missile reach of North Korea is a concern, at least theoretically for now. There has been a rash of recent failures, with some pointing to direct U.S. intervention through cyber-attacks—similar to the ‘Stuxnet’ worm that was inserted into the Iranian nuclear program—and others stating that perhaps the failures are simply the result of North Korean incompetence or manufacturing defects.
Either way, the failures have been adding up and this latest one, especially on the heels of the “Day of the Sun” is sure to make things worse for Kim Jong-un and his extreme hold on power.
Additionally, North Korea once again ran out an impressive array of ICBMs—some previously seen, and some viewed for the first time—during Saturday’s parade. Yet the threat of a North Korean ICBM landing in Kansas or even Seattle is not a threat of today, but could very well be a threat within four to five years at the earliest. North Korean ambition combined with assistance from Iran and Pakistan have helped move the program along thus far, and will only do so in the future, especially now as Iran is free of international sanctions.
At this point, North Korea has yet to prove they can successfully miniaturize a nuclear weapon to fit onto a missile, and then be able to fly that missile thousands of miles to a distant target.
North Korea has made huge strides in switching from liquid-fuel rocket motors to solid-fuel; the switch allows North Korea to eventually hide the mobile ICBMs in underground locations already fueled and ready for launch, keeping the weapons hidden from spy satellites who could watch the liquid-fueled missiles undergoing long preparations on their launch pads.
It’s true have tested many different types of missiles and will parade many different types in front of the cameras, but have yet to test a true ICBM, one with multiple stages that could travel the required distance to threaten the continental United States. Now, this does not mean that South Korea, Japan, or even American military facilities on Guam or Okinawa are not currently and realistically threatened by North Korean ballistic missiles. They are very much threatened, and this weekend in another message to North Korea, the 18th Wing at Kadena Air Force Base on Okinawa, conducted an “Elephant Walk” displaying the strength of the American air power on the island, 700 south of the Korean peninsula.
Until the North Koreans conduct a successful long range test of an ICBM, the actual reach of the nation’s missile force is based on speculation and analysis of available information. There have been more failures than successful tests, and while North Korea moved their program ahead rapidly initially, progress has slowed in the development of an ICBM.
Yet as the parade this past Saturday shows, there is very much that is still unknown about the missile and nuclear capability of North Korea, and that is where the danger lies. How does one prepare to fight an enemy where very little is known about their true capability? Not accounting for even one nuclear weapon is a problem of unimaginable consequences.
Despite the high visibility of Sunday’s missile test, North Korea remains steadfast in its commitment to its nuclear and ballistic missile development. China has asked that North Korea halt all future tests and that the U.S. and South Korea also stop joint military exercises, which China believes antagonizes North Korea.
Just yesterday, Max Thunder, one of those joint exercises that supposedly does exactly that, kicked off with American and South Korean personnel and aircraft. No matter what happens it seems the more things change with North Korea, the more the situation has stayed the same. The end of ‘strategic patience’ has arrived, according to Vice President Mike Pence, but the solution can not just be a military one. Diplomacy, with all of North Korea’s neighbors involved—especially China—needs to be ramped up and further pressure applied to the leaders in Pyongyang.
The threat of North Korea is real, especially for South Korea, Japan and the islands of Guam and Okinawa, as they would immediately bear the brunt of North Korean violence. The key to winning an armed conflict with North Korea, and let’s pray it never gets to that, is the destruction and/or securing of the North’s nuclear capability. If the North is faced with the prospect of “Use ‘em or lose ‘em” the fact is almost certain that the employment of nuclear weapons will happen.
War with North Korea, even without nuclear weapons will be short and brutal. War with nuclear weapons will be unimaginable.
Gary Wetzel is an experienced military and aviation writer who has authored two books examining the combat operations of the A-10 Warthog in Afghanistan. He also served over six years in the U.S Navy as sonar technician aboard USS Philadelphia and USS Dallas.