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Gauging threat levels during heightened inter-Korean tensions

[Defector Perspective]
Unification Media Group  |  2015-08-31 10:02

This article was published in Korean on August 24th before the most recent inter-Korean accord was released in the early morning hours of August 25th after days of escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula. It has been published in English after the fact because its relevance, tragically, still stands, as the two Koreas still remain technically at war, the Korean War ending in an armistice rather than a peace treaty.

Inter-Korean talks are ongoing in an attempt to ease the escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula yet 50 North Korean submarines have disappeared from the radar of inspection and North Korea has doubled its artillery strength at the border. To gain more insight into what this could portend, Unification Media Group sat down with Daily NKs defector-reporter Choi Song Min, who offered informed analysis on North Koreas military movements.   

1. It is said that fifty North Korean submarines have disappeared from the radar of our inspection. That means that the North Korean submarines are launching ocean floor-level operations. What do you think is North Koreas intention behind this? 

CHOI: I think it means that North Korea is taking all possible steps to up the degree of its threats to South Korea. It has readied heavy artillery in areas bordering South Korea and deployed a fleet of submarines. This is all part of North Koreas exert to flex its muscles and demonstrate its determination to react with military power if the South fails to heed its demands. 

As you know, submarines enable forces to surreptitiously maneuver and attack at extreme underwater depths; needless to say, its hard to detect their locations when submerged. In our waters, we can more readily detect these vessels, but this becomes much harder when the fleet is lurking in North Korean territory. 

2. Many point out the possibility that North Korea will unleash a veritable attack on South Korea. Submarine attacks are hard to trace, they say, increasing the possibility for North Korea to employ them in an offensive. Can you share your thoughts on such speculation? 

CHOI: North Korea will never be able to attack. If it really had to will to do so, it would have followed through with its threats to attack the target. 

It would be difficult on many levels for North Korean submarines and submergence vehicles to infiltrate South Korean waters. Considering the fact that the South accused the North of planting landmines that triggered this entire incident to begin with, it would be pretty tough for North Korean submarines and submergence vehicles to infiltrate South Korean waters at this point. Doing so would brand North Korean a definitive provoker with little to no room to manipulate that image. North Korea would bear sole responsibility for escalating the tensions to that degree and lock itself into an inescapable position and onslaught of criticism from the international community. 

Moreover, North Koreas submarines may be many but they are overwhelmingly inferior to South Koreas fleet. In fact, they could even capsize on their own, much like they did when the North attempt infiltrating the waters off of Gangneung, South Korea in 1997. North Korea will then be solely responsible for causing tension and will not be able to escape criticism from the international community. 

3. North Korea is known to lack fuel. How could it wage an operation with these subs despite these conditions? 

CHOI: Long-term aggravations are guaranteed to create greater damage for North Korea than the South. Fuel is just one of many crucial supplies seriously lacking in the North. Including oil, the resources necessary to operate this fleet for war purposes is not an option for North Korea. Its extremely likely that North Korea is desperate to resolve this crisis--even more than the political concerns but the economic losses. Economic burdens always transfer to the citizens and make an already hard life, harder. 

4. North Korean submarines are quite decrepit.  How long do you think they can remain underwater? 

CHOI: Right. As I touched on before, the submarines available in North Korea are extremely inferior. In 1996, a 1500-ton Russia-manufactured submarine sank near Sinpo, South Hamgyong Province taking 65 crew members down with it. North Korea has still not salvaged the submarine. 

While South Korea categorizes submarines into shark or salmon classes, North Korea divides them into domestic, Chinese, and Russian groups. In other cases they simply break them down by size: small, mid, and large. 

Typically, homegrown vessels are produced in Sinpo City, South Hamgyong Province and are imitations of 1500-ton and 1000-ton massive Russian models produced during the Cold War. Other smaller vessels are churned out in munitions factories in Cheongjin, Rason, and Nampo.

These submarines run on diesel and/or battery power. They only last around 2-3 days on battery power [batteries can only be charged on the surface] but can remain submerged for approximately two months using diesel turbines.    

5. After declaring a quasi-state of war with South Korea, North Korea has moved doubled its artillery at the frontline. How likely do you think it is that it will actually carry out an attack? 

CHOI: Of course its hard to say theres no possibility that it will infiltrate with its special forces. It has mobilized all kinds of weaponry and soldiers, so it might use all methods available to carry out a provocation. The North Korean military places the most emphasis on guerrilla warfare, so it could mobilize combat troops from the General Reconnaissance Bureau and reconnaissance squadron from the navy to attack industrial sites and military bases.  

However, it would be hard for the North to carry something out while high-level talks are ongoing between the two Koreas. If the talks fall apart, I think it will immediately take action in order to stir up more fear among South Koreans and trigger internal conflict. 

6. One of the issues of greatest concern would be the deployment of special forces. How likely do you think it is that they will launch a surprise attack, and how should the South hedge against it?   

CHOI: It would be hard for them to infiltrate the border area with South Korea, where tensions are running high, but it is possible that they may on the waters or through the Imjin River. In other words, they would only be able to infiltrate through waters, and this is why we need to focus on protecting our seas, the coastlines, and around Imjin River. Especially at sea, they need to watch out for fishing vessels that are under camouflage, semi-submarines, and submarine attacks. 

7. South Korea and the U.S. have raised their alert level to WATCHCON 2 from level 3. This is under the judgment that risk of a provocation is severe and under these conditions surveillance satellites and reconnaissance aircrafts are fully mobilized. So the South is closely monitoring movements from the North. Would it still be possible for Pyongyang to carry out a provocation under such circumstances? 

CHOI: We would not see attacks on the border area, where surveillance is at its highest and where the world has its eyes on. But as I mentioned earlier, they could carry out an attack at sea or through rivers. At a time when all eyes are on the demilitarized zone [DMZ] it could carry out a guerrilla attack elsewhere. It would be under the strategy of creating noise from the east and hitting enemies from the West. 

8. If Pyongyang really wanted to carry out an attack, it should be mobilizing its submarines and artillery without Seoul noticing. So some are saying that these movements are not actually with the intention to hit the South but to threaten it. What do you make of that? 

CHOI: Vicious dogs that actually bite people dont bark or scare people. They just instantaneously attack them. The Korean War also took place at 5 a.m. when no one was expecting it. If Pyongyang were truly willing to go to war it would not openly gather its forces over the stretch of several days for everyone to see. This is all part of its propaganda to show off its military might and prove something to its people. If it was thinking of going to war, it would first need to put the three elements of war into place. 

First, the soldiers going to war would need to be mentally prepared. As things are at the moment, North Koreas troops and people are not mentally armed. Theres also the sentiment that they dont care which side wins and just want war to break out to bring some relief to their lives (down the line). The second element is having the assets for war. Under the current conditions, in which the overall economy is struggling and it has outdated military equipment, war is not an option. It also lacks in supplies for food, diesel, and gasoline. Lastly, it needs the right atmosphere in the international community. It would need global support, but at the moment, China is busy getting ready for Victory Day and a massive celebration, so it would be hard (for the North) to go to war. 

9. Some say Kim Jong Uns decision to move troops around like its actually interested in going to war shows how insecure he feels. What do you think of that assessment? 

CHOI: Thats right. Even though he has declared a quasi-state of war, the opponent is not even budging and seemingly changing the Norths stance to one of dialogue has not helped move things in the direction that he wants, so he would be feeling very frustrated. 

As a result, he has stepped things up with his submarines but that hasnt led to immediate results from the talks. It only triggered a stronger response from the South and the U.S. If he folds here, he would become a loser. So it looks like hes not sure what to do with this situation. I think during times like this we should push further forward and stand our ground, and I think people in the South should also have resilience and the determination to cut off this vicious cycle of provocation from the North.

*Translated by Jihae Lee and Jiyeon Lee

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