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Bruce Bechtol: Nukes Aren’t the Only Weapons in North Korea

by Guest Blogger for Scott A. Snyder
March 28, 2014

north-korea-mid-range-missile Models of a North Korean Scud-B missile (right) and South Korean missiles are displayed at the Korean War Memorial Museum in Seoul in this photo from March 2012. In February and March 2014, North Korea continued to maintain its ballistic missile capabilities with a series of test launches off its east coast (Lee Jae-Won/Courtesy: Reuters).


Bruce E. Bechtol, Jr., is associate professor of political science at Angelo State University and president of the International Council on Korean Studies.  His is the author of North Korea and Regional Security in the Kim Jong-un Era.

During the latter part of February, North Korea conducted test launches of a new long-range 300 mm multiple rocket launcher (MRL) system. These launches from North Korea’s east coast were followed up by still more launches in following weeks. Since then, North Korea has launched Scud missiles from its east coast, 300 mm MRLs, 240 mm MRLs, and Free Rocket Over Ground (FROG) systems. This week, North Korea launched Rodong ballistic missiles.  All systems were launched from the east coast, and all tests were conducted even as North Korea appeared to be moving toward a more reasonable attitude toward the United States and its neighbor to the South.

While some would call the launches provocative, like any other nation with a military, North Korea needs to maintain and upgrade its current and new systems. Thus, these systems must be test-launched from time to time. This is particularly applicable to the new 300 mm MRL system that we have observed North Korea testing starting around a year ago.

While ballistic missiles are an important part of the North Korean military arsenal, the MRLs along the DMZ can target Seoul and key nodes in Gyeonggi Province at a moment’s notice. They can simply be pulled out of hardened shelters and caves and used to fire rockets at military bases and civilian population centers within their range, which is why the new 300 mm MRL is so important. If deployed along the DMZ, units using this new system would increase target range to include Osan Air Base and Camp Humphries, as well as key ROK military nodes at Daejeon.  The Rodongs test-launched this week were fired from a mobile launcher, and have the range to target Tokyo or U.S. bases in Okinawa.

Pyongyang did not need to conduct these specific tests during large-scale joint ROK-U.S. military exercises that would raise eyebrows throughout the region. These tests were conducted during this time period for a specific reason: to garner attention and demonstrate resolve as their enemies to the South conducted exercises with the United States designed to deter or defend against a Pyongyang-initiated attack. While this is important, I believe the specific message sent by testing Scuds, Rodongs, rockets, and MRLs during this time period was far more focused.

All of these rocket and missile systems that the North Koreans have tested in recent weeks have one important thing in common: they are the weapons that North Korea would use in any initial strike against South Korea and Japan in wartime. This “initial” strike is what most analysts know as the “quick strike,” the initial results of which would be almost impossible to prevent.

MRLs, Scuds, and FROGs are among the systems that the North Korean People’s Army will use to strike Seoul, key military installations south of Seoul, and nodes that will cause panic all over the South. Rodongs would be used to strike Japan, as well as the U.S. bases there.  Perhaps in reaction to the recent joint-combined exercises, Pyongyang is showing the ROK and the United States that they maintain—and often upgrade—their “quick-strike” capabilities.

Recently some analysts have made remarks that North Korea’s conventional military capabilities are “rapidly deteriorating.” Some have attributed this to U.S. government reporting, but this type of analysis is in fact misinterpretation of the government reports due to a lack of knowledge regarding terrain-based strategy, military order of battle, disposition of forces, and development and acquisitions by North Korean military forces. In fact, those who believe the North Korean threat is not at least in some ways more, not less, threatening to South Korean and American interests in the region than it was twenty years ago have not conducted detailed research and analysis of the North Korean military and its strategy. Indeed, if one is to make an intelligent assessment of the North Korean threat since Kim Jong-il’s death, not only are capabilities being maintained and in some cases increased, but the power behind these military threats is now more unstable and unpredictable than it has been since the 1950s. This is an important consideration that policy makers, military planners, and academics should keep in mind.

North Korea is a country that presents many military planning dilemmas. While the current instability in the government shows that planning for collapse is a vital element of current planning efforts, that same instability and lack of predictability shows that the possibilities for a military conflict remain an important threat that must be deterred. Though long-range missiles and nuclear programs are important and get most of the attention, Washington and Seoul should never forget that the other threats the North Korean military continues to maintain and improve present a very real threat to the security and stability of the peninsula.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Richard

    Well said and right on point. It’s hard to figure out what the facts are: Some say that North Korea has no oil for their tanks, and yet they continue to test missiles. How can North Korea’s economy continue to support such military upgrades and maintenance? Can this last?

  • Posted by Homer Williams

    This is a potentially useful post that lacks the specifics to make it useful. The destructiveness and range of the 300 and 240 mm MRLs are not at issue. The issue is their accuracy, reliability, and quantity. This post should be compared with Joseph Bermudez’s excellent analysis of Yeonpyeong shelling incident of 2010 (KPA Journal, vol. 1, nos. 11 & 12). Clearly, a single post can’t match the level of analysis in Bermudez’s article, but it should aspire to always include at least some specifics supporting the post’s conclusions.

  • Posted by CHOI

    I think Mr. Bechtol hit the point quite well in a short article. Mr. Williams pointed out the article is in lack of the descriptions about NK MRLs accuracy, reliability, and quantity. Well, the accuracy doesn’t really matter because NK aims to use these weaponry against the South Korean capital city Seoul, just 30 miles south of the DMZ, causing millions of casualties. You don’t need much accuracy when you target cities like the old nuclear weapons strategy back in the early cold war era. The reliability was proven when NK attacked the South Korean Yeonpyung Island, and the number of these artilleries are estimated to be around 5,000.
    As Mr. Bechtol pointed out, NK is ready to use these artileries for a “quick strike” against South Korea. And even without NK’s nuclear weapons, South Korea can’t not think of the military options against NK because 20 millions of people near Seoul are being held hostages by these formidable NK artilleries.

    Below is the Chosun Ilbo(South Korean major newspaper) article describing the NK’s devastating forces right after the Yeonpyung Island shelling.

    Chosun Newspaper

    The 240-mm MRLs is among the greatest North Korean threats facing the South Korean capital Seoul. They bundle 12 or 22 of those rounds into a single burst, with each round being capable of destroying an 80 sq. m area. There are 200 of these MRLs lined up near the demilitarized zone. In times of war, they could fire up to 6,400 shells on Seoul, capable of turning a 6 sq. km area into rubble.South Korean military officials believe more than half of North Korea’s MRLs carry chemical rounds that can cause even greater damage. The South Korean military also fields U.S.-made 227-mm and Korean-made 130-mm MLRS. But in terms of number, the South Korean military is outgunned by the North with around 200 MLRS as against the North’s 5,100 MRLs.

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