Archive for NK Military

I want to know who sold it to them

North Korea has a new submarine that, according to Joseph Bermudez, “will have greater range, patrol time and weapons capability than the existing KPN fleet of coastal submarines.” Please don’t try to tell me they built this thing from scratch. Someone broke U.N. sanctions to sell it to them.

Does North Korea have tunnels under Seoul?

Gen. Hahn Sung-Chu never believed North Korea could dig a tunnel that reached Seoul — until now.

Standing inside a basement of an apartment block in the heart of the capital, the former two-star general in the South Korean military says, “This is a kind of invasion, North Korean soldiers working underneath us.”

Hahn says residents had complained of underground vibrations, but the subway does not run beneath them. [CNN]

I’d be much more surprised if the North Koreans didn’t have tunnels under Seoul. Nor is this the most outlandish claim I’ve heard about the extent of those tunnels.

The remains of another North Korea UAV have been found near Baekryeong Island …

in the Yellow Sea, but it’s not clear from Yonhap’s report when the military thinks it crashed. This is the first report of North Korean UAV found in the South since April, when others were found in Paju and (again) Baekryeong.

Malnutrition and disillusionment take their toll on the North Korean military.

Rimjin-gang reports that the NKPA is finding that after a full generation of hunger and depressed birth rates, there are fewer young North Korean men who meet its physical standards, and many of those who do dodge the draft. I’d assume that draft-dodging in North Korea requires one to have the financial means to pay significant bribes, and if the possession of such financial means is still largely a function of songbun (hereditary political caste), then the disillusionment has entered the middle and upper-middle castes, too.

For those seeking more background on hunger in the North Korean military, see the links at the end of Rimjin-gang’s article.

Is N. Korea building a missile submarine?

”A missile launch tube on a North Korean submarine was observed recently by U.S. intelligence agencies and is raising new concerns about the missile and nuclear threat from the communist regime in Pyongyang, according to two defense officials familiar with reports of the development.” [Free Beacon]

That would complicate the interception of North Korean missiles immensely.

South Korea’s missile problem, and ours

For the last year, the South Korean government has been saying that it considers a North Korean attack a very real risk, and it has also said that if attacked, its retaliation will be swift and severe. Its President, Park Geun-Hye, recently expressed concern about a North Korean “misjudgment,” and touted the U.S.-ROK military alliance as the best deterrent against that. As recently as this week, she has been warning her army of the dangers of “complacency.

I don’t have access to the intelligence that President Park has, so I have no basis to either affirm or question her premise. Part of this is probably deterrent bluster, but I doubt Park would bluster without some basis. I’ve always thought President Park was a smart and shrewd politician. In South Korea, appeasement is popular enough that its name in the political lexicon predates even the Sunshine Policy — it’s known as the “Northern Wind.” Appeasement is not as popular as it was a decade ago, but it’s popular enough that I doubt that a politician as shrewd as Park would fabricate a threat that wouldn’t serve her political interests. (I’m sure others will disagree; so be it).

Today, I fear that the risk of a miscalculation that leads to war is greater than most North Korea watchers appreciate. Last month, Park told her top military commanders to return fire if attacked, without even waiting for her permission. What Park said next was not only slightly terrifying, it was also a perfect response to Secretary Kerry’s ill-advised comments about North Korea being “quiet,” especially because her comments preceded Kerry’s:

“There are also large concerns in the international community about (the North’s) preparations for a fourth nuclear test,” she said during the luncheon at the presidential office. “The gravity of the situation does not allow for the least bit of carelessness in maintaining our defense posture.” [....]

“I have complete faith in the judgment of our military,” Park said. “If there is any provocation, I expect all of you to respond strongly in the initial stages and punish (the North).” [Yonhap]

One cause of the recent rise in tensions is North Korea’s recent surge of tests of SCUDs, FROGs, and Nodongs — which we’ve known about for years — and of volleys of larger multiple-launch artillery rockets, which are a newer (and arguably, greater) threat. Thanks to The Wall Street Journal‘s Alastair Gale and other sources, we can identify some of these as 300-millimeter rockets of a new (to North Korea) type based either on a Russian design that can (in its native form) carry thermobaric weapons, or a Chinese or Pakistani variant that can probably carry chemical warheads. These weapons extend the range of North Korea’s artillery to cover all of Seoul, and most likely, Osan Air Base and the large Army post at Camp Humphreys, too.

[Indian Army 300-millimeter Smerch multiple-launch rockets.]

Over the weekend, during the “so-called” Pope’s visit, North Korea fired five new missiles that, Read more

I’m sure the “so-called pope” meant no offense, but if KCNA hadn’t norksplained it for me …

I would not have seen it from this perspective: “We would like to ask the pope why he set about his south Korean trip the day when we are making latest tactical rocket test-fire according to our regular plan though there are a lot of days in the year.”

Of course, given His Porcine Majesty’s crowded launch schedule and the absence of forewarning, it’s not exactly easy for His Holiness to squeeze in a visit to Korea in between. Sounds like the rockets were more of that 300-millimeter type.

Insiders debate North Korea’s EMP capability

The simplest electro-magnetic pulse or EMP weapons are, put simply, nuclear weapons detonated at high altitude. A high-altitude nuclear blast would overload and destroy electrical circuits and infrastructure, and create blackouts over wide areas for extended periods of time. Imagine your life without the internet, telephone, electricity, or cars — in short, being part of a 21st Century population trying to sustain itself with Colonial Williamsburg technology — and you get the idea. Without the means to recover from that sort of attack quickly, a modern society can’t survive for long.

The Heritage Foundation has published this background paper on the EMP threat, which itself links to this study commissioned by Congress, which examines the threat in more detail. Although I’ve read some of the predictions about the potential consequences of an EMP strike that sound exaggerated, I do think EMP is a danger we should take seriously with respect to our defenses, and also, our capacity to recover our infrastructure after an EMP attack.

