Another report on the military potential of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, issued by the U.S.-Korea Institute (USKI) of the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University, Washington, which “ascertains” that North Korea might have up to 100 nuclear warheads and about 1 thousand ballistic missiles capable of reaching the territory of Japan, provided the incentive to write this article.
The reported “facts” sound impressive, indeed, but if you analyze the data carefully, you would realize that a hundred warheads is, actually, what the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea might have by 2020 in the best case scenario (strictly speaking, that would only be true if the most radical progress was undertaken). As for one thousand missiles, this number includes Nodong class missiles with a flight range of 1.2-1.5 thousand km as well as the Scud class missiles with a flight range of only 300-600 km.
What’s curious though, is that there are only two groups, which deliberately overestimate the military potential of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea: Western and pro-Western experts, who do that to justify their vigilance against North Korea,” and pro-North Korean “flag waving patriots,” who do it to exaggerate the power of the “last citadel of socialist spirituality” and the “Sparta of our days.” Sometimes this position can be described as a “wishful thinking,” when one does not simply mistake the wish for reality, but rather convinces himself that this is the true state of affairs.
In some instances, the problem of incorrect evaluation stems from the discussions between pragmatists and technology optimists on the topic of undisclosed data related to the country’s military potential. When data is unavailable, the pragmatist is more inclined to deduce that “in all likelihood such technology does not exist,” whereas the technology optimist would conclude that the technology does exist, and the northerners are just withholding the data. The latter assume that since the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has managed to achieve this much despite its isolation, its undisclosed reserves must be even more impressive. The author of this article finds this position lacks scientific reasoning because, ultimately, it can easily be reduced to an argument such as “prove that you have not already built an invisible ‘Death Star.’”
The aim of this article is to bring to your attention some aspects of the assessment of military potential, which specialists need to be aware of to make correct estimates.
Number one. Consider the production cycle. We should have a clear understanding of what economic and technical requirements have to be met for a certain type of weapon to be manufactured. For a missile to be put into service, a series of flight tests must be conducted. The objective of the tests is to determine whether a missile is able to fly 5-6 thousand km and deliver the warhead to the selected point. Unless a series of such tests have been successfully completed, there are no grounds to presume that a country is armed with a new type of missile.
Number two. Consider some indistinct technical details. Let’s take, for example, the problems of staging and designing the missile’s thermal-protective coating, which a large range missile must have to enter the dense layers of the atmosphere. Without it, a missile will simply disintegrate at a height of approximately 50 km. So far, no data has been reported confirming that North Korea has mastered this technology.
And it should be kept in mind that it takes anywhere from 4 to 6 months to manufacture the thermal-protective coating for just one missile, and that the process cannot be accelerated. These restrictions would limit the number of missiles commissioned by North Korea even in the most favorable circumstances.
The same logic applies to the assessment of the number of tactical nuclear weapons (TNW). The production of small tactical nuclear weapons with the core of less than 2 kilograms of plutonium is significantly more complicated than the production of nonnuclear weapons.
Number three. Compare hypothetical potential of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea with similar developments of their neighboring countries. Take, for example, the submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) Bulava and think how much time it took the Russian Federation to build it and how many problems were associated with it. And Russian technical capabilities significantly exceed that of North Korea.
Having analyzed the facts, experts concluded that it would take North Korea about 10 years to implement a weapons system from an “off-the-shelf” intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and a nuclear warhead.
Number four. When describing military equipment we must consider the time required to get it fully operational. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea does not possesses stored fuel, which means that while their missile was being fueled and prepared for launch, another high-tech weapon, launched as a preventive strike, would intercept it..
Number five. When analyzing the missile threat, do not forget about the enemy’s air defense (AD). Here a number of unanswered questions present themselves. For example, what are the capabilities of the North Korean AD? The North Korean army is equipped with quite a few man-portable air-defense systems, but they are only sufficient for low level threats. What can soldiers use as a protection against the high level threats then? Is North Korea equipped with electronic protection (EP) able to counter the enemy’s electronic warfare, which stuns and blinds soldiers in battle?
Number six. Consider the overall level of technological development. For example, though North Korea makes drones, their technical level is incomparable with that of the drones produced by the US or the Republic of Korea. South Korean drones can carry cruise missiles and can be used in combat operations. North Korean drones, on the other hand, judging by the drone that was shot down in the territory of the South Korea, might, at most, be used for reconnaissance. The same applies when comparing other military equipment of different generations.
Which brings us to number seven. It is erroneous practice to use absolute numbers when calculating a country’s military potential. This is the case not only when comparing obsolete and contemporary military equipment, but also when calculating the number of soldiers involved in real combat situations. Disregarding the number of personnel serving in the military engineering units of the DPRK, the number of soldiers that can carry out combat operations, is approximately the same in the two armies. Besides, a considerable part of the North Korean army would not be engaged in combat operations because it would have to be reserved for countering landing assaults. Thus, to get accurate numbers, a system of data adjusting coefficients should be applied. For example, if we make calculations applying the American methodology TASCFORM, we can see that the North Korean air force is equal to two F-16 air squadrons, and the cumulative firepower of ground forces does not exceed that of five modern “heavy divisions.”.
Number eight. Do not forget about logistics (as far as the reserves of fuel and stock of cartridges are concerned). According to available data, the DPRK has a 30-day reserve of fuel and enough foodstuffs to feed the population for 60 days in wartime. Thus, calculations show that North Korea has little chances of winning this hypothetical war and it is highly unlikely that it would launch a blitzkrieg.
Number nine. When calculating possible outcomes of military operations, do not underestimate the enemy. Of course, we can base our calculations on the assumption that in a hypothetical conflict involving the two Koreas, the US Air Force would support South Korea by deploying ground attack air forces, which would fly low enough to be counterattacked, but it would be more plausible to assume that the air domination will begin with preemptive strikes with the use of precision weapons and long range weapons (it is an American practice to minimize possible engagement in direct combat). We can calculate the strength of the North Korean fortifications on the assumption that they will be subjected to head-on attacks. . However, the war in Ukraine and the actions of American military forces in Iraq suggest that fortifications are usually encircled and some blocking units are left in the area, while the main forces slice through the defense to the strategic targets.
Number ten. Consider the country’s foreign policy and its outcomes. We should understand that North Korea will have to fight not only against the Republic of Korea, but also (and that’s as a minimum) its ally, the US (the preparatory measures the two countries are undertaking suggest precisely that). Let’s speculate that North Korea decided to launch a nuclear assault not out of desperation, but in cold blood. What would happen then? It would give the international community a free hand to retaliate in any manner and with any strength it would consider reasonable.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD (History), Senior Researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”