OPINION | North Korea's Nuclear Psychology of Absolute Annihilation

OPINION | North Korea's Nuclear Psychology of Absolute Annihilation

By Various Sources

In September 2015, North Korea announced the “normal operation” was again underway at its Yongbyon Nuclear Reactor Complex sent a characteristic wave of anxiety through the world’s Pyongyang watchers. The country’s nuclear ambitions had, after all, been largely forgotten in what seemed like a lull in North Korea’s fractious relations with the wider world. Even as the Korean peninsula itself endured a summer of high tension, the West’s complicated fear of North Korea has been displaced by a myopic public narrative currently fixated on the European refugee crisis, the murderous idiocy of Islamic State, and the travails of Donald Trump. Things are clearly rather different on the inside. The regime’s primary tool of geo-political leverage can have slipped nobody’s mind – and North Korea’s recent statements speak volumes about how the Kim regime conceives of its nuclear programme. Geo strategic analysts also worry that Pyongyang could be only one test away from mounting a nuclear warhead onto a missile capable of hitting targets in South Korea. However, until either milestone is reached, Pyongyang’s conventional and asymmetric warfare capabilities will continue to pose a serious threat to South Korea and its allies.


North Korea has the world’s fifth largest military with 1.1 million active soldiers and between 5 and 7 million reserve forces. While Pyongyang officially maintains an annual defense budget of roughly $1.5 billion, it is estimated that the actual budget is nearer to $5 billion. If this estimate is accurate, this would be roughly 25% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Out of these funds, approximately 40% is allocated to procurement with a focus on self-propelled artillery, multiple rocket launchers, and ballistic missiles. However, to overcome problems associated with outdated military equipment (over 50% of the country’s weapons were built in the 1960s), North Korea is also rapidly modernizing its three-part asymmetric military capabilities: long-range artillery, ballistic missiles, and Special Operation Forces (SOF).

Since the end of the Korean War, North Korea’s 200,000 strong Special Operation Forces (SOF) has conducted numerous low-level covert operations and asymmetric attacks against the South. The SOF is usually organized by brigade or battalion, but can also consist of very small teams (3-4 men). North Korean army defectors have confirmed that up to 90% of the SOF’s strategic targets (military bases, airports etc.) could be reached by parachute, hovercraft or through a tunnel system under the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). At least four large North Korean tunnels under the DMZ are known, with each one big enough to allow the passage of an entire North Korean infantry division.

In North Korea’s worldview, nuclear capability is the only thing that can ward off the chaos and collapse that befell Iraq, Libya and Syria. As the recent statement put it, these weapons are a “measure for self-defense in the face of the US extreme hostile policy and nuclear threats towards it”. The highest echelons of North Korea’s bureaucracy have seen the footage of erstwhile ally Muammar Gaddafi being brutalised and killed in the dust and dirt. None of its institutions or leaders have the slightest intention of repeating his experience. The Kim regime thinks this should be obvious. If anything, North Korea’s statement of September 15 expresses an incredulity that Pyongyang’s position is not understood elsewhere. North Korea’s nuclear tests of 2006, 2009 and 2013 at Pungyye-ri birthed an ideological and developmental theme known as the “Byungjin Line”, best translated as “parallelism”. This concept essentially holds that North Korea’s unencumbered technical, political and social development could only be achieved under the protective umbrella of nuclear capability and research. In the supposed recent nuclear hiatus, some analysts thought the Byungjin Line had all but faded away – but now, with Yongbyon restarted, it’s suddenly returned. The restart is, the statement says, “pursuant to the line of simultaneously pushing forward the economic construction and the building of a nuclear force advanced at the historic plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea” (WPK). The rest of the world generally views plenary meetings of the Central Committee of the WPK with bemusement and scorn. But by reiterating the relevance of this particular meeting, and restating the Byungjin’s parallelism, the statement should remind us that the memory of such meetings has weight – and that North Korea’s institutional outlook is far from the myopic charade observers often mistake it for.

Put under enough domestic and international pressure, Pyongyang could opt for an all-out war and preemptively attack the South. In that case, following an outdated Soviet Union military doctrine, Pyongyang’s artillery would probably launch a massive attack on South Korean and US military positions south of the DMZ, as well as directly on Seoul.


Before infantry could cross the border and march the 38 kilometers to reach Seoul, North Korea’s artillery and multiple rocket launchers (MRL) would most probably seek to prepare the ground and launch massive artillery attacks against the capital. Analysts estimate that North Korea possesses thousands of long-range launchers with at least 500 capable of hitting Seoul. The vast majority of these launchers are positioned in so-called hardened artillery sites (HARTS) constructed close to the DMZ, writes Bruce E. Bechtol for the International Review of Korea Studies. Bechtol also estimates that 5-20% of rounds provided to forward artillery units could be equipped with chemical ammunition. If so, then Pyongyang could have a large number of chemical weapons already along the DMZ. However, the quality of North Korea’s artillery is not nearly as impressive as the quantity. When North Korea bombarded Yeonpyeong in November 2010, it was estimated that only 50% of the artillery used in the attack actually landed on the island.

While an all-out attack remains very unlikely, the military posture of Pyongyang’s armed forces suggests that a preemptive strike is at least a possibility. Indeed, the percentage of armed forces deployed along the DMZ in relation to North Korea’s other forces has increased over recent years. Today, it is estimated that Pyongyang deploys more than 60% of its total military units and up to 80% of its firepower within 100 km of the DMZ. Accordingly, Pyongyang could quickly initiate an invasion and inflict massive human and material damage before being confronted with a massive US-South Korean counterattack. However, the time to do so would be fairly limited. The IISS’s Mark Fitzpatrick told ISN Security Watch that North Korea’s long-range artillery systems might have no more than ten minutes before joint US-South Korean counter-battery fire, air strikes and helicopter attacks begin to respond.

A joint US-South Korean preemptive attack is as equally ‘unappealing’ with allied forces only capable of targeting the most visible and well-known North Korean missile launch sites. The same is also true for nuclear facilities. While the US and South Korea could attack the plutonium production site at Yongbyon, finding and destroying hidden nuclear facilities across the country remains a complex task. What’s more, the IISS estimates that Washington would have to deploy up to 500,000 of its armed forces in the event of all-out conflict on the Korean Peninsula. 

Pyongyang takes an extraordinarily long view when it comes to historiography; North Korea’s self-narrative is replete with commemorative moments and necessary articulations. And the reappearance of Yongbyon is perhaps much less surprising when taken as part of North Korea’s commemorative plans for 2015. Accordingly, Kim Jong-un’s 2015 New Year message laid out North Korea’s entire developmental and bureaucratic year around a moment of memorial – and not just any moment. Pyongyang has already marked the passing of Liberation Day on August 15, and the Day of Songun on August 25, but a far more important moment awaits: the 70th anniversary of the founding of the WPK, to be marked on October 10. 

Just as North Korea’s governance structure does not represent a truly singular dictatorship but instead pits institutions and agendas against each other, its narrative and commemorative systems are far from monolithic. Instead, they are generated and transmitted by multiple nodes of charisma and authority. The activity at Yongbyon and its announcement by the KCNA may or may not be directly connected to the no doubt enormous celebrations that are planned, but they are just as crucial a pillar of Pyongyang’s legitimacy. While the WPK’s soon-to-be-celebrated birthday will refresh the revolutionary political atmosphere in which North Korea’s regime and system can breathe, Pyongyang’s military and technological infrastructure, including the Korean People’s Army (KPA) and its attendant nuclear capacity, is designed to safeguard North Korea’s patch of the geo-political terrain. Viewed in this light, North Korea’s “treasured swords” of nuclear mastery are far from the height of geopolitical folly. They are instruments of protection and shared ownership, guaranteeing both the past and future of all both at home and abroad. So it’s only natural that a little sabre-rattling is in order now and then.

Excerpts Taken from The Conversation - UK, University of Cambridge's site and ISN ETH

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