U.S.-ROK Military Exercises
U.S.-ROK Military Exercises
North Korea Plots a Course of “Heavy Agony” for 2022
North Korea Plots a Course of “Heavy Agony” for 2022
Commentary / Asia

U.S.-ROK Military Exercises

he U.S. and South Korea have begun two combined military exercises. Key Resolve, a command post exercise that mostly involves computer simulations, officially began 28 February and is scheduled to last 11 days.  Foal Eagle, a field exercise, also began on 28 February and will last until late April. The exercises drew the usual condemnation from North Korean authorities, as well as from some Chinese pundits and some South Korean dissident groups. The United Nations Command informed the KPA of the exercise schedule on 15 February and described them as “defensive in nature and routine”.

On 27 February, the KPA representative to Panmunjŏm issued a statement declaring,  “the exercises are aimed to ‘destroy’ the system of the DPRK” and therefore,  “its army and people will go into an all-out offensive to put an end to the U.S. imperialists’ military occupation of south Korea and the anti-popular ruling system of the group of traitors”.

One reason the KPA is upset with the exercises is that Pyongyang must respond when they would rather focus resources on the economy as the leadership has promised the DPRK will become a “strong and prosperous country” by 15 April 2012. DPRK complaints about U.S.-ROK exercises are legendary, and shrill rhetoric threatening retaliation is routine. Pyongyang’s displeasure dates back to the Korean War. In 1954, former UN Command CINC Gen. Mark Clark wrote that UN forces conducted large-scale amphibious landing exercises during the two years of the “talking war” (the last two years of the three-year conflict when the two sides had reached a stalemate near the 38th parallel). Clark said they prepared for the exercises in Japan well in advance and talked about them over unsecure telephones knowing that DPRK and PRC intelligence would “discover” their plans. However, the KPA and Chinese People’s Volunteers (CPV) did not know whether the exercises were rehearsals or the real thing. UNC vessels and aircraft simulated invasions, but would stop just out of KPA and CPV artillery range. Clark wrote that U.S. intelligence found out it “drove them crazy”.

While the threat of an actual U.S.-ROK invasion or attack during Key Resolve and Foal Eagle arguably is not credible (we believe an unprovoked U.S.-ROK attack or invasion are virtually impossible), the KPA must mobilise and divert resources that they’d rather allocate to Stakhanovite type campaigns in their effort to become “strong and prosperous”. Regardless of the exercises, the economic goals for 2012 are doomed to fail, but the “hostile policy” of the United States—as “proven by the exercises” from Pyongyang’s perspective—will be one scapegoat to relieve the leadership of accountability for its poor policy choices. Meanwhile, the ROK military is cutting back some training and is reducing the permissible number of hot showers and baths because of budget constraints at a time of rising fuel and food costs.

The KPA is particularly upset this year because, according to its Panmunjŏm spokesman, “Key Resolve and Foal Eagle are aimed at the removal of the DPRK’s nuclear weapons and missiles,” and therefore, “its army and people will counter the nuclear blackmail by the aggressors with our own nuclear deterrent and their missile threat with our own missile striking method”. The spokesman also declared “the army and people would respond with a bolstered nuclear deterrent of our own style for the continued nuclear threat by the aggressors and our own missile striking action for their vicious attempt to eliminate our missiles”.

The 27 February statement in English is awkward and raises questions about the “DPRK style nuclear deterrent.” KCNA could have done a better job on the translation; the original Korean is more clear.

 “키 리졸브, 독수리 합동군사연습이 우리의 핵 및 미사일 제거를 노리는 이상 우리 군대와 인민은 침략자들의 핵공갈에는 우리 식의 핵억제력으로, 미사일 위협에는 우리 식의 미사일 타격전으로 맞서나갈  것이다.”

In other words, the spokesman asserted the KPA and North Korean people will respond to “nuclear blackmail or nuclear threats of any invaders with a ‘North Korean style’ nuclear deterrent”. Any “missile threat will face ‘North Korean style’ missile strikes”. However, the spokesman also declared, “Peace is of value to the DPRK. Detente is also what it steadily desires and needs”. Although we don’t know much about North Korean nuclear doctrine, according to this statement, the DPRK nuclear arsenal is to be used to deter an invasion of the DPRK.

