N. Korea’s Army No Paper Tiger
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — Over the past decade, North Korea has reorganized and upgraded its conventional and asymmetrical military capability, making it a greater threat to South Korea.
Despite international efforts to denuclearize the North, there are no similar efforts to force Pyongyang to lower tensions along the demilitarized zone (DMZ), where the North Korean military has massed chemical and biological arms, long-range artillery and short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs), and stationed the largest special forces contingent in the world.
According to Bruce Bechtol, author of the book “Red Rogue: The Persistent Challenge of North Korea,” the Korean People’s Army (KPA) has shifted a large number of troops from the Chinese border to the DMZ.
In 1981, 40 percent of its equipment and troops were based near the DMZ, with 30 percent near the Chinese border. Now, 70 percent of the KPA’s troops are near the DMZ with only 5 percent near China.
Most of these organizational and deployment changes occurred during the 1990s, “despite resource constraints,” Bechtol said.
Resources have not been a significant problem for the military, despite periodic famines in North Korea, Bechtol said. Many might assume the military starves right along with the population, but the “opposite is true” — resources are diverted from the general population to the military.
Since 2000, the KPA has undertaken a number of organizational changes within its ground forces units, said Joseph Bermudez, author of the book “North Korean Special Forces.” These efforts have been pursued to enhance offensive capabilities and respond to changing economic conditions, such as the continued shortage of fuel.
Since 2006, the KPA has restructured two mechanized corps, one tank corps and one artillery corps into divisions.
“At least some, and possibly all, of the light infantry battalions within divisions deployed along the DMZ were expanded to regiment size,” Bermudez said, “while light infantry regiments in the same corps were expanded to brigades.
Some infantry or mechanized infantry divisions were converted into mechanized light infantry.
“Among the more significant changes was the restructuring of several corps and the reorganization of special operations forces,” he said.
Some of the mechanized brigades subordinate to the four mechanized corps were reorganized into mechanized river-crossing brigades to enhance their ability to rapidly exploit any breakthroughs in a future war, Bermudez said.
“This organizational development was apparently achieved by subordinating independent engineer river-crossing units — for example, engineer bridge and tracked amphibian — formerly subordinate to the Engineer Bureau to forwardarea, formerly mechanized brigades,” he said. “Engineer road construction units may have also been subordinated to the newly reorganized units. The number of units having undergone this reorganization is presently unclear.”
Since the 1990s, North Korea not only has made improvements in its armor and mechanized capabilities, but has also expanded its asymmetric forces, said Bechtol, a professor at the U.S. Marine Corps Command and Staff College.
Asymmetric elements fielded near the DMZ now include long-range artillery units, such as 170mm guns and 240mm multiple rocket launchers, and short-range ballistic missiles, including around 200 No Dongs and 600 Scud SRBMs with ranges of 300 to 850 kilometers. North Korea has also added the KN02 SRBM, an indigenous variant of the old Soviet SS-21 system with a range of 120 kilometers.
These artillery and missile components will be used in tandem, Bechtol said. The potential damage from artillery alone could be as high as 200,000 casualties during the first day of an attack.
The hands-on element of the asymmetrical threat is the 180,000 special operations forces North Korea fields, Bechtol said. They are expected to infiltrate behind the lines by aircraft, through tunnels along the DMZ and by boat along the coast.