What are the North Koreans Doing?



Several weeks ago—on March 15 to be exact—we offered a "review of the bidding": an analysis of three successive statements in the first half of March from the Supreme Command of the KPA (March 5), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (March 7) and the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea (March 8).  We also analyzed the withdrawal from the armistice, operative as of March 11. Rather we should call it the “re-withdrawal” since Pyongyang had undermined the institutions of the armistice for decades and even voided it outright before.

Since that time, things appear to have gotten a lot worse. Here, we draw on the KCNA, the invaluable North Korea Leadership Watch,  State Department press briefings,  and other sources to update the state of play. Three general observations emerge. First, the context of the apparent escalation is the winter training cycle and the continuation of the joint Foal Eagle exercises. There is some baseline of what might be called “ritualized escalation” in play. The units that Kim Jong Un has visited and the exercises he has overseen fit broadly within the training cycle. What has changed somewhat is much more frenzied domestic mobilization around the exercises. According to a series of stories in DailyNK, this domestic mobilization was scheduled to peak during the weak of March 11-17, but has been sustained.  Associated hardships include closing markets, requiring participation in exercises by nominally civilian households, and associated loss of output; as we will show in a subsequent posting, prices have probably been rising as a result.

Second, it is not clear that the North is in fact escalating in the traditional sense of the term; the game is largely declaratory and rhetorical. Prior to the UNSC sanctions resolution, the North issued threats that they might launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike. Needless to say, that threat did not go down well. When military forces are on high alert, signals of an intention to pre-empt—however implausible—potentially create hair-trigger situations where even small tactical movements could be misinterpreted.

Since that time, a careful reading of statements over the last two weeks suggests much more caution than is thought. The reason: the US started to respond more publicly to North Korean threats. Particularly noteworthy were the announcement of a major new ballistic missile defense initiative—which the Chinese quickly denounced—public statements about training runs by B52 and B2 bombers, and the quite-public announcement of an updated US-ROK Combined Counter-Provocation Plan. Although the bombing runs were connected with Foal Eagle, and in any case an element of the long-standing Continuous Bomber Presence program in the region (from 2004), a DoD spokesmen made no secret of the fact that the bombers were capable of dropping nuclear ordinance.

What exactly have the North Koreans done? On closer inspection, not much. Cutting the hotline eliminates one channel of communication to the South. But there are others through Kaesong and to date there is no evidence that the workers in KIC are being held hostage (about 750 South Koreans live on site, with anywhere between 100 and 500 going in each day). We are highly skeptical that they will close this cash cow, as some recent reports have suggested. But if they did, the costs would be higher for the North than for the South, particularly as the Chinese appear to be taking some baby steps to actually show their displeasure. Make our day!

Placing strategic rocket forces and artillery on a higher stage of alert is risky, as we have noted. But these forces are already on a high state of alert, and this last round of statements are all  cast in deterrent terms: the hyperbole is about actions the North would take n response to ROK or US “provocations,” defined as actual military action against the North.

A final point is that by exercising restraint with respect to actual military actions, the regime can count on the fact that the US and South Korea are not going to take the first step either. This fact leads to a welcome result: North Korea’s exercises, mobilization and threats of retaliation have in fact been successful at deterring an attack, even though it was not coming in any case. The regime can now claim success and step down. The likely venue to crow about staring down the American threats? Two major political meetings that we will analyze in more detail this week: a Central Committee plenum—announced only recently—and a regular meeting of the Supreme People’s Assembly. The timing of these meetings comports with the interpretation that domestic politics is driving some of the rhetoric.

In subsequent posts, we will talk in more detail about the use and abuse of the concept of extended deterrence. The North Koreans got themselves into this predicament Signaling resolve is indeed important. But we also need to keep cool. Incredible threats are just that: incredible.

The following table presents a timeline of the last two weeks, including significant North Korean actions and Kim Jong Un’s guidance tours, the triggers the North Koreans have given for their actions, and American and South Korean responses or steps that are germane to the apparent escalation.


Date/North Korean Action Referenced  trigger American/South Korean response Comment
3/11. KJU visits two military units opposite opposite the ROK’s Baengnyeong Island, around which the Cheonan was sunk. Visit follows evidence that long-range artillery capable of striking the islands was relocated to positions where they would be outside South Korean artillery stationed on the island
3/13. KJU attends live fire drill into West Sea
3/15 Secretary Hagel announces major ballistic defense initiative, including installation of 14 additional interceptors. North Korean threats of “nuclear pre-emption” cited.China denounces the move as provocative.
3/20. KJU attends anti-aircraft drills DoD spokesman brings attention to B-52 overflights of ROK on 3/9 and 3/19, with specific mention of their nuclear capabilities
3/23. KJU visits military unit.
3/24. KJU visits military unit. Combined Counter-Provocation Plan, signed between South Korea's Joint Chiefs Chairman and the commander of the U.S. Forces in South Korea.
3/25. KJU observes  combined KPA/naval exercises Analysis of photos of amphibious landing suggests they were photoshopped to exaggerate capabilities
3/26, KPA Supreme Command puts rocket, long-range and field artillery units on “highest alert” (Combat Duty Posture #1). Threatens destruction of the South on any provocation 3/25 US bomber overflights South Korea naval drills commemorating Cheonan sinking Does not talk about an invasion of the South or firing first, but risks of pre-emption on tactical warning.
3/27. KPA Supreme command announces severing of hotline used to coordinate movement of people and goods into and out of Kaesong. Concern is for possible hostage-taking of ~750 South Korean workers living in Kaesong or ~450-500 transiting daily. But movement appeared to continue as normal.
3/29. KJU convenes “operational meeting” of Strategic Rocket Force commanders that places them on “standby” for strikes—including nuclear strikes on “the U.S. mainland, its military bases in the operational theaters in the Pacific, including Hawaii and Guam, and those in south Korea.” B2 overflights and exercises. Photos of Kim Jong Un consulting with generals show maps in the background missile trajectories. However, they appear to be drawn as straight lines to targets, not following the great arc trajectories that they would have to take if operational.
3/30. A statement by “the government, political parties and organizations of the DPRK” states that north-south relations are now in a state of war, and threatens nuclear war in response to any provocation. B2 overflights and statements by South Korean military on intention to attack leadership in response to provocation

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