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North Korea Rattles the Sabre (Again)

Dec 2, 2017
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As U.S. and South Korean forces launch semi-annual defensive drills, North Korea has put its troops on alert and cut the last hot line to Seoul, warning that “even the slightest provocation” could mean war.”

That doesn’t mean that T-72 tanks will cross the DMZ tomorrow, but it does reflect an escalating war of words between Pyongyang and its adversaries. While some of the bluster is seasonal–even predictable–it’s also clear that some of North Korea’s actions are carefully calibrated for current circumstances.

To some degree, the DPRK’s war warnings are anything but a surprise. North Korea has made similar statements in the past, often in response to military exercises between the U.S. and its ROK allies. This time, Pyongyang is upset over the annual Foal Eagle drill, which emphasizes defensive measures like installation security and air defense. Not exactly the “invasion prelude” described by DPRK propaganda outlets.

In fact, that characterization is something of a howler. While insisting that American and South Korean forces are preparing to attack, the real offensive drills are underway north of the DMZ. Pyongyang rarely bothers to mention it–and you won’t find any coverage in the western press–but the late winter months mark the most intensive training period for DPRK military forces.

Between early December and late March, North Korean air, land, special operations and missile forces conduct most of their annual training, with a heavy emphasis on offensive tactics. This is the time of year when insertion platforms (like the venerable AN-2 Colt biplane) link up with special operations units, allowing them to rehearse paradrop and insertion techniques that would be used in attacking the south.

Pyongyang’s infantry, artillery, armor and air formations also receive extensive training, building toward a nationwide “capstone” exercise that concludes every winter training cycle. North Korean military readiness typically peaks in mid-to-late March, so those threatened attacks against U.S. forces (and our allies in the region) can’t be completely dismissed.

But completion of the WTC doesn’t mean Kim Jong-il’s military is prepared to rush south. Over the past decade, North Korea’s winter training periods have (generally) lacked the mobility exercises needed to marshal and move second and third-echelon forces toward the DMZ, providing the combat power needed to overwhelm U.S. and ROK defenders.

One exception to this trend occurred a decade ago, when the fuel-starved North road- marched a reserve corps to a training area near the DMZ, a distance of almost 150 miles. Since then, Pyongyang’s military has conserved its fuel supplies, limiting unit movements during the winter training period.

While that policy makes sense from a logistics standpoint, it does little to prepare North Korean forces for a possible invasion. And despite the recent increase in rhetoric, prospects for even a limited cross-border attack are decidedly low.

Still, Pyongyang is not without military options during an “atypical” winter training cycle. The signature event of this year’s WTC is the planned launch of a TD-2 missile which will (supposedly) send a satellite into orbit.

DPRK media outlets have already warned the U.S. and Japan from “interfering” with the test, a reference to allied ballistic missile defenses in the Pacific region. To underscore the potential consequences of an intercept attempt, Pyongyang has threatened commercial jetliners over the Sea of Japan and suggested the possibility of a wider war.

How could North Korea respond to the intercept of its TD-2? The most likely scenarios include: (1) The attempted shoot down of a U.S. reconnaissance plane off the North Korean coast; (2) A long-range SAM launch against airliners or recce platforms south of the DMZ; (3) A commando strike against political targets in Seoul; (4) Missile attacks against military sites in South Korea; (5) Terror attacks against South Korean airliners and (6) Naval clashes along the maritime extensive of the DMZ, the Northern Limit Line.

Among those possibilities, it’s worth noting that Pyongyang has already attempted four of the six options. North Korean MiGs shot down a U.S. EC-121 in 1969, resulting in the loss of the entire crew. Three years earlier, a DPRK commando team infiltrated through the DMZ and came within 800 yards of the Blue House (the South Korean presidential mansion) before being halted by security forces.

In 1983, Kim Jong-il’s operatives tried a similar operation during a ROK presidential visit to Rangoon, Burma. The South Korean leader avoided death from a bomb because he was delayed in arriving at a Buddist shrine. Four years later, DPRK agents succeeded in targeting a South Korean airliner over the Indian Ocean, planting a bomb that blew apart the jetliner, killing 114. And, in recent years, North Korea naval units have fought pitched battles with ROK forces along the Northern Limit Line.

Based on these examples, North Korea is certainly capable of following through on its threats. But the real question is how the U.S., South Korea and Japan are prepared to respond. Historically, the allies have reacted cautiously, preferring to avoid a more serious confrontation and (possibly) a wider conflict.

And that’s the sort of response that Pyongyang is counting on this time. Kim Jong-il hopes to achieve several goals with his missile launch and accompanying bellicosity. First, he plans to demonstrate North Korea’s growing ability to deliver WMD to distant targets. That will not only get the attention of the U.S. and its allies, it will also generate more sales for missile and weapons technology–one of the DPRK’s few viable sources of hard currency.

But Mr. Kim also hopes to paint the U.S. and weak and undependable. Pyongyang has made no secret of its plans to launch the TD-2, practically inviting the U.S. to do something about it. Then, when Washington responded with the mildest of diplomatic warnings, the North Koreans doubled down, making threats against a wider variety of targets.

At this pace, Kim Jong-il should achieve all of his goals–assuming his missile doesn’t fall apart. In the matter of a few minutes, Pyongyang will demonstrate its power, create security crises for Japan and South Korea, and raise new questions about the Obama Administration and its ability to handle global challenges. In return, the U.S. will probably send a sharply-worded note and dispatch Mrs. Clinton for high-level consultations.

Sometimes, a little sabre-rattling (and a missile launch) can go a long, long way.

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