North Korea: Recent military posturing indicates a legitimate threat

The haunting fear for an intelligence analyst of Korea Peninsula politics is missing the indicators for a North Korean attack.

We missed it in June 1950 — over 60 years ago — and the subsequent effort to restore South Korean independence cost the United States 36,000-plus lives and hundreds of thousands of Korean dead. Even two generations later, it is a never-to-be-forgotten intelligence failure, and thus an intelligence challenge that we examine with painstaking scrutiny.

The challenge has a personal face. In 1965-66, I was an Army intelligence officer assigned to 8th Army G-2 in Seoul as an “order of battle” analyst. As such, I observed and estimated North Korean military strength, composition, force disposition, and probable courses of action. The North was even more tightly closed in 1965-66 than it is today; attempting to determine what was happening in its armed forces was the proverbial “through a glass darkly.” But the rationale for the scrutiny was obvious: walls of major buildings in Seoul were still bullet scarred; some vehicles on the streets were captured North Korean/Russian trucks; there was only one major highway, the “Main Supply Route” that led north to the demilitarized zone (DMZ); and the Republic of Korea (ROK) armed forces needed every one of the 50,000 U.S. troops stationed there, including a division on the DMZ.

Six years later, I was a second tour Foreign Service Officer assigned as the State Department’s Korea analyst. And, while the weight of my analysis was now more freighted to political-economic affairs, the military situation was never distant. And it was a period of intense concern as the level of threats from then-Korean leader Kim Il-Sung was always high — and the North was receiving steady shipments of Russian military equipment. Moreover, intelligence analysts had just been snookered by the 1973 Egyptian invasion of the Sinai, Cairo having faked out Israelis by repeatedly running exercises falling just short of assault. All were lulled into lethargy — and then the Egyptians crossed the Suez Canal in surprise attack. Could the North Koreans also “fake us out?” But they didn’t — and Korea watchers reduced alert.

There have been comparable alarms and excursions over the succeeding 30 years. The North generated an endless series of attacks (attempted to assassinate President Park Chung-hee in 1974, instead killing the mother of the current president, an action one suspects she has not forgotten much less forgiven; blowing up a large part of the ROK cabinet during a presidential Burma in 1983; and running countless probes, spy missions, naval semi-engagements, etc). Most recently in 2010 torpedo sinking a ROK naval vessel and shelling a South Korean island village.

Kim Il-sung was succeeded by his son Kim Jong-Il and now by his son Kim Jong-un. During the past generation, the ROK has boomed; the North has stagnated — except for developing nuclear weapons. And nukes are game-changers.

In pure conventional military terms, the ROK holds its own; 60 years of USG training and equipping has left its forces confident they could repel a conventional attack, even with Seoul only 40 miles from the DMZ. U.S. forces, now whittled to 28,000 are support rather than front-line combatants, but offer the nuclear "umbrella" guarantee.

The problem is Kim Jong-un. Pyongyang’s leadership has been erratic, malicious, viciously aggressive, and unpredictable — but stopped short of the precipice. We were well accustomed to sabre-rattling, but Kim Jong-un has rattled them more loudly and by actions such as declaring an end to the armistice concluding hostilities in 1953, cutting “hotlines” between North and South, and even ostensibly declaring war, has reached new levels of verbal/bureaucratic hostility.

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We have responded with blunt warnings and exercises such as flying Stealth bombers visibly overhead both to assure the ROK and (hopefully) to caution Pyongyang. But we don’t know whether they are listening — or whether it matters to them.

Another round of negotiations? Prospects are dubious; since the mid-1990s, we have sought a combination of carrots and sticks to end Pyongyang’s nuclear program. The results are obvious. Reinforcing failure just leads to more failure.

Intelligence analysts examine a schema of indicators: numbers of aircraft sorties; troop movement from barracks to forward combat positions; transferring munitions from storage to combat units; dispersing aircraft and combat vessels from normal bases. And most certainly preparation of missiles for launch and movement of nuclear weapons from protected bunkers.

We have not seen such indicators that war is in the offing. But we have no experience with Kim Jong-un, and he has none with us. The potential for fatal disconnect remains higher than for a generation.

David T. Jones is a retired State Department Senior Foreign Service Career Officer and a frequent contributor to American Diplomacy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving for the Army Chief of Staff. He is co-author of Uneasy Neighbor(u)rs, a study of American-Canadian bilateral concerns and has published several hundred articles, columns, and reviews on U.S. - Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy.