Russia steps up North Korea support to constrain US

In spite of international sanctions on North Korea’s communist regime, Russia has been increasing fuel exports to Pyongyang and filling in the supply gap created by China halting trade. Julian Ryall reports.

Russland Militärparade in Moskau (Reuters/S. Karpukhin)

Despite efforts by the United Nations to impose isolating sanctions on North Korea in response to the country’s continued development of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles, trade between Russia and North Korea soared more than 85 percent in the first four months of the year.

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Citing Russian customs data, the Voice of America broadcaster has reported that bilateral trade climbed to $31.83 million (29 million euros) in the January-March quarter, with the vast majority being energy products going over the border into the North.

This included $22 million worth of coal, lignite with a value of around $4.7 million, and oil estimated at $1.2 million. In return, North Korean exports to Russia were estimated to be worth $420,000. The most significant exports were chemicals and – curiously – wind instruments.

China trade falls

In contrast, North Korea’s trade with China, traditionally its most important economic partner, has plummeted. Pyongyang’s exports of coal to China in March came to 6,342 tons, a fraction of the 1.44 million tons sent to China in January, with an estimated value of $126.39 million. Similarly, Beijing has stopped supplying critically-needed fuel oil to the North, a clear demonstration of China’s displeasure at North Korea’s ongoing weapons tests.

The release of the figures detailing Russia’s increased trade with North Korea coincide with President Vladimir Putin’s statement on Monday that Pyongyang’s latest missile launch was “dangerous” – but, he added, “We must stop intimidating North Korea and find a peaceful solution to this problem.”

Read more: North Korea claims successful test of new rocket able to carry nuclear warhead

James Brown, an associate professor of international relations at Tokyo campus of Temple University, believes some of the cross-border trade may be “economic opportunism” but the motivation for the vast majority of it is geopolitical.

“Russia is very worried about the isolation of North Korea and believes that makes the situation dangerous as the US is taking a confrontational approach,” he told DW.

“Moscow’s position is that pressure on the North has not worked and has in fact caused Pyongyang to react because it feels threatened,” he said. “So instead of isolation, which is not working, Russia is proposing engagement.”

Nordkorea Hwasong-12 (Mars-12) Raketentest (Reuters/KCNA)The UN condemned North Korea’s missile test and vowed new sanctions

New ferry route

The most recent example of this support for Pyongyang is the plan to open a ferry route between North Korea and the Russian Far East port of Vladivostok, although the proposal has been delayed by strong protests from Japan.

Read more: North Korea builds closer ties with fellow outcast Russia

In 2014, Russia announced that it was canceling $10 billion of North Korea’s $11 billion in Soviet-era debt and that the remaining $1 billion would be invested back into the country. Russian investors also agreed to sink $25 billion into the North’s dilapidated railway system, while more would go into basic infrastructure. The two governments also announced that Russia would rebuild the North’s power grid, while the two countries would develop the ice-free port of Rason for exports of Russian coal.

In total, Russia planned to increase bilateral trade almost ten-fold to $1 billion by 2020, and that does not appear to have been hampered by more recent UN sanctions.

But Putin is also motivated by security concerns in Russia’s Far East, Brown said.

“Moscow has always been worried that the defensive missile systems that the US is deploying in the region – the THAAD anti-missile system in South Korea and now Japan is discussing having Aegis Ashore – are more directed at its interests than North Korea,” he said.

Daniel Pinkston, a professor of international relations at the Seoul campus of Troy University, believes that Putin – who is at odds with the international community over the Ukraine conflict and has been accused of meddling in a number of elections, including those in the US and France – may be forging closer ties with Pyongyang to sow further disarray among his perceived enemies.

Watch video00:33

North Korea launches ballistic missile

‘Slash-and-burn approach’

“Putin seems to have adopted a slash-and-burn approach to the liberal international order, so anything that serves to undermine institutions such as NATO, the European Union or democracy in general is fair game,” Pinkston said. “He is intent on creating instability in a way that serves Russian interests and this sort of multi-front, hybrid war serves to undermine the US and its allies.”