Last month, former CIA Director James Woolsey made some members of the House Armed Services Committee nervous when he warned, “There is now an increasing likelihood that rogue nations such as North Korea … will soon match Russia and China in that they will have the primary ingredients for an EMP attack.”

For South Korea, the EMP threat could be particularly dire. The ROK has one of the world’s highest population densities, and its defense is as dependent on technology as the rest of its society. I’m not surprised, then, that the South Korean military is denying that North Korea has EMP weapons … at least for now.

Meanwhile, another writer suggests that our own EMP weapons could help restore our failing military deterrence of North Korea.

One way to threaten preemption even without missiles is to further develop a non-nuclear electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapon that could neutralize missiles on the launcher.  Because North Korea will soon develop road-mobile missiles capable of firing nuclear weapons, the further development of non-nuclear EMP systems capable of taking out, say, a 50-square-kilometer joint fire area, would also shift the cost-benefit calculus against North Korea. [Patrick Cronin, The Diplomat]

There is very little (but some) publicly available information about non-nuclear EMP weapons. According to Global Security, the U.S. military may even have used them against the Iraqi military in 1991.

The use of non-nuclear EMP doesn’t raise the same concerns about nuclear escalation and clouds of radionuclides drifting over, say, China. On the other hand, South Korea is almost certainly far more dependent on technology, and thus far more vulnerable to EMP warfare, than the North. The area south of the DMZ is heavily populated, whereas the area to the North is thinly populated and technologically backward. Whether a first use of EMP is really a good idea depends on unknowable facts, such as the imminence and scale of the threat we’d be preempting, the capability of the weapons, and the likelihood that North Korea could respond in kind.

For a more scaleable form of deterrence, I’m much more comfortable with this idea, myself.

While North and South Korea agreed some years ago to forego psychological warfare against each other, the North is a flagrant purveyor of vitriol and falsehood.  Surely the alliance can better saturate the North with uncomfortable facts—from pictures of Kim Jong-Un’s luxury houses side by side with North Korean gulags, to video lectures by North Korean refugees who have managed to escape the world’s most oppressive regime.

In fact, I don’t see any good arguments against doing these things in response to North Korea’s tests of SCUD, 300-millimeter rockets, or ICBM engines. If one of our goals is to slow the rate of North Korea’s progress toward acquiring an effective nuclear arsenal, wouldn’t it make sense to convince Kim Jong Un that that progress also carries risks, and that time isn’t on his side?

Test something louder, Dear Leader. John Kerry still can’t hear you.

With the world erupting in the greatest cascade of escalating conflicts since 1975 and President Obama’s approval rating on foreign policy at negative 21.2% — 11% lower than his overall (dis)approval rating — John Kerry eked out some time over the weekend to tempt fate with a dubious boast:

I just came back from China, where we are engaged with the Chinese in dealing with North Korea. And you will notice, since the visit last year, North Korea has been quieter. We haven’t done what we want to do yet with respect to the de-nuclearization. But we are working on that and moving forward. [John Kerry, Meet the Press, July 20, 2014]

If you’re in Seoul or certain parts of Washington, that clapping sound isn’t applause; it’s the smack of palms against foreheads. Kerry’s observation rubs a lamp that wiser men do not touch for fear of the genies they would rather not summon. One may as well compliment a politician’s moderate views during primary season, or announce one’s arrival in the cellblock by telling the gang leader that he seems a decent enough fellow. As if on cue, yesterday, North Korea threatened South Korea and the United States with “practical retaliatory actions of justice.”

As South Koreans are keenly aware, North Korea has not been quiet. Under the direct supervision of His Porcine Majesty, it has been testing SCUDs in violation of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions, along with massive barrages of artillery rockets. The U.S. and U.N. responses to this have been negligible.

At best, Kerry’s comment suggests poor coordination with one of our most important allies that still hasn’t been attacked this year. At worst, it suggests dangerously wishful and complacent thinking. It clearly means that Kerry neither knows nor cares much about North Korea. Such revelations cause unease among our allies, which is why the State Department had to “clarify” Kerry’s remarks yesterday:

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is clearly concerned about North Korea’s provocative actions and did not mean to downplay the seriousness of the issue when he said Pyongyang is “quieter” than before, a government official said Monday.

“The secretary and we all have been very clear in condemning North Korea’s aggressive actions when they occur. We’ve talked recently about the ballistic missiles and how those were in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said at a regular press briefing.

“So I think the secretary has been very clear about our concern with North Korea’s activity,” she said in response to a question whether Kerry’s statement is a correct assessment of the situation. “He wasn’t trying to convey something different than we’ve conveyed in the past.” [Yonhap]

Concern, however, is no substitute for a coherence in matters of policy. Under Kerry’s tenure, the Obama Administration has shown a lack of seriousness about enforcing existing U.N. Security Council sanctions, even after North Korea was caught in flagrante delicto. It has imposed targeted financial sanctions on Zimbabwe, Russia, and Belarus — and grudgingly enforced tough financial sanctions against Iran — while its tepid trade sanctions against North Korea are stuck in the 1970s. Treasury has sanctioned and blocked the assets of the top leaders of these nations, but none of the top leaders of North Korea.

Our government has designated Burma and Iran to be primary money laundering concerns, a potentially devastating measure that is the financial industry’s equivalent of a sex offender registration, isolating them from a community where reputation means everything. It has made no such designation with respect to North Korea, the world’s most prolific state sponsor of money laundering, counterfeiting, drug dealing, and illegal proliferation.

Most unforgivably, it has offered no policy response whatsoever to a U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s finding that Kim Jong Un’s regime is committing crimes against humanity. Kerry is as deaf to the cries of the North Korean people as he is to roar of Kim Jong Un’s rockets. That is why North Korea continues to defy the Commission of Inquiry and all those who support its recommendations.

