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North Korea’s nuclear push masks army coming apart at seams

When North Korea deployed hundreds of artillery units, submarines and soldiers to take part in its largest live-fire drill, it was intended as a chilling display of the reclusive regime’s military might.

The country boasts the world’s fourth-largest standing army, with more than 1m troops as well as 7m reserves, and last week’s military exercise came as US President Donald Trump ramped up the pressure on Pyongyang over its nuclear and missile programmes.

But officials and experts say the apparently formidable force is beset by an array of problems, from fuel shortages to ageing equipment, that would choke its capabilities in the event of prolonged conflict with the US and its allies.

“Once the Korean People’s Army starts or stumbles into a decisive conventional war, they will run out of something critical like fuel or bullets or parts in 30 days tops,” says one former US military officer with knowledge of North Korea. “Based on numbers from a corps-sized unit I saw, it may even be as early as two weeks.”

Takashi Furuyama, a retired Japanese intelligence officer and military attaché in Seoul, says a ramp-up in Pyongyang’s weapons programmes in recent years has left the army a diminished force.

“Given the diversion of resources to missiles and nuclear weaponry, I think their ability to fight a war may be a third or a quarter of what it was,” he says.

Pyongyang’s fuel dependency was thrown into stark relief last week when petrol prices in the isolated nation shot up more than 80 per cent amid talk that China — a vital ally and lifeline — could cut supply.

Its conventional military hardware — much of which was produced by the Soviet Union and China during the cold war — is also creaking with age.

According to a 2015 US defence department report: “The KPA has not acquired new fighter aircraft in decades, relies on older air defence systems, lacks ballistic missile defence, its Navy does not train for blue-water operations, and recently unveiled artillery systems include tractor-towed rocket launchers.”

Experts say Kim Jong Un’s regime knows it is unlikely to win any conventional conflict and has instead embarked on a strategy of deterrence to ensure its survival.

North Korea staging its largest live-fire artillery drill to commemorate the army’s 85th anniversary © EPA

The policy uses a dual-prong approach of developing strategic nuclear weapons while maintaining a large, forward deployed conventional force that can pose an immediate threat to South Korea.

The defence report says: “These two aspects of its military strategy are meant to be mutually supporting; the threat posed by one is employed to deter an attack on the other.”

The set-up presents Mr Trump with a dilemma. Washington maintains that all options, including military strikes, are on the table.

“If he does a nuclear test, I will not be happy,” Mr Trump said in an interview with CBS News aired Sunday. Asked if this meant military action, the president replied: “I don’t know. I mean, we’ll see.”

Mr Trump warned on Friday that there was a chance the US “could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea.”

However, his strategic calculus will be influenced by the likelihood of retaliatory strikes on the US military, as well as domestic civilians, in South Korea and Japan.

Kim Jong Un watches a military drill at the army anniversary ceremony © Reuters

The rapid development of Pyongyang’s ballistic weapons programmes has left both nations vulnerable to medium-range missiles, while North Korea’s heavy — and heavily fortified — artillery imperil greater Seoul’s 20m inhabitants. Pyongyang test-fired a ballistic missile on Saturday, but US and South Korean officials said it appeared to have failed.

“They have been improving the accuracy of all of their ballistic missiles,” says Hideaki Kaneda, a retired Japanese vice-admiral and now director of the Okazaki Institute. He estimates that the [medium-range] Nodong missile is now accurate to within 100m — maybe as little as 50m.

Weapons alone, however, are unlikely to win North Korea a war.

Even if the North destroyed every runway at US bases in the South, “two carrier strike groups and two attack submarines can mount enough sorties and firepower to neutralise a couple of hundred North Korean above-ground targets,” a former US military officer said.

North Korea maintains about 8,600 artillery units, 5,500 multiple rocket launchers and 4,300 tanks, according to a recent white paper by the South Korean defence ministry — although many are outdated and slow to reload and fire.

“That’s why the North focuses on reinforcing asymmetric forces such as nuclear weapons and missiles in order to secure military superiority over South Korea,” says Yang Wook, a senior researcher at the Korea Defence and Security Forum.

In September Pyongyang conducted its fifth nuclear test and many expect another imminently.

According to Shea Cotton, a researcher at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, North Korea has begun testing ballistic missiles from new locations, suggesting the launches are operational rather than developmental.

“Why would Kim Jong Un drag his entourage all over the country to a wide array of different sites to watch tests? The answer is that North Korea is training its missile units for nuclear war.”

North Korean troops march across Kim Il Sung Square to mark this month’s 105th anniversary of the birth of the country’s founder Kim Il Sung © AP

North Korea is also believed to maintain up to 5,000 tonnes of chemical weapons, including chlorine, sarin and VX — used most recently in the assassination of Mr Kim’s brother, Kim Jong Nam, in March. 

However, few believe North Korea would employ its weapons of mass destruction as an offensive tactic as such a move would trigger a military response likely to bring about Mr Kim’s overthrow.

Instead, Pyongyang is expected to continue its cycle of coercion through limited, albeit potentially lethal, provocations.

Additional reporting by Leo Lewis in Tokyo and Kang Buseong in Seoul

Via FT