The WMD eradication component of the exercises is led by the 20th Support Command (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and High Yield Explosives) based at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. The Command was activated on 16 October 2004 under the U.S. Army Forces Command, but the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review provided for the expansion of the Command into a joint entity through the establishment of the Joint Task Force for Elimination of Weapons of Mass Destruction (JTF-E).

The JTF-E conducted its first major overseas training in August 2007 during the U.S.-ROK Ulchi Focus Lens combined exercise. In 2005, the Combined Forces Command (CFC) and U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) recognised the need to establish and train a WMD elimination task force, but the assessment of the 2007 exercise was that “CFC ground components lack the specialized teams, equipment, and expertise necessary to exploit the potentially large number of WMD sites in North Korea”.

Combined WMD-elimination training was conducted again in 2009 with about 150 American specialists deployed from the U.S., and in 2010 about 350 Americans were deployed for the exercise. The number of American participants is expected to be greater this year, but we do not have precise figures yet.

The ROK counterpart is the “ROK NBC Command (國軍化生放防護司令部)” which literally would be translated as “[ROK] National Military Chemical Biological and Radiological Defence Command”. The ROK NBC Command was established under a 2002 statute and is subordinate to the ROK Defence Minister. It has inter-agency agreements with other ROK agencies such as the Korea Institute of Nuclear Safety (韓國原子力安全技術院) to deal with nuclear accidents, nuclear terrorism or a nuclear attack.

The Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises in 2011 are designed to train for a number of scenarios whereby instability could be triggered in the DPRK and subsequently would require a combined military response. The scenarios include the demise of the Kim family and a coup d’état or civil war, a large-scale natural disaster, social unrest and rebellion, large-scale defections and out migration, WMD falling into the hands of rebel groups or commanders, or the taking of ROK hostages in the North (Kaesŏng Industrial Complex).

While there are no signs of instability in the North, economic scarcity is increasing internal rivalry, and fissures within the military or ruling elite could occur if the leadership miscalculates and embarks upon risky and adventurous provocations. ROK Defence Minister Kim Kwan-jin recently told the National Assembly that based on past patterns and behavior, he expects the DPRK to carry out some kind of provocation this spring. If the KPA conducts a provocation similar to the attacks against the Ch’ŏnan or Yŏnp’yŏng Island, they almost certainly will come under counter-fire. Such a counter-attack could escalate and trigger the implementation of OPLAN 5027 or OPLAN 5029 in worst case scenarios.

Workers plant rice at the Chongsan Cooperative Farm in the Kangso district of Nampho City on 12 May 2020. KIM Won Jin / AFP
Q&A / Asia

North Korea Plots a Course of “Heavy Agony” for 2022

The latest five-day plenum of North Korea’s ruling party focused on food insecurity, chief among the nation’s challenges. With the pandemic not yet tamed and other uncertainty on the international scene, Pyongyang may continue refraining from major provocations into 2022, but for how long is unclear.

North Korea has just completed its annual review of its own performance at the fourth plenum of the Eighth Congress of the Workers’ Party, held from 27-31 December 2021. What can we learn from this exercise about the state of the country?

Under Kim Jong-un, Pyongyang politics tick along on a system of five-year “congresses”, the most recent of which was held in January 2021 (and should run to 2026). These five-year cycles are then punctuated by fairly regular plenums, including the one that ended on 31 December. What we got in a lengthy article on 1 January was a report on that plenum, which amounts to a kind of annual review of the party’s performance, and an indicator of the challenges it has identified for the year ahead.

What happened this time is a little different from the usual modus operandi. Under previous chiefs and in Kim Jong-un’s pre-pandemic era, the North Korean leader would deliver a new year’s address either on television or via an editorial in state-run newspapers, and these would mark a waypoint in the country’s politics. In 2022, all we got was a report on Kim Jong-un’s contribution to the plenum; it was a comma compared to the full stops of years past.

The report gave little hope for immediate improvement ... as Kim [Jong-un] mentioned a ‘heavy yet responsible agony’ for the period to come.

It’s difficult to interpret exactly what this means and what new, if anything, has been decided by the five-day plenum. For one thing, the full text of Kim’s speech was not published, and for another, the signals it gave were rather mixed. There was abundant rhetoric about successes and breakthroughs as usual, but all suffused with a sense of insufficiency. Of one thing we can be relatively certain: 2021 was another tough year, in particular due to the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact. Perhaps not quite as tough as 2020, when the coronavirus first triggered fear, border closings and a steep economic downturn, but still very challenging. The report gave little hope for immediate improvement, either, as Kim mentioned a “heavy yet responsible agony” for the period to come.