It’s as if this administration has no North Korea policy at all.

Meanwhile, as gravity of the threat from North Korea builds, President Park is so convinced that a North Korean provocation is imminent that she has directed her military commanders to return fire immediately if fired on by North Korea. This puts us one ill-advised temptation away from the miscalculation that could start Korean War II.

But perhaps, Koreans wonder, this isn’t what Kerry meant:

[C]ritics said [Kerry’s] assessment is far from reality. 

While characterizing the North as “quieter,” Kerry might have referred to the fact that the provocative nation has not carried out a nuclear test or a long-range rocket launch — the two main types of provocations Pyongyang has used to rattle the world.

Even without such major provocations, however, the North has continued to rattle its saber in recent months, firing a number of rockets, missiles and artillery rounds off its coast with some launches in violation of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Last week, the council issued a statement condemning the North’s ballistic missile launches.  [Yonhap]

To claim success for Kim Jong Un’s failure to nuke off is to confuse coincidence with causation. There is no evidence that Kerry’s diplomacy has resulted in serious movement toward disarming North Korea. There is more evidence that the Obama Administration itself is moving away from denuclearization as an objective.

One could just as well claim that the House’s introduction last April of tough financial sanctions targeted at Kim Jong Un’s financial jugular may be deterring him from a nuclear test. Or, it could simply be that North Korea’s nuclear tests will conform to their previous interval of three to four years. A test of something louder would at least get the attention of everyone else in Washington who would otherwise forget that North Korea exists. One can hope that this time, Congress might just respond with more credible policy options than John Kerry has to offer.

U.S. should ask Mexico to search the M/V Mu Du Bong

Last week, I linked to a piece by investigative journalist Claudia Rosett (third item), noting the travels of the North Korean freighter Mu Du Bong from Cuba into points unknown in the Gulf of Mexico. Now, thanks to intrepid Miami Herald reporter Juan Tamayo, we learn that the Mu Du Bong has run aground in the Mexican Gulf Coast port of Tuxpan, not far from Veracruz. The ship is said to be empty, but there are a number of suspicious aspects of its behavior.

The 430-foot Mu Du Bong grounded Monday on a reef about seven miles from the Mexican port of Tuxpan, according to shipping industry officials. The job of pulling it off the reef will be complicated and take several days, they said.

The ship was empty and planning to pick up cargo in Tuxpan when it ran aground because its captain “lost his bearings,” according to a report by the Agence France Presse. Tuxpan is known as one of Mexico’s main sugar exporting ports.

Port administrators told El Nuevo Herald aid they did not know whether the Mu Du Bong was entering or leaving the port. An official at the Captain of the Port’s office said no one there was authorized to give information on the case. [Miami Herald]

Like the Chong Chon Gang, the North Korean ship that was caught carrying weapons from Cuba through the Panama Canal last year, the Mu Du Bong had its automatic location beacon switched off for several days, creating a potentially unsafe condition for other ships.

The Mu Du Bong crossed the Panama Canal into the Caribbean June 15. Its transponder signaled June 25 that it was near the port of Mariel, and on June 29-30 that it was in Havana, according to a Forbes magazine article Sunday that first reported its voyage.

For the next nine days its transponder fell silent, Forbes reported. It started working again on July 10, showing the ship was in Havana and then sailed north into the Gulf of Mexico, according to the magazine article.

One shipping industry official called the freighter built in 1983 “an ugly old rust bucket” and said photos of the ship’s deck show an odd mast surrounded by wires that could be some sort of jerry-rigged crane or an antenna. [....]

The Forbes report said shipping records show the two vessels share the same commercial agent, Ocean Maritime Management Company Ltd. U.N. experts who investigated the Chong Chon Gang incident said that company “played a key role in arranging the shipment of the concealed cargo of (Cuban) arms and related materiel.” [Miami Herald]

The Mu Du Bong’s shipping agent was Ocean Maritime Management, the same company that arranged for the voyage of the Chong Chon Gang.

Mu Du Bong

[Image source]

In other words, four months after a U.N. Panel of Experts report laid out conclusive evidence of OMM’s deliberate and premeditated violation of U.N. Security Council sanctions, the U.S. Treasury Department has not sanctioned OMM or any other entity under Executive Order 13551 over the Chong Chon Gang incident, or added it to the list of Specially Designated Nationals. Meanwhile, OMM is still acting as an agent for suspicious North Korean shipping traffic to Cuba.

Under a recent U.N. Security Council resolution, Mexican authorities have the legal authority to inspect the Mu Du Bong.

Moreover, in the effort to prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer to or from the Democratic People’s Republic or Korea or its nationals of any banned items, States are authorized to inspect all cargo within or transiting through their territory that has originated in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or that is destined for that country.  They are to deny permission to any aircraft to take off from, land in or overfly their territory, if they have reasonable grounds to believe the aircraft contains prohibited items. [UNSCR 2094]

I don’t know whether the U.S. government is currently pressing the Mexican government to assert that right, but a U.S. government with a genuine interest in enforcing U.N. Security Council sanctions would be pressing for an inspection of the Mu Du Bong.

A number of analysts quoted in various press reports doubted that the Mu Du Bong could be carrying weapons because its bills of lading list only civilian goods. But by the same faulty argumentum ad ignorantiam logic, North Korea has no concentration camps because it denies having them, and O.J. is still looking for the real killer. At page 92 of this U.N. Panel of Experts report, you can see the bills of lading for the Chong Chon Gang. They mention 210,000 bags of sugar, and nothing about MiGs or missile parts. The real answer is that we won’t know what the Mu Du Bong is carrying until the ship is inspected.

Update: I changed “press” to “ask” in the title of this post. Better to ask nicely the first time, and “press” only if asking nicely doesn’t work, right?

Update 2: More on this story via Reuters.