“North Korea fits neatly into that agenda because it causes problems for Washington, keeps the US tied down, drains its resources and causes friction with allies in the region.”

Pinkston points out that playing neighboring nations off one other for their respective favors is not a new North Korean tactic. It has manipulated China and Russia for its own ends in the past.

“That sort of back-and-forth was easier to pull off in the Cold War, but they seem to be trying to capitalize on their relations with Russia now that China has become more distant,” the expert underlined. “And I think it is clear that North Korea will take whatever it can get in terms of political, diplomatic or military support, as well as resources.”

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Südkorea TV Übertragung Raketentest in Nordkora (Getty Images/AFP/J. Yeon-Je)

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Aggressive rhetoric and actions on the Korean Peninsula over the past several months have raised concerns about a potential conflagration. The US government under President Donald Trump has put an end to the “strategic patience” policy pursued by the previous Barack Obama administration. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has stressed that the military option remains on the table. And this month, Washington has once again tightened its already stringent sanctions against the reclusive regime in Pyongyang.

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China, regarded as the North’s only ally, continues to push for all sides to find a diplomatic solution to the problem. But Beijing, like Washington, has increased the pressure on Pyongyang by enforcing the sanctions regime more tightly, for instance, by halting coal imports from the North.

The growing international calls seem to have made little impact on the North. Kim Jong Un’s regime has increased the pace of nuclear and missile tests over the past year. Experts observe increased activity at the Punggye-ri atomic site hinting at a potential nuclear test soon. Official statements in North Korea’s state media stress the country’s readiness to wage a “total war” at any moment.

Many doubt the ability of the international community to persuade the regime to leave its present course, meaning militarization in the region is unlikely to subside.

High militarization in North Korea

Both North and South Korea have been divided by the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. The conflict back then ended in an armistice rather than a peace treaty, and the DMZ remains one of the most heavily fortified places on Earth, where two of the world’s largest militaries stay prepared for a confrontation.

According to an index developed by the Bonn International Center for Conversion (BICC), a German NGO, South Korea is one of the most militarized nations in the world. It ranks sixth worldwide on the index, which was last updated in 2016.

North Korea is not ranked in the index due to the difficulty in acquiring and assessing information related to its military. But it’s assumed by observers like BICC’s Marius Bales that “there is a high degree of militarization” in North Korean society as well. “This is obvious from the fact that they have a 1.2-million strong military for some 24 million inhabitants.”

Allies for North and South

The two highly armed Koreas are each backed by countries that have a historic geopolitical rivalry with each other. Standing behind the the North, it’s the People’s Republic of China, while on the side of the South, it’s the US. The US-South Korean relationship was sealed in 1953 by a military alliance. In 1961, the North signed a friendship treaty with China and the former Soviet Union including the provision of military and economic aid.

Watch video01:47

Japan joins military build-up off Koreas

Although Russia later abrogated the military assistance pact, China has maintained it. But Beijing has been increasingly vocal in its call for North Korea to back down from its aggressive posture. China’s “Global Times” newspaper, known for its nationalist commentary, has been blistering in its criticism of North Korea, accusing it of destabilizing the region and calling for a halt to its nuclear program.

Another player in the region, Japan, feels threatened by North Korea. While Tokyo’s position in the region is underpinned by its special relationship with the US, its relations with countries like South Korea and China are burdened by its colonial past and World War II legacy.

Quantity vs. quality

One way of showing the military balance of power in the region is by comparing the number of people in the armed forces in each country, as well as the size and scope of the armaments they possess. However, such an approach is mired in imperfections, and the numbers presented have to be treated with some caution.

An annual report on the subject entitled “The Military Balance,” published by the UK-based think tank International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), is considered to be authoritative. It extensively documents the procurement of weapons by various militaries.

Infografik Militärisches Kräfteverhältnis in Ostasien ENG

The figures are partly based on the official data supplied by the countries to international organizations like the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms. But the IISS neither reveals all the sources of its information nor follows a uniform method. It’s unclear, for instance, how accurate statistics on North Korea are as the country doesn’t release any official data.

