Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Korea's Dangerous Winter

Over the past month, we've been warning that tensions on the Korean Peninsula will likely escalate in the New Year. We make that prediction despite last week's successful artillery drill by South Korean forces--and Pyongyang's decision not to respond.

Responding to North Korea's shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in late November, ROK units conducted another live-fire drill from the outpost, supported by an overwhelming show of air and naval power. This time around, Kim Jong-il's forces elected not to shell the island, responding instead with propaganda blasts.

Still, matters in Korea are far from resolved. And despite North Korea's recent "show of restraint," future confrontations are almost inevitable, experts warn. Earlier this week, Seoul's Institute for National Security Strategy predicted that Pyongyang will likely ramp up its confrontations with the South in 2011, attempting to satisfy various geopolitical agendas.

The country could conduct a third nuclear bomb test and wage more attacks on front-line islands — like Yeonpyeong, which was bombarded in shelling that killed four South Koreans last month — the report said. North Korea may even fire missiles and more artillery at the those islands, chief researcher Lee In-ho told The Associated Press after the report was posted.


And the provocations are expected to become only more serious next year as North Korea pushes to cement the son's leadership and achieve its goal of building a "powerful, prosperous nation" in 2012, the 100th anniversary of North Korea founder Kim Il Sung's birth, said the report by the institute, which is affiliated with South Korea's main spy agency. The report was jointly written by about 20 institute researchers, but they say it does not represent their organization's official view.

Of course, it's virtually impossible to assign a specific timetable for possible North Korean attacks. Based on recently-observed preparations, the next nuclear test could occur in the late winter, perhaps at the end of the annual Winter Training Cycle (WTC). DPRK military readiness reaches its annual peak at the end of the WTC, which normally falls in late March. The cycle usually concludes with a national defense exercise, and a nuclear blast might provide the sort of capstone that North Korea desires.

But the potential for provocations and carefully-planned attacks will exist well before that national defense drill. Using a building-block approach, Pyongyang expands military training to include larger formations, up to and including the corps level. At this point in the cycle, North Korean SOF, artillery and mechanized units are normally active, with live-fire exercises and (in some years) the movement of special forces assets to positions closer to the DMZ.

In fact, North Korea built at least three new airfields near the DMZ in the 1990s. They serve as forward operating bases for the venerable AN-2 Colt biplanes which are a primary platform for inserting SOF troops into South Korea. Special forces units are based near the airfields, and training in these areas is often an indicator of relative readiness among SOF units, and the overall "health" of the AN-2 fleet.

Likewise, DPRK artillery units become more active in the middle months of the WTC, along with rocket and missile formations. This progression reminds us that Kim Jong-il has many more military options for confronting South Korea and the U.S. during the winter months. After last months shelling of Yeonpyeong, North Korea tried to up the ante by moving more multiple rocket launchers to positions along the coast. It is likely that these units were already field-deployed for the WTC, so moving them into potential firing positions was a relatively simple affair.

As we've noted in previous posts, North Korean military readiness erodes steadily after the conclusion of the WTC. In the spring and summer, troops are needed to assist with agriculture production, to help alleviate inevitable food shortages. As a result, many units are idle during that time, and become far less capable of carrying out their combat missions. There are some exceptions, of course, but the difference between Pyongyang's military readiness in late March and say, mid-July, is (well) the difference between winter and summer.

And that raises a dilemma for North Korea. To sustain tensions at desired levels--and get what it wants from South Korea and the U.S.--Pyongyang must maintain higher levels of military preparation into the spring and summer months. That would be unusual (and a possible indicator of even greater confrontations), but it would also come at a price. Keeping the troops out of the rice paddies means their units will face food shortages next winter.

To rectify that situation, Kim's generals would shift more food stocks from the civilian population to the military. North Korea's leaders have no problem with that scenario, but they are also aware that the faintest signs of domestic unrest have been detected over the past year. Anti-regime graffiti was observed in Pyongyang earlier this year, a development previously considered unthinkable in a Stalinist state, built on the personality cult of Kim Jong-il and his father, Kim Il-Sung.

So, North Korea faces a balancing act over the next couple of years. Pyongyang needs to demonstrate its power to South Korea and its allies, in hopes of winning more economic aid and concessions on the nuclear arms issue. Provocations supporting that goal also aid Kim Jong-un, the designated successor to Kim Jong-il. The younger Kim must prove that he can handle the reigns of power before his father passes on. And North Korea wants to achieve its goal of becoming a "powerful, prosperous nation" before 2012, the centennial of Kim Il-Sung's birth. Efforts to cement the transition of power--and the status of North Korea's "Great Leader"--provide more incentives for mischief-making.

Obviously, some of those goals are unattainable (i.e., an economically prosperous DPRK). But the elites in Pyongyang are willing to settle for a country that is nuclear-armed and unafraid of confronting its more powerful enemies. To achieve that goal, North Korea will continue rattling its sabre throughout 2011 and into the next one as well. There will be a certain ebb-and-flow of tensions on the peninsula, but some periods will be more dangerous than others. You can count the winter of 2010-11 in that category.
ADDENDUM: It's rather odd that no one at the Pentagon has been talking about this year's WTC, and offering comparisons to previous training periods. That suggests two possible scenarios: (1) Training levels are comparable to previous years and there's nothing much to discuss, or (2) We've observed heightened or unusual activity in the past couple of months, and no one wants to discuss it, to avoid raising fears. Sadly, almost no one in the Pentagon Press Corps has ever heard of the North Korean Winter Training Cycle (and its implications), so its easy for military leaders to avoid that critical topic.

Finally, there was this disturbing report from the DMZ region on Tuesday. North Korean troops near the military border were spotted in South Korean-style uniforms. While DPRK special forces units have outfitted infiltration units with ROK uniforms and weapons for years, it is highly unusual for Pyongyang to display that capability so openly. Analysts in Seoul said the uniforms suggested that North Korea is practicing infiltration techniques that might be used in commando raids against the South--or in a full-scale invasion.

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