Why would North Korea fly a UAV over the Blue House? Why else?

Arirang News has video of one of the suspected North Korean UAVs (unmanned air vehicles — we didn’t say “drone” in the Army) that crashed on Baekryeong Island.

The Baekryeong UAV has a conventional high aspect ratio wing, for greater stability and longer range. According to this report and this one, its engine was made in Japan, and other components were from China. This suggests that if the UAV really did come from North Korea, it’s an indigenous design.

The other UAV, which crashed near Paju City, tells a more interesting story. Arirang and the Joongang Ilbo suggest that it was on its way back from scouting higher-profile targets:

Images found on the camera showed that the drone had followed a route from central Seoul through the Gupabal area in northeastern Seoul to Paju. It took photos of major landmarks in central Seoul, including the Blue House and Gyeongbok Palace, which are close to each other. [Joongang Ilbo]

That’s a round trip of 50 miles or more, but after all, a man once flew a model airplane across the Atlantic Ocean, so it’s certainly possible. The image resolution was reportedly poor, possibly due to excessive vibration.

Via a commenter, Josh Marshall publishes imagery of the Paju UAV’s very different design and very similar paint scheme. Like most giant-scale model airplanes, it is powered by a one-cylinder, probably two-stroke piston engine with a large muffler sticking out the side (it would still be very loud). Unlike the Baekryeong UAV, it has a low aspect ratio wing. Low aspect ratio wings have more induced drag (caused by wingtip vortices), so they have shorter ranges. Their main advantage is their low takeoff and landing speeds, which means they can be launched by hand or catapult, and recovered in a net. No airfield would be required. An off-the-shelf digital camera is mounted in the fuselage.

Although North Korea is the prime suspect, all of this technology is commercially available and could have been built by almost any curious person with a budget of $2,000. The greatest technological challenge in UAV design is finding a way to control it for ranges over five miles. This could be done by long-range radio signal over an unused frequency, with a satellite-boosted signal, or by using GPS to navigate it to pre-set waypoints.

Marshall sneers at the design of these UAVs, but they aren’t designed to look scary or carry heavy payloads. But what are they designed to do? Superficially, one might guess that they’re designed to gather clear images and coordinates of potential targets. In this case, however, the imagery was reportedly of low quality, and in any event, one can find the precise coordinates of the Blue House on Google Maps or Google Earth (a skill that North Korea hadn’t quite mastered in 2012, when it threatened to shell the offices of South Korean newspapers, while actually giving the coordinates of the Australian Embassy and other errant targets).

That leaves the real purpose unexplained. If a curious citizen or eccentric hobbyist built it, then “just for the hell of it” or “because it’s there” are perfectly good answers. If the North Koreans built it, the only purpose I can think of would be to show the South Koreans exactly what potential targets the North Koreans are interested in, just two months before the next bi-election.

North Korea was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. Discuss among yourselves.

There are a lot of places in North Korea that I’ve always wanted to see in high resolution. A UAV seems like a great way to get that imagery. Sometimes the North Koreans give me such interesting ideas.

~   ~   ~

Update: The Joongang Ilbo publishes two in-depth reports on this story, estimating that the UAV likely cost just under $10,000, reporting that it was GPS-guided, and also reporting that its imagery was of better quality than first reported.

A reader also wrote in to point out that North Korea has other, scarier-looking UAVs with actual scary warheads.

“The drone appeared to be a North Korean copy of a Raytheon MQM-107 Streaker target drone,” the report said. “North Korean press coverage of the event described the UAV as being capable of precision strikes by crashing into the target.”

Kim Jong Un purges the army

In North Korea, it’s 1937 all over again:

The North Korean military has refrained from conducting “joint exercises” due partly to poor fuel supplies, but mainly because “an effort to replace those linked to Jang Song Thaek in the military is ongoing,” according to sources from the country’s military officer corps.  “Joint exercises during the winter this year were not even planned,” a military source in northern Yanggang province told RFA’s Korean Service. “The brakes have likely been put on such exercises because of large-scale replacements in the officer corps.” [....]

The military source also said that officers at each military base with a rank lower than regiment commander and higher than battalion commander had been replaced in an apparent bid to weed out any of Jang’s links. New procedures have also been introduced to boost promotion prospects for younger officers in a move believed aimed at filling up positions as the military copes with the purge of those linked to Jang. [Radio Free Asia

The reports here aren’t completely consistent, but can be harmonized. The Daily NK reports that winter training exercises are ongoing, but they’re mostly long ruck marches in the cold, not mechanized exercises. Interestingly, Yonhap is also reporting that civilian fuel supplies have also been cut. I wouldn’t be too quick to assume that this is the result of shortages. It may well be that the regime is taking steps to prevent large movements of people and equipment.

Separately, the Daily NK is reporting more wide-scale purges and executions in army units across North Korea.

The source revealed in particular the case of “Unit 570,” which has undergone “Urakkai,” a Japanese word used in North Korea to mean complete and absolute change. The unit commander has been executed and all enlisted men either punished or transferred to other units, it is alleged. [Daily NK]

Apparently, the unit leader was associated with Jang. Its mission is “guerrilla warfare,” and its funding comes from cross-border business operations, suggesting that it’s a part of North Korea’s vaunted Special Forces:

“It’s not clear where the unit has gone, but it is now comprised of new soldiers from elsewhere. Not a lot is known about what happened,” he added. “The regime is no longer summoning Jang’s former accomplices to Pyongyang and punishing them there, preferring to quietly carry out its executions in the countryside.” 

“According to news trickling out of the unit, all senior officers were called in separately and harshly questioned during a mass rally that took place in Pyongyang late last year. They were taken into custody after the rally finished,” the source went on.

While the source said that other units are also under close scrutiny and face punishment following the Jang execution, Unit 570, which is based in Maengsan in northeast South Pyongan Province, is special in that it is a special operations force tasked with preparing for guerrilla warfare on the streets of Seoul in the event of a second Korean War.  For this reason, the unit receives more tools and equipment than many others.  