There is no other alternative, though, says BICC expert Bales. “The Military Balance is the best as well as the only source in this field.”

Still, the expert underlined that the figures represent only the quantity of weapons and not their quality. For example, Bales points out that one heavy tank cannot be considered to be exactly equal in its capabilities to another heavy tank. “A Soviet T-62 tank of the North Korean Army from the late 1960s cannot be on an equal footing with a South Korean K2 Black Panther tank from 2013.”

The manner in which the comparative strengths of militaries were assessed in the 19th and early 20th centuries has become obsolete, experts say.

“Modern warfare and modern weapon systems can’t be compared like that,” Bales stressed, because today we don’t need tanks in equal number to destroy enemy tanks, but can also use drones, helicopters and other aircraft to do that task.

Also, the figures do not show details of other critical resources that are required to operate the weapons. North Korea, for instance, suffers from an acute fuel shortage, hindering its ability to operate training aircraft. In the case of North Korea, Bales said, “the size of the military stands in contrast to its quality. Its air force, in particular, is obsolete, with its most modern aircraft dating back to the 1980s.”

South Korea, on the other hand, is equipped with state-of-the-art military gear, thanks largely to weapons deliveries from the US and Germany.

Watch video01:56

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What the figures additionally show is what areas each country’s military focused on. Being an island nation, Japan has paid attention to strengthening the capabilities of its navy and air force. In the Koreas, however, the army occupies the central role.

The relatively high number of heavy tanks and artillery guns in both those countries show that their armies are designed for large field battles and the defense of their borders. The large number of North Korean submarines is due to their high deterrent potential. And the figures also prove all the countries’ determination to defend themselves militarily.

Technological gap

Still, all this would be meaningless when compared to the mighty US military machine.

A look at the country’s strategic weapons, including long-range missiles and nuclear warheads, makes it clear immediately. China and the US have such capabilities, unlike South Korea and Japan.

North Korea is striving hard to acquire them, but has faced daunting challenges in developing reliable long-range missiles. The US’ weapons technology is so far advanced that North Korea hardly has any chance of competing with it on a technological level, observers reckon.

“With all the technical considerations, however, one should not forget the mutual vulnerability of North and South Korea,” says BICC analyst Bale.

About 70 percent of North Korea’s ground troops are stationed along the border. And South Korea’s bustling capital, Seoul, is just 50 kilometers away from the frontier. “Even with obsolete technology, a devastating attack on South Korea can be carried out with the large number of tanks, artillery and armored personnel carriers.”

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Südkorea TV Übertragung Raketentest in Nordkora (Getty Images/AFP/J. Yeon-Je)

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Read more: Is a second Korean War imminent? 

China, regarded as the North’s only ally, continues to push for all sides to find a diplomatic solution to the problem. But Beijing, like Washington, has increased the pressure on Pyongyang by enforcing the sanctions regime more tightly, for instance, by halting coal imports from the North.

The growing international calls seem to have made little impact on the North. Kim Jong Un’s regime has increased the pace of nuclear and missile tests over the past year. Experts observe increased activity at the Punggye-ri atomic site hinting at a potential nuclear test soon. Official statements in North Korea’s state media stress the country’s readiness to wage a “total war” at any moment.

Many doubt the ability of the international community to persuade the regime to leave its present course, meaning militarization in the region is unlikely to subside.

High militarization in North Korea

Both North and South Korea have been divided by the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. The conflict back then ended in an armistice rather than a peace treaty, and the DMZ remains one of the most heavily fortified places on Earth, where two of the world’s largest militaries stay prepared for a confrontation.

According to an index developed by the Bonn International Center for Conversion (BICC), a German NGO, South Korea is one of the most militarized nations in the world. It ranks sixth worldwide on the index, which was last updated in 2016.

North Korea is not ranked in the index due to the difficulty in acquiring and assessing information related to its military. But it’s assumed by observers like BICC’s Marius Bales that “there is a high degree of militarization” in North Korean society as well. “This is obvious from the fact that they have a 1.2-million strong military for some 24 million inhabitants.”