From what was revealed, it appears the party hasn’t been able to make much progress toward the goals of the five-year economic plan outlined in January 2021. Although it is impossible to conclusively verify from the outside what is happening on the ground, the lack of progress must be clearly visible to the citizenry, many of whom will have seen no sign of promised improvements to “food, clothing, and housing” in a year during which COVID-19 containment measures have suffocated economic activity. But, as discussed below, it’s hard to tell exactly how much the country is suffering or, indeed, upon whom the burden is mainly falling.

Given the concern expressed in the plenum report about farming, we can assume a degree of difficulty for many North Koreans in getting food – either because it is in short supply or because market prices are out of reach for people who have seen their incomes fall. Kim delivered a long speech on what he called “our-style socialist rural development”, or in other words, what needs to be done to improve the agricultural system and bring North Korea closer to meeting the population’s food requirements. As always, the reported speech included a large measure of ideological conditioning of farmers and no shortage of exhortations for agricultural labourers to work harder. But it also touched upon agricultural modernisation and policies to remedy the worst effects of climate change, notably on production of North Korea’s staple crop, rice. It all indicates considerable concern for the state of the country’s agricultural performance.

How bad is the situation for ordinary people in North Korea?

From border regions – which are more accessible to outsiders thanks to cross-border cellular communications, and which we use as a rough proxy for other parts of the country outside Pyongyang – there is plentiful evidence of people facing difficulties in their daily lives. Because of a de facto zero-COVID-19 policy, the country’s border with China has been closed since January 2020, meaning large-scale cross-border trade and flows of people have stopped almost completely. The little reporting that has emerged from the North suggests that the closure has affected incomes, and thus demand seems to have switched from relatively costly rice to the cheaper alternative, corn, while market prices for manufactured goods have risen markedly as supplies dwindle. These phenomena have led to rising levels of poverty and food insecurity. North Korea’s northern neighbour and ally China may well already be sending humanitarian supplies, but if so, it is doing so (as ever) without fanfare, and it is impossible to identify who the beneficiaries are. Whatever the case, humanitarian assistance is no substitute for the restoration of cross-border trade.

North Korea is, however, nowhere near the famine that struck in the period 1995-1997, when as many as a million people may have perished. Back then, Pyongyang was forced to beg for international aid and had to open up its borders to deliveries of food and observers. Under Kim Jong-un since 2011, Pyongyang has taken significant steps toward deepening existing market mechanisms in the economy, even if in recent years it has sought to restore more state controls. The market economy as it is now constituted makes outright famine much less likely than it was in the 1990s, when the population’s reliance on the state’s rapidly disintegrating rationing system left millions at risk of starvation.

What have we learned about how Kim Jong-un has consolidated power over the last ten years?

Before Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, suffered a stroke in the summer of 2008, he had greatly enfeebled the ruling party. In his heyday, the elder Kim ran an autocratic dictatorship in which the executive implemented decisions and the party rubber-stamped them, at best. When he took power in 2011 after a period of co-rule, Kim Jong-un didn’t have the authority to do that, and therefore needed to bring existing elites along with him in a way that his father did not. As a result, he emphasised the role of the party as the organ of decision-making and administration, with the cabinet as the overseer of the economy. By regularising the role of party congresses and plenums, he seems to have invited a measure of collective, if mostly top-down, discussion among officials at the national, regional and local levels, as well as among those working in industry. In a recent visual indication of this institutionalising trend, Kim Jong-un has overseen the removal of some images of his father and grandfather from public spaces, replacing them with party symbols.

But this modest commitment to collective rule doesn’t make much difference to the governing system’s coherence: Kim Jong-un remains supreme leader, and he has now placed faithful lieutenants in all the key party and cabinet positions, freeing him from having to rely excessively on members of his father’s team to rule. In other words, there is still no sign of change in North Korea’s underlying personalist power structure, and since the brutal elimination of Kim’s uncle Jang Song-thaek in December 2013, also no indication of the emergence of anyone with an independent power base or the potential to construct one. If the regime can survive COVID-19 – which it has done so far, at least – it’s hard to see what could trip it up in the short to medium term.