Remember this the next time someone tells you that the regime’s trade with China is necessarily an engine of reform. The whole argument is based on the flawed premise that the regime is Socialist, Communist, or otherwise philosophically opposed to making money.

The report notes that the V and VIII Corps are also being purged. The VIII Corps is responsible for defending a long stretch of the border between North Korea and China, and the V Corps is a front-line unit, posted along the DMZ. All of these are elite units that should have the best equipment, training, and morale. They are not the glorified construction companies whose soldiers so often go hungry.

Executing and “disappearing” officers from these elite sounds awfully dangerous. Stalin managed it, but Kim Jong Un isn’t Stalin, and even Stalin paid the price for his 1937 purge in 1940, when his army proved too inept and poorly led to defeat the Finns, thus encouraging Hitler to invade the U.S.S.R. a year later.

Meanwhile, the purge of civilian cadres also continues.

The official said that even employees from North Korean restaurants in China and other countries run by the administrative division of the Korean Workers’ Party, which Jang headed, were “investigated for at least a week before being released.” These purging efforts are expected to last until June, he said. Key figures around Jang, excluding his wife, are apparently being investigated and categorized across four levels. [Joongang Ilbo]

Some of those who remain in Pyongyang are supposedly so terrified that they’re flocking to fortune tellers. The Joongang Ilbo report also speculates that, contra reports that Jang’s relatives have been executed (Item 2), they may well have been sent to the camps. I don’t know the answer to that specific question, but I’ll have a bit more to say about that point later this week, and about how you can get involved in hunting for the evidence of it.

N. Korean military looking pretty decrepit these days.

North Korea’s nuclear weapons development is blazing ahead, but series of reports from North Korea suggest that its conventional forces are decaying, ill-disciplined, and even underfunded.

First, a Hainan Class submarine chaser and a patrol boat sank in separate incidents off the coast of Wonsan (or, maybe the two ships collided; hey, it’s North Korea — who knows?). North Korea admits the loss of the 60s-vintage sub chaser. The North hasn’t given a casualty count, but showed Kim Jong un laying flowers at a collection of 15-20 graves. South Korea said that “scores” of North Korean sailors died in the incident.


[Hainan Class sub chaser of the Bangladeshi Navy]

Second, the Chosun Ilbo passes on reports of mysterious fires at an arms factory in North Pyongan Province, and aboard a train carrying military goods through Ryanggang Province. The report raises the possibility of sabotage, or an attack against the regime, but the two locations are far from each other, making it less likely (though not impossible) that the incidents were coordinated. No basis is offered to support this theory.

Third, a report from a South Korean think tank claim that corruption is rampant in the North Korean military, with soldiers even willing to sell state secrets or, for a fee of $40 to $60, carry refugees out of the country. Reports of corruption in the North Korean military certainly aren’t new. The North Korean military periodically cycles units out of border areas after soldiers get too cozy with smugglers. I wonder if this means we’ll see a rebound in defections after last year’s decline due to the border crackdown.

The fourth, and most dubious, set of reports (sourced to the Syrian opposition) claims that North Korean pilots are in Syria, flying helicopters for Assad. Syria may be the most dangerous place in the world to fly a helicopter today:

Although the North no doubt appreciates the chance to get its pilots some flying hours and combat experience in time for the North Korean Civil War, this would (if true) also signal financial desperation. North Korea never does anything for free, after all, but it can be blithely ignorant about countervailing financial risks. A dead or captured North Korean pilot would be awfully conspicuous in Syria, and a prisoner or a body would undoubtedly give people like me more ammunition to call for tighter financial sanctions.

Still, I’ve learned over the years that nothing is beyond the North Koreans, no matter how illogical it may seem to us.

North Korea historically spends lavishly on showpiece military projects and acquisitions, even if it often seems to skimp on basics like food, pay, fuel, spare parts, and training.

Kim Jong Un, Castro, and Homer Simpson form Apiary of Evil

The Panama weapons seizure happened last month, before I ended my hiatus, but let me offer these brief observations.

First, good for Panama.  Second, North Korea still doesn’t care what the U.N. Security Council prohibits (surprise!).  Third, neither does Cuba.  Fourth, we’ll gauge whether the administration is serious about sanctions enforcement by whether it sanctions any North Korea, Cuban, or other entities under Executive Order 13,551, which would allow the blocking of the assets of any entities knowingly involved in the transaction that are in, or that ever enter, the United States or its banks.  North Korea’s “palace” economy still uses the U.S. dollar more than any other currency, and all international dollar-denominated wire transfers have to move through U.S. financial institutions, where they could be blocked.

I’m skeptical of the explanation offered by Cuba and North Korea that these are merely obsolete weapons being sent to North Korea for repair, before being returned to Cuba.  The only word of this I’ll concede is “obsolete,” although the SA-2 remains a dangerous weapon, and modernized variants of this system are still in use in many countries.  North Korea still uses many SA-2s, and also operates many MiG-21s. North Korea continues to purchase used MiG-21s from other countries.  Most recently, a Mongolian general was caught selling surplus MiG-21s to North Korea.  Cuba’s air force is, on the average, slightly less obsolete than North Korea’s, but its inventory is shrinking.  It makes sense that Cuba would have surplus to sell off.  It does not make sense that Cuba would ship obsolete aircraft to and from North Korea, knowing that they’d be subject to seizure on the way there or on the way back.  This is an unreasonable risk to take for the sake of a few old aircraft that were ready for the scrap heap, and which could have been repaired legally in dozens of other countries.