Allies for North and South

The two highly armed Koreas are each backed by countries that have a historic geopolitical rivalry with each other. Standing behind the the North, it’s the People’s Republic of China, while on the side of the South, it’s the US. The US-South Korean relationship was sealed in 1953 by a military alliance. In 1961, the North signed a friendship treaty with China and the former Soviet Union including the provision of military and economic aid.

Watch video01:47

Japan joins military build-up off Koreas

Although Russia later abrogated the military assistance pact, China has maintained it. But Beijing has been increasingly vocal in its call for North Korea to back down from its aggressive posture. China’s “Global Times” newspaper, known for its nationalist commentary, has been blistering in its criticism of North Korea, accusing it of destabilizing the region and calling for a halt to its nuclear program.

Another player in the region, Japan, feels threatened by North Korea. While Tokyo’s position in the region is underpinned by its special relationship with the US, its relations with countries like South Korea and China are burdened by its colonial past and World War II legacy.

Quantity vs. quality

One way of showing the military balance of power in the region is by comparing the number of people in the armed forces in each country, as well as the size and scope of the armaments they possess. However, such an approach is mired in imperfections, and the numbers presented have to be treated with some caution.

An annual report on the subject entitled “The Military Balance,” published by the UK-based think tank International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), is considered to be authoritative. It extensively documents the procurement of weapons by various militaries.

Infografik Militärisches Kräfteverhältnis in Ostasien ENG

The figures are partly based on the official data supplied by the countries to international organizations like the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms. But the IISS neither reveals all the sources of its information nor follows a uniform method. It’s unclear, for instance, how accurate statistics on North Korea are as the country doesn’t release any official data.

There is no other alternative, though, says BICC expert Bales. “The Military Balance is the best as well as the only source in this field.”

Still, the expert underlined that the figures represent only the quantity of weapons and not their quality. For example, Bales points out that one heavy tank cannot be considered to be exactly equal in its capabilities to another heavy tank. “A Soviet T-62 tank of the North Korean Army from the late 1960s cannot be on an equal footing with a South Korean K2 Black Panther tank from 2013.”

The manner in which the comparative strengths of militaries were assessed in the 19th and early 20th centuries has become obsolete, experts say.

“Modern warfare and modern weapon systems can’t be compared like that,” Bales stressed, because today we don’t need tanks in equal number to destroy enemy tanks, but can also use drones, helicopters and other aircraft to do that task.

Also, the figures do not show details of other critical resources that are required to operate the weapons. North Korea, for instance, suffers from an acute fuel shortage, hindering its ability to operate training aircraft. In the case of North Korea, Bales said, “the size of the military stands in contrast to its quality. Its air force, in particular, is obsolete, with its most modern aircraft dating back to the 1980s.”

South Korea, on the other hand, is equipped with state-of-the-art military gear, thanks largely to weapons deliveries from the US and Germany.

Watch video01:56

Trump, Kim step up saber-rattling competition

What the figures additionally show is what areas each country’s military focused on. Being an island nation, Japan has paid attention to strengthening the capabilities of its navy and air force. In the Koreas, however, the army occupies the central role.

The relatively high number of heavy tanks and artillery guns in both those countries show that their armies are designed for large field battles and the defense of their borders. The large number of North Korean submarines is due to their high deterrent potential. And the figures also prove all the countries’ determination to defend themselves militarily.

Technological gap

Still, all this would be meaningless when compared to the mighty US military machine.

A look at the country’s strategic weapons, including long-range missiles and nuclear warheads, makes it clear immediately. China and the US have such capabilities, unlike South Korea and Japan.

North Korea is striving hard to acquire them, but has faced daunting challenges in developing reliable long-range missiles. The US’ weapons technology is so far advanced that North Korea hardly has any chance of competing with it on a technological level, observers reckon.

“With all the technical considerations, however, one should not forget the mutual vulnerability of North and South Korea,” says BICC analyst Bale.

About 70 percent of North Korea’s ground troops are stationed along the border. And South Korea’s bustling capital, Seoul, is just 50 kilometers away from the frontier. “Even with obsolete technology, a devastating attack on South Korea can be carried out with the large number of tanks, artillery and armored personnel carriers.”