Does the plenum report mean that North Korea will be focused on its internal problems in the coming year, and not on provoking the outside world?

It seems clear that North Korea plans to be internally focused in 2022. The plenum report didn’t mention military or foreign policy matters in any detail. Instead, it focused on the domestic economy, particularly agriculture. This is not, in all likelihood, because the leader wants to focus on agriculture, but because he has to: ensuring the country’s food security remains a major challenge. There’s also much uncertainty in the outside world, which could counsel a wait-and-see approach before Kim makes any major moves. South Korean elections in early March will result in a new leader for North Korea’s most direct rival. COVID-19 could wane, but it could also become an even bigger distraction.

Kim [Jong-un] continues to build and improve Pyongyang’s arsenal.

In any event, Kim continues to build and improve Pyongyang’s arsenal. He laid out the party’s priorities for military strengthening a year ago at the Eighth Congress, when launching the current planning cycle. These priorities, which continue to guide North Korea, were listed as: to keep developing nuclear technology, including tactical and “super-sized” warheads; to achieve accurate delivery of missiles within a radius of 15,000km (that is, the whole territory of the United States); to design hypersonic gliding flight warheads; to advance plans for solid-fuel intercontinental missiles; to possess a nuclear submarine and underwater-launch strategic nuclear weapon; to launch a military reconnaissance satellite; and to build reconnaissance drones with a 500km range (that is, the whole territory of South Korea).

Some of these goals are still remote. But in pursuit of others, North Korea has already done some new, high-profile military testing in 2021 and now also in 2022, including a launch on 5 January of what it claims was a hypersonic missile (possibly of the same make that was shown off at the country’s Self-Defence 2021 exhibition in October). There will certainly be more testing in the year to come, though the tempo and intensity could be affected by what happens with the pandemic and, correspondingly, the country’s economic health.

Does the plenum report suggest more of the same on the Korean peninsula for 2022?

On the whole, yes. But it is noteworthy that the plenum report quotes Kim Jong-un as saying that, as North Korea enters 2022, “we came to know what we can do”. This sentence seems to indicate he feels the country enjoys a degree of stability that was not there at the end of 2020, and that it is now a bit easier for North Korea to plan its international strategy. But it is not a statement of outright confidence, particularly given the unpredictable progress of the pandemic, which overshadows everything.

As best we can tell, North Korea's zero-COVID-19 policy has so far done a reasonably good job of controlling the virus. But the cornerstone of this strategy was sealing off its land borders. The closures have led not just to food insecurity and precipitously declining trade volumes, but also to the departure of much of Pyongyang’s diplomatic and NGO community, which opted to withdraw staff rather than operate under unworkable restrictions on freedom of movement into, out of and inside the country. Repeatedly, North Korea has seemed on the verge of reopening its borders to overland trade, but resurgences of the virus appear to have forced it to delay the measure and rely instead on modest volumes of goods coming into the west coast port of Nampo. There is now talk of a fresh attempt, but that seems unlikely in light of the omicron variant. Each new iteration of the pandemic poses potentially huge risks to a country that has rejected all attempts to supply it with effective vaccines.

The border closure will necessarily continue to affect all North Korea’s economic plans. Indeed, even the modest goal of upgrading the agricultural sector will involve imports of machinery, parts and chemical fertilisers. Any concerted new program of military testing will need hard currency, for which the only good source is trade with China.

What do current conditions mean for our understanding of North Korea?

Due to the pandemic and border closure, we presently know even less about what’s happening inside North Korea than usual. There are few diplomats, businesspeople, tourists or aid workers left. Organisations that maintain networks of citizen journalists inside North Korea or who rely on networks of resettled North Koreans in Seoul have less reporting to work with. These gaps directly affect how much information we have about the situation in the country, and the capacity to cross-reference anecdotal reports coming from the ground. The reopening of overland trade is a classic example. There are a handful of superficially plausible reports that the borders are going to reopen in January, but they’re very hard to cross-check.

For now, it seems likely that because of COVID-19, North Korea has for some time not been in a strong position to “provoke” the outside world as it has often done in the past. There is little to indicate that it has really wanted to, either, though that may be more a consequence of the pandemic forcing the state to review its priorities than its leadership’s tactical preferences. But the 5 January missile test is a reminder that we will be hearing from Pyongyang again.

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