North Korea and Cuba offer the “repair” story as if it acquits them of, or mitigates, their guilt for violating UNSC resolutions.  They should have read paragraph 8(a)(i) of this resolution, and paragraph 7 of this one.  Of course, if they had nothing to hide, why did they conceal the cargo, and why didn’t they notify the U.N. 1718 Committee of the shipment? (Because they had something to hide, silly.)

Next, look at the compressor blades on this MiG-21 engine:

MiG engine

They’re freshly painted. They look like they’ve already been refurbished.

Finally, the shipment contained other weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades, that almost certainly weren’t being refurbished.

What this looks like is a purchase by North Korea from Cuba of weapons and sugar.  But give the North Koreans credit where it’s due–for once, they’re importing something edible with their weapons for a change, although the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization helpfully informs us that the North Koreans’ priorities still haven’t shifted enough to feed their people.  Maybe someone can write a post on 38 North explaining why this is the first sign of a reformist trend.

Of course, we can’t discount the possibility that the North Korean ship might have stopped in several other countries to deliver portions of its cargo to third-country customers. This would be par for the course for a North Korean ship, particularly one like this with a short range.

But to me, the most interesting thing about this shipment is “the millions of bees swarming around the sugar,” which have stung several of the Panamanians searching the ship.  Where have we seen this before?

The Fulcrum: 39°24’43.50″N, 125°53’25.70″E

Nearly all of the North Korean aircraft you can see on its airfields are ancient MiGs — 60s vintage or older.  But Sunchon Air Base, the home of the 57th Air Regiment, is where North Korea keeps some of its more modern aircraft — its Su-25 ground attack aircraft, and its MiG-29 fighters.

Screen Shot 2013-03-03 at 9.17.25 PM

On October 14, 2010, the North Korean ground crews rolled their wares out of their underground hangars.  It was a bright, clear day, giving us an excellent view when a passing satellite snapped these pictures of the aircraft lined up just outside the shelter entrances, like snakes sunning themselves on a rock.

MiG-29 base @ 1400' 14oct2010

MiG-29 base @ 3000'

These two examples, parked on the edge of the runway, give us a better look.

MiG-29s @ 600' 14oct2010

Guest Post: It Pays to Provoke

Prof. Sung Yoon Lee is the Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Assistant Professor of Korean Studies at Tufts University, a regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal and Foreign Affairs, and a good friend of mine.  If you’re wondering how he lowered his standards so far so fast, the answer is that he wrote a comment that outgrew the comments section, and he graciously agreed to let me publish it as a guest post.


North Korea’s long-range ballistic missile on Dec 12, 2012, was almost pre-ordained. For Pyongyang, it almost always pays to provoke, and never hurts to do it. What’s more, the constellation of events in mid-December made provoking its longstanding adversaries, Seoul and Washington, near irresistible.

Some past patterns to consider:

North Korea has a long history of provoking South Korea and the US at a time it determines to be in its strategic interest; that is, when its adversaries are weak or distracted. Pyongyang also delights in adding insult to injury by provoking on major holidays. It also finds Sundays an opportune time to cause trouble, thereby capturing the global headlines for the rest of the week and putting added pressure on its adversaries to respond with concessionary diplomacy.

For example, Pyongyang calculated that the US would find it exceedingly risky to escalate tension with a belligerent North Korea in 1968 and 1969, when the Vietnam War became a political liability back home. Hence, North Korea seized the USS Pueblo on January 23, 1968, and held the crew of 82 as captives for 11 months, often torturing them. North Korea sent 31 commandos into Seoul to assassinate the South Korean president earlier that month. That fall, Pyongyang dispatched hundreds of armed guerrilla fighters into the South to foment communist rebellion. North Korea shot down a US surveillance plane on April 15, 1969, on Kim Il Sung’s birthday. North Korea shot down a US helicopter in August, and ambushed and killed four US patrolmen along the Demilitarized Zone in Oct 1969. With each provocation, there was no military response of any sort by the US or South Korea.

As for marking holidays with a bang, Pyongyang’s first nuclear test came on October 9, 2006, the eve of Party Founding Day—one of the most important national holidays in North Korea. That led to the resumption of diplomatic negotiations by the George W Bush administration and, sequentially, new rounds of diplomacy, the lifting of financial sanctions, the resumption of food aid, and the removal of North Korea from the US State Dept. list of state sponsors of terrorism. This landmark event, Pyongyang’s first nuclear test, was preceded in July by a seven-rocket salute on America’s birthday, when it fired off six short-range missiles and one long-range missile on the morning of July 5, 2006 (the afternoon of July 4, Independence Day, in Washington DC). North Korea’s second nuclear test was on May 25, Memorial Day in the US. The 1983 Rangoon bombing also took place on the eve of Party Founding Day, which also happened to be a Sunday.

As for Pyongyang’s penchant for provoking on a Sunday, its first long-range missile test took place on Sunday, Aug 31, 1998. That led to a flurry of diplomatic activity on Washington’s part and the transfer from the US to North Korea of $177 million worth of food aid through the WFP (400,000 tons) in 1999, in return for the privilege of inspecting an empty cave in Kumchangri. The North’s third long-range missile test took place on Sunday, April 5, 2009. The North also blew up a Korean Airliner on Sunday, Nov 29, 1987.

Moreover, Pyongyang also likes to rain on Seoul’s parade. There are too many examples to mention—I’ll just cite one: On November 12, 2010, Pyongyang conducted a “poor man’s” uranium bomb test when it showcased its modern uranium enrichment facility to Dr. Siegfried Hecker, as Seoul was hosting what it had been touting as one of the most important international events ever, the G20 Summit.

Now, mid-December 2012, is a most opportune time for NK to set the table again vis-a-vis the powers in the region, raise the stakes with provocations, and try to paint the new leadership in DC, Beijing, Tokyo, Seoul, and Moscow into a corner by creating a security problem that calls for concessionary diplomacy.