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Is a second Korean War imminent?

A military build-up, bellicose rhetoric and the risk of nuclear war are ratcheting up tensions in Northeast Asia. The US is tied in a strategic knot and N. Korea is not backing down as diplomacy and deterrence collide.

USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier in the South China Sea (Reuters/US Navy/M. Brown)

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North Koreans in Japan sense growing hostility

There are storm clouds gathering over the Korean peninsula. Whether it is the belligerent statements from the regime in Pyongyang, windy bravado from the Trump administration or regular missile tests and naval drills, there is concern around the world that a tipping point is about to be reached.

US Vice President Mike Pence delivered a speech last week aboard the carrier USS Ronald Reagan docked in Japan and said “the sword stands ready” when warning North Korea not to test US military resolve, adding that the US would respond with “overwhelming force” if attacked.

A few days later in response to US-Japanese naval drills in the Philippine Sea, the North Korean regime’s official newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, said “our revolutionary forces are combat-ready to sink a US nuclear powered aircraft carrier with a single strike.”

After it was announced that the same USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group would set sail to the waters off the coast of the Korean peninsula, North Korea responded by saying the deployment was “an extremely dangerous act by those who plan a nuclear war.”

The Vinson will join the USS Michigan, a submarine equipped with up to 144 Tomahawk missiles, which arrived at the South Korean port of Busan on Tuesday.

Karte Nordkorea Punggye-ri Englisch

A deadly game of risk

So far, the latest tensions have yet to break the status quo, but there is a growing new flashpoint in the region that cannot be underestimated. North Korea’s military capability is incrementally getting stronger and there is no sign that the regime will change the aggressive posturing that it sees as necessary to its survival.

On Tuesday, the North Korean military celebrated its 85th anniversary with a massive display of firepower. According to North Korea’s official news agency, KCNA, it was the country’s “largest ever” live-fire drill involving more than 300 large-caliber artillery pieces and submarine torpedo attacks on mock warships. KCNA said the drill demonstrated the regime’s will to “pour a merciless rain of fire on the reckless imperialist US and its dirty followers.”

Adding pressure is a more aggressive and provocative US foreign policy stance under President Trump, who said in an interview last month that the US would act unilaterally if necessary against North Korea. He also insinuated that preemptive military action was an option to counter Pyongyang’s production of a nuclear-tipped missile capable of striking the US.

Watch video01:31

US installs THAAD amid rising tensions

“The difference between Trump and Kim Jong Un is that Trump has no larger plan regarding North Korea and no nuanced view of when, how, why or how long military force is useful or effective,” Katharine Moon, Chair of Korea Studies at the Brookings Institution, told DW.

“Kim has a larger plan, regime survival, maintenance of national pride, and resistance to US power. Trump changes his mind regularly; Kim does not,” she added.

“People have put blindfolds on for decades, and now it’s time to solve the problem,” said President Trump at a meeting Monday with UN Security Council ambassadors during a discussion on new North Korean sanctions.

On Wednesday, the US announced that it was installing the controversial THAAD missile defense system at deployment sites located south of Seoul. Speaking to the House Armed Services Committee in Washington DC, the top US commander in the Asia-Pacific, Admiral Harry Harris said that the system would be operational in a few days.

In response to the threatening statements from Pyongyang, Harris also said that North Korea didn’t have a weapon that could threaten the Vinson battle group. “If it flies, it will die,” he said, referring to an attack on US warships.

North Korea’s Defense Minister Pak Yong Sik said Monday during a “national meeting” in Pyongyang attended by thousands of officials that the country would use preemptive strikes to defend itself.

More strategic patience will be needed

Südkorea - Militärübung (picture-alliance/AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)A South Korean tank fires during joint military drills with the US on Tuesday

Despite threats of force, there are major limits for the US to acting preemptively when millions of people around Seoul are in range of conventional North Korean artillery, which is a simple, yet effective weapon.

