Kim Jong-un has been engaging in quite a bit of sabre-rattling of late, even by North Korean standards. In the weeks following Pyongyang's most recent nuclear test, Mr. Kim has cancelled the armistice which ended the Korea War; threatened an ICBM strike against the United States, promised military response to new sanctions against his regime, and cut off the "hot line" that provided limited communication between the two Koreas.
And, for good measure, he personally "supervised" an artillery drill along the DPRK's disputed maritime border with South Korea and North Korea's aging Air Force is setting sortie records under his watch.
The artillery exercise, which occurred in recent days, is particularly troubling, since it was held in the same area where North Korean units shelled a ROK-controlled island in 2010, killing four civilians. That attack was preceded by a personal visit to the DPRK artillery unit by Kim Jong-un and his late father, Kim Jong-il.
More on the latest artillery drill from Reuters:
Kim praised the artillery units on two islands after watching them hit targets, in what KCNA described as the "biggest hot spots in the southwestern sector of the front," in practice for striking at two South Korean islands.
Meanwhile, ROK intelligence officials report that the North Korean Air Force (NKAF) have flown an "unprecedented" number of sorties in recent days, apparently in response to the annual "Key Resolve" military exercise involving South Korean and U.S. units.
The NKAF sortie count peaked at 700 on Monday, according to a report from the semi-official Yonhap news agency in Seoul. The surge in flight activity coincided with the first day of Key Resolve, which Pyongyang has long described as preparations for a renewed Korean conflict.
While these events are disturbing, a little perspective is in order. It's important to remember that the start of Key Resolve comes as North Korea wraps up its annual Winter Training Cycle. Activity levels among DPRK ground, air, air defense and special forces units normally surge in late March, during the run-up to the national defense drill that (typically) marks the conclusion of the WTC.
In other words, we expect to see a high level of North Korean military activity this time of year. However, it would be useful to have a few more details on this year's training cycle and how current activity levels compare to previous years. For example, if NKAF sortie counts have been running below average in January and February, it may suggest that planners were conserving resources for a grand finale. On the other hand, if flight activity has been running ahead of recent averages throughout the WTC, it could indicate that NKAF training and readiness is improving. That would be a significant development, since activity levels for all of Pyongyang's military forces has slowly declined over past training cycles, reflecting shortages of fuel and spare parts.
It's also worth noting that many North Korean sorties are simplistic and of very short duration. It's not uncommon for a NKAF training mission to consist solely of "pattern work," and many target ranges are located adjacent to airfields. That certainly saves on fuel and other operating costs, but it does little to enhance the long-range navigation and tactical skills needed to strike targets in the south, or defend DPRK airspace against U.S. and ROK air forces, which enjoy an over-whelming technological superiority in such areas as stealth, precision strike and electronic combat.
Another key indicator of DPRK military strength is what happens in the months that follow. For more than 20 years, activity by North Korea's armed forces has virtually ceased in the spring and summer months, when many troops are sent to the fields, to raise food for their units. Without these "agricultural activities," there would be widespread famine in Kim Jong-un's military--which already has first crack at the nation's limited resources.
But with the growing alliance between Pyongyang and Tehran, conditions may not be quite as dire as they once were. Iran can provide oil for North Korea, along with cash payments for nuclear and missile technology. This windfall could help fund the increase in military activity which has been evident in recent weeks.
However, most of the money from Iran has been invested in North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Pyongyang's conventional forces are among the world's largest, but their equipment is antiquated and in some cases, well past the end of its service life. The NKAF, for example, still relies heavily on 1950s and 60s-era aircraft like the MiG-15; MiG-17, MiG-19 and MiG-21. The "newest" of these airframes are nearly 40 years old, and the Korean War-era MiG-15 (now used as a trainer) has been in service for over 60 years.
ADDENDUM: Of course, not every threat rom Pyongyang can be classified as bluster. Thursday, the Obama Administration announced plans to deploy 14 additional ground-based interceptor missiles in Alaska and California. One official called it a "logical" response to an evolving North Korean threat, an obvious reference to recent missile and nuclear tests by the DPRK, and the pending introduction of a new, road-mobile ICBM capable of reaching the U.S.