So, the real question is not why did Pyongyang conduct a long-range missile test, but why wouldn’t it have—provided the capability was there and the weather didn’t stand in the way? With exactly one week to go before South Korea’s presidential election, and five days before the anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s death, and barely a month away from Kim Jong Un’s birthday on January 8, the temptation to stir things up must have been compelling.

Now is the best time for Pyongyang to jolt the South’s electorate, instill in the public the fear of possible war and the consequent loss of lives and treasure, and intimidate ordinary citizens into voting for the candidate of “peace and reconciliation,” the pro-North Korea leaning progressive Moon Jae-In, former chief of staff of President Roh Moo Hyun. North Korea has ten years of experience reaping rewards for periodic provocations against the South during the sunshine years, 1998-2008, when Seoul kept pumping unconditional aid worth nearly 10 billion dollars in cash, food, and fertilizer into Pyongyang’s palace economy. A return to that kind of favorable arrangement would enhance Kim Jong Un’s leadership credentials at home and enable the young inexperienced leader to deal with Seoul from a position of strength. 

The view that took hold in the past few days that perhaps Chinese pressure had forced Pyongyang to take a step back on the rocket launch and postpone it discounts history and Pyongyang’s strategic considerations. North Korea has never caved into Chinese pressure on matters of vital national interest. “Kwangmyungsong,” the name of the satellite, is after all the honorific name given to Kim Jong Il. Putting it aside to appease Beijing makes as much sense as Kim Jong Un going on a diet to placate Joshua. Moreover, North Korea has a long history of resorting to maskrovka, or strategic deception (e.g., suggesting “unification” talks one week before June 25, 1950; or asking Beijing to pass on a message to Washington that it seeks diplomatic talks with the US on the eve of the Rangoon bombing on Oct 9, 1983, etc.). By mentioning technical difficulties signaling it may postpone the test, Pyongyang was merely attempting to dupe its foes, a ploy that worked.

As for concerns of any military or harsh political reprisal, even in the most egregious provocations like assassination attempts on the South Korean president (January 1968 and October 1983) or shooting down a U.S. spy plane in international air space (April 1969), neither Seoul nor Washington has ever retaliated. In more recent times, even under the so-called “hardline” President Lee Myung Bak, the more Pyongyang has provoked Seoul, the more the Seoul has tried to appease Pyongyang. Less than two months after holding live ammunition drills in the wake of the North’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, President Lee announced that he would be open to a summit meeting with the North Korean leader. In May 2011, the North and South held secret meetings, with Seoul even asking for not just one, but a series of summits with Kim Jong Il.

Hence, North Korea was virtually bound to provoke when it did. In particular, it had powerful incentives to go ahead with the test before the December 19 election, ideally, on December 12, which would leave a one-week window of opportunity for the matter to matter in the presidential race without fading from memory. And it will probably not stop with just the missile test. I would now watch out for a follow-up provocation soon, perhaps even in the next day or two, for a special South Korean public-tailored provocation. If Kim Jong Un stops with just the missile blast, then that would indicate that Kim III is not nearly a formidable foe as Kim II or Kim I.

As to how to respond, I second Joshua’s “novel and serious” response idea. Like Joshua, I also feel those who actually make policy will probably shy away from it, even in the face of another nuclear test. Perhaps Pyongyang’s future demonstration of its capability to combine an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead may finally tilt this balance. In the meantime, I would suggest launching a sustained human rights campaign against the Kim regime and actively sponsoring efforts to transmit information into the North. I realize this is also quite unlikely to be implemented, for it will not bring about an immediate change in Pyongyang’s behavior or create the diplomacy-summitry-friendly atmospherics favored by statesmen. But nor will it lead to the collapse of the Kim regime, an eventuality that Pyongyang’s neighbors fear. Rather, what it will do is incentivize the North Korean people gradually to demand more of their own leaders, even if that demand is only a modest step in protecting their most basic civil liberties. It will also encourage more North Koreans to depart their gulag nation. And that means saving lives.

North Korean soldier frags 2 officers, defects across DMZ

Reuters reports:

A North Korean soldier killed two of his officers before crossing the heavily mined border into South Korea on Saturday, South Korea’s defence ministry and media reports said.  [....]

Local media quoted a statement from the Joint Chiefs of Staff as saying the North Korean soldier crossed the western section of the border at around noon.

The North Korean claimed that he shot dead his platoon and squad chiefs while on guard duty shortly before his border crossing, according to the reports.

The unnamed defector was being questioned by authorities.

They have officers in charge of squads?

It will be interesting to see what conditions drove him to that desperate act.  I would think that front-line soldiers would have the best food, amenities, discipline, and morale.  Obviously, there’s at least one exception to that.  Given the recent reports that the internal security forces are going hungry, I wonder if the same now is true in front-line army units, too.

Really? A U.S. General Said Our Special Forces “Have Been Parachuting into North Korea?” (Update: No, Not Really)

What could possibly go wrong with this?

US and South Korean special forces have been parachuting into North Korea to gather intelligence about underground military installations, a US officer has said in comments carried in US media.

Army Brigadier General Neil Tolley, commander of US special forces in South Korea, told a conference held in Florida last week that Pyongyang had built thousands of tunnels since the Korean war, The Diplomat reported.

“The entire tunnel infrastructure is hidden from our satellites,” Tolley said, according to The Diplomat, a current affairs magazine. “So we send (South Korean) soldiers and US soldiers to the North to do special reconnaissance.” [....]

Among the facilities identified are 20 air fields that are partially underground, and thousands of artillery positions. [AFP]

But can this really be true? First, given the way gravity works — yes, even in North Korea — how would these guys get back out again? Jet packs? Second, this would be an act of war, and haven’t we sort of reserved that as North Korea’s exclusive privilege since 1953? Third, assuming that this is true, why would a serving general officer would say it in a room full of people — any room full of any people — thus increasing the risk of compromise and capture? Fourth, even if it is true, why would we hand the North Koreans a propaganda gift like this? Fifth, North Korea’s underground airfields aren’t necessarily invisible to our satellites, which makes the story’s premise questionable.