“North Korea’s artillery could inflict significant damage on Seoul,” Kelsey Davenport, Director of Nonproliferation Policy at the Arms Control Association in Washington, told DW. “The country possesses a number of systems that are concentrated along the DMZ. Estimates put the number of artillery pieces at more than 11,000.”

Davenport added that although the systems are aging and have a high failure rate, some could reach Seoul. Specifically, 300 mm multiple launch rocket systems can fire into the center of the capital. According to the US strategy think tank Stratfor, if every one of these were fired, a single volley could “deliver more than 350 metric tons of explosives across the South Korean capital, roughly the same amount of ordnance dropped by 11 B-52 bombers.”

“Pyongyang doesn’t need sophisticated new weapons to confront us with the sort of risk no one will be eager to take; their old ones still work just fine,” John Schilling from the North Korea think tank 38 North wrote in a recent report.

A new kind of diplomacy?

Nordkorea Militärübung Jubiläum KPA (Reuters/KCNA)The North Korean military celebrated its 85th anniversary with a massive display of firepower.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will chair a meeting of the UN Security Council on Friday to discuss imposing further sanctions on North Korea. But most experts agree that the current diplomatic approach has failed miserably.

And amid the brave talk over the past week from Trump and Pence, action from the US resembles the same strategy of containment, diplomatic pressure and sanctions that have been the hallmarks of staggered US policy on North Korea for decades.

Moon said an untried strategy would be to isolate the regime with diplomatic sanctions and mobilize the General Assembly of the UN to suspend North Korea’s participation, which would restrict its access and importance.

“The council must be prepared to impose additional and stronger sanctions on North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile programs,” Trump told the UN Security Council ambassadors on Monday.

On Wednesday, Trump addressed the entire US Senate at an unprecedented meeting on North Korea at the White House and said the administration would be relying on Chinese economic leverage to pressure North Korea. On the same day, it was announced that the US would be tightening sanctions on Pyongyang.

“US military buildup so far is not part of a larger strategy, so it’s not clear what the end game is for the US,” said Moon, adding that the stated aim is to force North Korea to give up its nuclear program through military and economic pressure.

“That was the same ultimate goal for the administrations of George W. Bush, Obama, and now Trump,” said Moon. “The Carl Vinson strike group cannot stay at the DPRK’s doorstep indefinitely.”

Satellite imagery of North Korea’s nuclear test sites analyzed earlier this month by 38 North concluded that the Punggye-ri nuclear test site “appears able to conduct a sixth nuclear test at any time once the order is received from Pyongyang.”

For the time being, the Korean knot remains firmly tied.

Watch video02:13

North Korea marks military anniversary

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North Korea’s soldiers: Closer look reveals military’s ‘fake’ capabilities

North Korea is flexing its military muscles again this week, but a closer look at images of the Hermit Kingdom’s soldiers reveals that the fighting force may be better suited for propaganda than actual battle.

On Tuesday, the South Korean military reportedly confirmed that Pyongyang was conducting a massive live-fire artillery drill. A top North Korean official warned that a “brutal punishment” awaits the so-called “warmongers” in the U.S. and elsewhere. The bluster is not new, but this time, it is compounded by rising international tensions.

North Korea typically puts on its more headline-grabbing displays to mark some sort of anniversary, and Tuesday was no exception. The artillery drills come on the 85th anniversary of the founding of the nation’s military. Less than two weeks ago, North Korea mounted both a failed ballistic missile test and a large military parade to mark the 105th birthday of the country’s founder, Kim Il-sung.

North Korea put a variety of new missiles on display during the April 15 parade, and while at least one of them was reportedly a prototype, some experts thought they spotted actual “fakes.” A closer look at some of the soldiers in that parade suggests those missiles may not have been the only things that weren’t quite battle ready.

“This was more about sending a message than being combat effective,” said Michael Pregent, a former Army Intelligence Officer with over 28 years of experience working conflicts around the world and now an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C.

Pregent took a look at several photos of North Korean soldiers from the April 15 parade and immediately began poking holes in them. Below are some of the takeaways he shared with Fox’s Investigative Unit.

Commandos or caricatures?

Some of the most memorable images to emerge from North Korea’s dramatic parade featured the special operations “commandos” who were carrying what appeared to be AK-47’s with grenade-launching capabilities. It turns out that what many people believed to be grenade launchers are actually what’s known as “helical” magazines, a piece of equipment that organizes rounds in a spiral shape to maximize capacity and that is notorious for jamming, according to Pregent.

Pregent adds that not only do these types of magazines have a high-failure rate, there is still the question of whether any of these rifles are actually loaded, as ammunition manufacturing is considered a serious issue for the isolated regime.

It’s not just the weapons those commandos are holding that raise questions, Pregent claims, and it seems some of the equipment on display would make for a better fashion show than a foxhole.

Pregent claims that the type of sunglasses being worn by those same troops “looks like a flat-face frame, and that’s not ballistic. That would wraparound and would also protect your eyes.”

Even the fingerless gloves being sported by some of those soldiers are more for show, according to Pregent. “Some of our guys do have them, but most guys go all the way with full gloves based on the heat of the barrel from a round, not to mention they’re fire resistant if you need to pick up something.”

“Fake projectiles”

Some of the other eye-drawing items in the North Korean parade, items that may have zero combat application, are the seemingly oversized projectiles affixed to the end of some of those soldiers’ rifles. And while they apparently come in a variety of shapes and colors, Pregent calls them “laughable.”

“If you look, you can see the plastic is over the muzzle,” Pregent said. And while he admits that some of the North Korean RPG capabilities could be real, the projectiles themselves would have to be fake “because Kim Jong Un doesn’t want them to launch one at the viewing stand,” whether by accident or on purpose.

Also fake, Pregent believes, are what appear to be silver-plated rifles being held by some of the soldiers who seem more front-and-center than the others. “Saddam had gold plated handguns, and even he wouldn’t give them to his troops, so these are most likely painted,” Pregent said.

Despite the fakes, a reason to fear

There may be questions about North Korea’s capabilities when it comes to effectiveness on the ground, ballistic missiles and even nuclear capabilities, but experts agree that the artillery units being tested this week present a clear and present danger to our allies.

George Friedman, founder of Geopolitical Futures, told Tucker Carlson recently that given those heavily-fortified and strategically placed artillery units, “if they open fire on [Seoul,] there is going to be a holocaust.”

He added that taking out all of those units is “not going to be an easy job. That’s not going to be a one-day strike.”

Pregent agrees, and raises an important point: “They have a legitimate military capability with their artillery – why pretend in other spaces?”

Twenty-five million reasons the U.S. hasn’t struck North Korea

 

The Washington Post
Anna Fifield
Soldiers march across Kim Il Sung Square during a military parade in Pyongyang, North Korea, to celebrate the 105th birthday of Kim Il Sung, the country's late founder and grandfather of current ruler Kim Jong Un.© Wong Maye-E/AP Soldiers march across Kim Il Sung Square during a military parade in Pyongyang, North Korea, to celebrate the 105th birthday of Kim Il Sung, the country’s late founder and grandfather of current ruler Kim Jong Un.TOKYO — If the United States were to strike North Korea, Kim Jong Un’s regime would retaliate by unleashing its conventional weaponry lined up on the demilitarized zone that has separated the two Koreas for about seven decades.

And that conventional weaponry is reliable, unlike North Korea’s missiles, and could cause major devastation in South Korea, which is a staunch ally of the United States.

“This becomes a very limiting factor for the U.S.,” said Carl Baker, a retired Air Force officer with extensive experience in South Korea.

As tensions between North Korea and the outside world have risen over the past month, there has been increasing talk about the United States using military force either to preempt a North Korean provocation or to respond to one.

That talk continues even after it emerged that the Navy had not sent an aircraft carrier strike group to the Korean Peninsula region, as officials, including President Trump, had implied.

© Provided by WP Company LLC d/b/a The Washington PostSen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said this week that he supported striking North Korea to stop it from developing the capability to reach the United States with a missile — even if that came at a huge cost for the region.

“It would be terrible, but the war would be over [in South Korea], it wouldn’t be here,” Graham said in an interview with NBC.

Although most of the recent focus has been on North Korea’s ambition to be able to strike the continental United States with a missile, the people of South Korea have been living under the constant threat of a conventional North Korean attack for decades.

North Korea has “a tremendous amount of artillery” right opposite Seoul, said Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., a senior imagery analyst at 38 North, a website focused on North Korea.

The Second Corps of the Korean People’s Army stationed at Kaesong on the northern side of the DMZ has about 500 artillery pieces, Bermudez said. And this is just one army corps; similar corps are on either side of it.

All the artillery pieces in the Second Corps can reach the northern outskirts of Seoul, just 30 miles from the DMZ, but the largest projectiles could fly to the south of the capital. About 25 million people — or half of the South Korean population — live in the greater Seoul metropolitan area.

Multiple rocket launchers are fired during a military drill at an unknown location in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency in 2016.© KCNA /Reuters Multiple rocket launchers are fired during a military drill at an unknown location in this undated photo released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency in 2016.“It’s the tyranny of proximity,” said David Maxwell, who served in South Korea during his 30 years in the Army and now teaches at Georgetown University. “It’s like the distance between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Imagine a million-man army just outside the Beltway with artillery they could use to terrorize Washington.”

About half of North Korea’s artillery pieces are multiple rocket launchers, including 18 to 36 of the huge 300mm launchers that Pyongyang has bragged about. State media last year published photos of the system during a test firing that Kim attended.

The 300mm guns could probably fire eight rounds every 15 minutes, Bermudez said, and have a range of about 44 miles.

“This could do a lot of damage,” he said. “If they hit a high-rise building with a couple of rounds of artillery, people get into their cars, causing huge traffic jams, so North Korea could target highways and bridges in cascades.”

If North Korea were to start unleashing its artillery on the South, it would be able to fire about 4,000 rounds an hour, Roger Cavazos of the Nautilus Institute estimated in a 2012 study. There would be 2,811 fatalities in the initial volley and 64,000 people could be killed that first day, the majority of them in the first three hours, he wrote.

Some of the victims would be American, because the U.S. military has about 28,000 troops in South Korea. The higher estimates for the 300mm rocket launcher’s range — up to 65 miles — would put the U.S. Air Force base at Osan and the new military garrison at Pyeongtaek, the replacement for the huge base in Seoul, within reach.

This prospect of extensive damage and casualties has restrained successive U.S. administrations, however provocative North Korea has been.

“Every U.S. administration, as they have looked at this problem, has said that all options are available. But that’s not really true,” said Baker, who is at the Pacific Forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “We really don’t have a military option.”

Vice President Pence, speaking in Seoul this week, said that all options are on the table for dealing with North Korea, echoing statements that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made in Seoul last month.

There was a similar discussion in 1994, when North Korea threatened to go nuclear, sparking talk of surgical strikes.

“People in Washington were saying, ‘We have the capability to do this,’ but those of us who were sitting in Seoul said, ‘You can’t do that,’ ” Baker said.

It is not just South Korea that would suffer. Such action would be devastating for North Korea, too, because the U.S. and South Korean militaries have spent decades developing their counter-battery capability, as well as developing plans for airstrikes to take out North Korea’s facilities.

“Defending Seoul against such a threat is the top priority for the alliance,” said Chun In-bum, a retired lieutenant general in the South Korean army who served as commander of South Korea’s Special Warfare Command.

“The U.S. and South Korean response would be immediate. We have assets along the DMZ dedicated for doing this job and counter-battery units trained to conduct these missions,” Chun said.

Although the White House has doubled down on its statements on the USS Carl Vinson heading to the Korean Peninsula — “It’s happening,” spokesman Sean Spicer said this week — former military officers on both sides of the alliance say they are sure that Trump will not put South Korean lives at risk.

“I believe that General [Jim] Mattis and General [H.R.] McMaster are well aware of this,” Maxwell said, referring to the defense secretary and the national security adviser.

“Of course it concerns me,” Chun said of the recent talk about strikes, “but I’ve always believed that, with good common sense and engagement, cooler heads will prevail.”

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