North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear capabilities and development of long-range ballistic missile programs make it one of the most critical U.S. security challenges in Northeast Asia, according to the Defense Department’s first report to Congress on that nation’s military development.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel delivered the report, titled, “Military and Security Developments Involving the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea 2012,” to Congress May 2.
Required to be produced annually in classified and unclassified versions by Section 1236 of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2012, the report is DOD’s authoritative statement on North Korea’s current and future military power, Pentagon officials said. It was developed by the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy and the Defense Intelligence Agency.
The Korean People’s Army – an umbrella organization composed of ground, air, naval, missile and special operations forces – ranks in personnel numbers as the fourth-largest military in the world. The large, forward-deployed military can inflict great damage on South Korea despite serious resource shortfalls and aging hardware, the report said, but the strength of the U.S.-South Korean alliance deters North Korea from conducting attacks on its southern neighbor.
On a smaller scale, North Korea has used military provocation to achieve national goals, the report notes. In 2010, for example, it sank the South Korean naval vessel, Cheonan, killing 46 South Korean sailors, and shelled Yeonpyeong Island, killing two South Korean marines and two civilians.
North Korea’s continued pursuit of nuclear technology and capabilities and its development of long-range ballistic missile programs – including the December 2012 Taepodong-2 missile launch and the April 2012 display of a new road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile – demonstrate North Korea’s threat to regional stability and U.S. national security, the report observed.
These programs, North Korea’s hostility toward South Korea, and the proliferation of items prohibited under U.N. Security Council Resolutions 1718, 1874 and 2087 make North Korea a continued security challenge for the United States and its allies and partners, the report said.
The report assesses the following aspects of North Korean military power:
- The security situation on the Korean Peninsula, goals and factors shaping North Korean security strategy, and military strategy;
- Trends in North Korean security;
- North Korea’s regional security objectives, including North Korean military capabilities, developments in North Korean military doctrine, and training;
- North Korea’s proliferation activities; and
- Other military security developments.
North Korea’s strategy under Kim Jong Il, who was supreme leader from 1994 until his death in 2011, focused on internal security, coercive diplomacy to compel acceptance of its diplomatic, economic and security interests, development of strategic military capabilities to deter external attack, and challenging South Korea and the U.S.-South Korean alliance, the report said.
“We anticipate these strategic goals will be consistent under North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong Un,” the report added.
On the topic of cyber capabilities, the report said North Korea probably has a military computer network operations capability. North Korea may view computer network operations as an appealing platform from which to collect intelligence, the report added, and the nation has been implicated since 2009 in cyberattacks ranging from computer network exploitation to distributed denial of service attacks.
In assessing North Korea’s security situation, the report said, “North Korea continues to fall behind the rising power of its regional neighbors, creating a widening military disparity and fueling its commitment to improving asymmetric and strategic deterrent capabilities as the primary guarantor of regime survival.”
Tensions on the Korean Peninsula have grown as relations between North and South Korea worsen, the report noted. North Korea has portrayed South Korea and the United States as constant threats to North Korea’s sovereignty in a probable attempt to legitimize the Kim family rule, its draconian internal control mechanisms and existing strategies, the report said.
“The regime’s greatest security concern is opposition from within,” the report added, “and outside forces taking advantage of internal instability to topple the regime and achieve unification of the Korean Peninsula.”
North Korea seeks recognition as an equal and legitimate international player and recognized nuclear power and seeks to normalize its diplomatic relations with the Western world and pursue economic recovery and prosperity, the report said.
“[North Korea’s] rhetoric suggests the regime at this time is unlikely to pursue this second goal at the expense of the primary goal of pursuing its nuclear and missile capabilities,” the report added.
North Korea is attempting to upgrade its conventional weapons by reinforcing long-range artillery forces near the Demilitarized Zone that separates North Korea and South Korea, the report said, and has a substantial number of mobile ballistic missiles that could strike targets in South Korea and Japan.
“These advances in ballistic missile delivery systems, coupled with developments in nuclear technology, are in line with North Korea’s stated objectives to strike the U.S. homeland,” the report said.
Weapon sales are a critical source of foreign currency for North Korea, the report said, and it is unlikely to cease export activities.
North Korea also continues to invest in nuclear infrastructure. It conducted nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013 and could conduct more tests at any time, the report said, violating its obligations under four U.N. Security Council resolutions and the September 2005 Joint Statement of the Six-Party Talks.
Global concern about North Korea’s proliferation activity continues to mount, leading some nations to take action. In June 2011, for example, a vessel bound for Burma, suspected of carrying military-related cargo, returned to North Korea after refusing a U.S. Navy inspection request.
In February 2010, South Africa seized North Korean-origin spare tank parts destined for the Republic of Congo. In December 2009, Thai authorities impounded the cargo of a chartered plane containing about 35 metric tons of North Korean weapons including artillery rockets, rocket-propelled grenades and surface-to-air missiles. In October of that year, South Korea seized North Korean-origin chemical-warfare protective suits destined for Syria.
“The United States remains vigilant in the face of North Korea’s continued provocations and steadfast in commitments to allies in the region, including the security provided by extended deterrence commitments through the nuclear umbrella and conventional forces,” the report said.