The report seemed so suspicious to me that I went back to the original source to see if there was more context for the quotation. Although it does name BG Tolley as its original source, it doesn’t claim that Tolley actually said this on the record or in the presence of the reporter, David Axe; instead, it says that Tolley told this to “a conference in Florida.” We don’t know what conference, where, or who was present, which means that this could be third-hand information (and thus, a misunderstanding, or outright disinformation). Nor does it say when these missions occurred.

Within the next few days, we can expect to see an official denial, but a story like this one can’t be untold. No matter how implausible it all sounds, there are just too many people who would never believe a denial. I haven’t decided whether I’m one of those people, but given how little our government does about the things it knows damn well North Korea is doing, you have to wonder why we’d take such profound risks to gather yet more intelligence to not act on.

UPDATE: David Axe seems to acknowledge that he misunderstood BG Tolley. Interesting that AFP, whose story has already circulated globally, quotes the Army’s denial but fails to note that Axe, the original source, now doubts what he wrote, and that it also appears to have misquoted the National Defense Industrial Association journal. I don’t think Axe made this up intentionally, but it’s a case study in how sloppy and false reporting gets around the world before the truth catches up. Why were so many papers so quick to believe this before asking obvious questions and going back to reread the original source?

UDPATE 2: Damn. Just look at all the gullible news sources that ran with this completely implausible story without checking or questioning it. The chatrooms at Naver, Indymedia, and Prison Planet will probably be talking about this all year. Congratulations, AFP. You’ve managed to misinform millions of people all over the world, based on a blog post that should have aroused immediate suspicions by anyone remotely familiar with the subject matter. In retrospect, I’m sure AFP will agree that it ought to have asked for USFK’s reaction or corroboration from someone else who heard BG Tolley’s remarks before rushing to print. Now, having failed to do that, the AFP owes the public more than an Army-denies-secret-war update. It should admit that the whole story was baseless and retract it.

As for Axe, I probably feel sorrier for him than I should, maybe because I’ve enjoyed a lot of other things he’s written. And unlike AFP, Axe has at least published a correction. I know that when you’re scribbling notes at events like this, it can be easy to miss things, but as he’s no doubt realized by now, this isn’t the kind of story you print unless you’re sure.

UPDATE 3: David Axe says he’s stepping down as a regular contributor to The Diplomat, which saddens me. He made a very big mistake, realized it, clarified it, and will now suffer consequences to his career and reputation. Meanwhile, the wire service that reported the since-corrected story globally still hasn’t retracted it or even mentioned The Diplomat‘s “clarification.” In fact, the original story, without USFK’s denial, is still available online. Sometimes I wonder if journalism is the last unaccountable profession.

UPDATE 4: Some of the links to the army-denies version of the AFP story are starting to come up “page not found.” Well, good, but a correction would be better. Why does it sometimes seem that the media are so reluctant to tell the truth and so quick to retract it, yet so quick to spread falsehoods and so slow to retract them?

UPDATE 5: Since I last posted this morning, David Axe has gone back on the defensive and has reverted to standing by the retracted report. He’s even claiming “victory” because a Pentagon media spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel James Gregory, and another unknown reporter say that Axe transcribed LTG Tolley’s words correctly. That’s interesting, but if it doesn’t quite convince me, it may be because Axe seems a lot more certain of the accuracy of the quote now than he did when he started updating that post. For example, I wonder how certain Axe can really be that BG Tolley really said “we,” as opposed to “we’d.”

Whether Axe transcribed BG Tolley’s words accurately is still only one part of the real question — whether Axe reported the meaning of Tolley’s words accurately. I agree with Paul Woodward:

Sorry, but a report shouldn’t run just because the reporter is confident about the grammatical accuracy of his note-taking. Even if the general said in the present tense that U.S. special forces were being sent into North Korea, this statement demanded some follow-up questions and corroboration. Too often, journalists end up chasing quotes instead of gathering facts.

The story still doesn’t ring true, and the story of the admission of the story doesn’t ring true, either. As the expression goes, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. This entire story was implausible to begin with, and it’s based entirely on an alleged admission that the speaker now denies. It’s a sensational claim, and the language of Axe’s original post tells me that Axe knew that this was “a big deal” when he posted it.

USFK also went too far when it accused Axe of making up the quote. That was a reckless and mean thing to say, and it’s likely that that accusation and Axe’s story are both untrue. The defensiveness of both USFK and Mr. Axe are understandable but disappointing, because they bring us no closer to the truth. If Gregory’s concession is meant to take some of the pressure off of Axe, that’s probably a better way to get Axe to make a concession of his own.

Having said that, I know I make mistakes, too. Axe links to this post in his, in a way that might be read as suggesting that I accused him of fabricating the quote. I hope no one draws that conclusion, because I’ve never believed that Axe fabricated anything. When I put up the original post, Axe had not yet clarified that he was there to hear BG Tolley’s remarks. I considered the possibility that someone had misinformed Axe about what BG Tolley said, but I never suspected Mr. Axe of fabricating; I suspect him of misunderstanding. I don’t expect him to be infallible, and I wouldn’t want anyone to expect that of me. I do expect his most honest reassessment of the evidentiary support for his extraordinary claim. Maybe when his embarrassment subsides, he’ll agree that this was probably just a regrettable misunderstanding. I hope that happens before North Korea decides to use this as a pretext for some terrible act, or before this story is forever engraved in Korea’s rich conspiracy lore. That is, if it’s not already too late.

UPDATE 6, 31 May 2012: I want to direct you to two new posts on this topic: one explains how North Korea will take advantage of this report for its domestic propaganda, and the other explains why the story itself is so technologically theoretical and implausible.