27.09.2023 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Digest of Inter-Korean Tensions amid US-ROK Joint Exercises. Part 2. The North Korean Response

US-ROK Joint Exercises The North Korean Response

The DPRK’s response to the upcoming exercises began long before the exercises started. From August 1-12, the North Korean leader visited a number of military factories.In particular, from August 3 to 5, Kim Jong-un visited factories producing multiple rocket launchers (MLRS) and engines for cruise missiles and drones.In addition, he familiarized himself with the production of launchers for tactical missiles equipped with nuclear warheads, as well as small arms production.Kim also visited the construction of a new factory for the production of light electrical equipment that will be used in new weapons systems produced by North Korea.On August 11 and 12, Kim Jong-un visited four production facilities: tactical missiles, missile launchers, MLRS and armored vehicles.Kim Jong-un instructed these facilities to increase tactical missile production capacity exponentially, to meet the demands of operational planning and reinforced forward-deployed units.He emphasized the importance of building modern and functional launch vehicles, and called the introduction of 122mm and 240mm caliber guided missile technologies a revolution.

On August 9, Pyongyang hosted a meeting of the Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party of Korea (CMC), the party body that oversees and directs the country’s military policy.The meeting was addressed by Kim Jong-un, who said it was necessary to make preparations for future war “in an offensive style.”  As reported by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on August 10, Kim “deeply summarized and analyzed the current situation on the Korean Peninsula and made an important conclusion to further intensify military preparations in an offensive manner.”The North Korean leader reiterated the role of the defense industry, which has a “very important responsibility” to strengthen the military, urging them to push forward modernization and mass production of weapons.

Photos taken at the meeting and published in the North Korean press show Kim Jong Un standing next to a map of the Korean Peninsula and pointing at Seoul.

On August 15, during the Moscow Conference on International Security, DPRK Defense Minister Kang Sun-nam made the following statement:“It is not a question now whether a nuclear war will break out on the Korean Peninsula.The question is who will start it and when.The nuclear war mania of the US and its proxies in South Korea is turning the Korean Peninsula and the whole of Northeast Asia into a nuclear war hotbed.”  

On August 21, 2023, the day the Freedom Shield was launched, the KCNA reported how Kim Jong-un inspected the Second Guards Flotilla of surface ships of the Eastern Sea Fleet of the Korean People’s Army Navy’s Eastern Sea Fleet.During the inspection, the North Korean leader watched the launching of a North Korean-made cruise missile from a new North Korean-built patrol ship with a displacement of about 1,500 tons and a ship number “661.”

Judging from the photos that have been circulated, “Patrol Ship No. 661” is a new Amnok-class frigate.It is designed and built with the use of technologies to reduce radar visibility – this is evidenced by its contours and shape.The ship appears to be equipped with eight missile launchers, four on each side.

The launched cruise missile was similar in appearance to North Korea’s Hwasal-2 cruise missiles, which have previously been launched from land-based launchers, and is a typical subsonic cruise missile (analogous to the US Tomahawk) capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.In launches in February 2023, these missiles demonstrated a range of up to 2,000 kilometers.

Satisfied with the successful launch, Kim promised to strengthen the navy to make it a “comprehensive and powerful” grouping with enhanced combat effectiveness and modern surface and underwater offensive and defensive capabilities.To this end, a “new impetus will be given to naval modernization, including the construction of powerful warships as well as the development of underwater weapons.”

The ROK Joint Chiefs of Staff immediately responded, saying that North Korea’s reports of a successful launch of strategic cruise missiles were “exaggerated and untrue,” as well as that it was not known whether the North’s warship had stealth capabilities. “An informed source” said that given the size of the ship, which was too small, the cruise missile was not capable of carrying a nuclear weapon and failed to hit an obvious target.

On August 22, the KCNA published a commentary entitled “Our Republic’s Armed Forces Know No Mercy.”It stated that “thermonuclear war is becoming a reality”: the enemy exercises will involve US nuclear strategic assets, including a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, a nuclear-powered submarine, B-1B and B-52H strategic bombers.

The aggressive nature of the exercise is further emphasized by the fact that it involves other States as parties to the Korean War, including Australia, Canada, France, the United Kingdom, Greece, Italy, New Zealand and the Philippines.The gravity of the situation is further heightened by the fact that the exercises are being conducted to implement newly deepened Camp David Accords, at which “the US, Japan and South Korean proxies gathered at a summerhouse near Washington and detailed, planned and formulated the provocation of nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula…If the agreements fabricated at Camp David are put into practice in military exercises, the possibility of launching a thermonuclear war on the Korean Peninsula will become more real.”

The KCNA emphasized that the DPRK is only waiting for the right moment to “punish the hostile forces that have been threatening the sovereignty of our state and the right of our people to exist for decades,” the statement said.

All this requires proactive, offensive and overwhelming military countermeasures by our army, and “the Armed Forces of our Republic will wait for the opportune moment.”

On August 27, Kim Jong-un “along with his beloved daughter” paid a congratulatory visit to the KPA Navy Command on the occasion of Navy Day, which is celebrated on August 28.

This visit was not ceremonial. The DPRK leader listened to the report of the naval commander on the enemy’s balance of forces, familiarized himself with the situation of informatization of operational and situation management, and “put forward the tactical and operational lines of the Juche Navy to reliably take the initiative in any unexpected armed conflict and war in accordance with the tactical and strategic intention of the Party Central Committee, to overwhelmingly deter and dislodge the enemies with a preventive and decisive offensive.” The DPRK leader said that under the policy of expanded use of tactical nuclear weapons, highlighted by the work in building the state’s nuclear armed forces, the military units of the branches will receive new armed means, noting that in the future, the KPA Navy will become a component of the state’s nuclear deterrent force, carrying out strategic missions.

Stating that the strengthening of security cooperation between Seoul, Tokyo and Washington has made the waters of the Korean Peninsula “the most unstable and holding the danger of nuclear war,” Kim criticized the heads of the ROK, the US and Japan, calling them “gang leaders” who have agreed to hold various joint exercises and implement their agreements.

It is noteworthy that this is the first time the North Korean leader has used the South’s adopted name 대한민국 (Daehan Minguk, in English, “Korea”) to refer to South Korea, instead of the North’s customary name for its southern neighbor 남조선 (Namchosŏn, in English, “South Korea”).The name had previously appeared in the KCNA’s coverage or speeches by lower-ranking officials, but from the mouth of the country’s leader, this change is something very important.

In response, a spokesman for the ROK Ministry of Reunification said that the North Korean leader’s statement confirms Kim Jong-un’s lack of “basic etiquette.”And in general, the North Korean leader’s concern over the joint military exercises by Seoul, Washington and Tokyo confirms the North’s understanding of the threat posed by the strengthening of security cooperation between the three countries.The spokesman went on to say that North Korea should focus its efforts on improving the living conditions of its people rather than talking about “full preparation for war.”

On August 29, Kim Jong-un gave a speech in which he mentioned that since Korea is surrounded by the sea on three sides, “strengthening the Navy has always remained as a necessary task for national defense and building the armed forces.”And with the “rapidly changing theory on military affairs and in its practice, the role of the Navy is becoming more important day by day.”Therefore, fleet modernization will be given top priority in the near future.Among other things, “in the future, our navy will become a component of the nation’s nuclear deterrent force, carrying out strategic missions.”

On August 29, Kim Jong-un visited the KPA General Staff’s exercise control center and reviewed the progress of the all-army command post exercise, certainly conducted in response to Ulchi Freedom Shield.
The exercise was designed to “ensure that all Army commanders and staffs practice the skills to operate during the transition to martial law, improve their abilities to develop operational and battle plans, improve command skills, and accurately determine the reality of operation plans to maintain full war readiness and military countermeasures capability.”In terms of objectives, these were much the same as the South Korean goals.

But, moreover, the plot of the exercise was stated as “repelling a sudden armed attack by the enemies, proceeding to a comprehensive counteroffensive and capturing the entire territory of the southern part of the country.”

Kim Jong-un received a report from the Chief of the General Staff on the possible actions of the Korean People’s Army and the enemy army in the event of renewed fighting, and he familiarized himself in detail with the operational and combat documents of the headquarters of the KPA’s major formations.Moreover, he personally inspected the practical operational documents of the General Staff, including plans to use front-line artillery and its strategic reserve, to form a front line behind enemy lines, and to destroy foreign armed forces (in the form of paratroopers).

Kim Jong-un noted that “war is a confrontation of minds, and the outcome of war depends on the commander’s mind before fighting,” and therefore all army commanders should intensively conduct staff training in real combat conditions and play out operational situations in order to forge readiness for victories in war, not in exercises.

But what is interesting to us is not only the fact of the exercise itself, but also the fact that Kim Jong-un specifically highlighted the KPA’s main tasks that make up its military doctrine. Namely:

  • The main goal is to strike a sensitive blow to the enemy’s combat potential and its command centers, control and communications facilities even at the very threshold of war, and thus, from its very outset, to disrupt the enemy’s plans and deprive them of the will and ability to conduct combat operations and fulfill their assigned tasks.
  • Launching simultaneous and serial super-powerful strikes on leading military command posts, ports, operational airfields and other important military facilities of the enemies, the main results being to cause socio-political and economic chaos.
  • Seizing the strategic initiative by combining continuous fighter battles, frontal offensive and operation to disorganize the enemy’s rear.
  • Preparation of successive measures for reliable defense and preservation of strike assets against any enemy opposition.
  • Comprehensively updating the operational command system and communication method for fire control.

The KPA then conducted a tactical nuclear strike exercise on the night of August 30, “simulating the destruction of important command posts and operational airfields of the military gangsters of the ‘Republic of Korea’” (again using the term “Daehan Minguk (Korea)” taken in quotation marks).

As part of this exercise, the DPRK launched two short-range ballistic missiles from the Sunan airfield near Pyongyang.They flew about 360 kilometers before falling into the Sea of Japan.Given the range of their flight, it can be assumed that the conditional target was the Keryongdae area, where the headquarters of the South Korean Army, Navy and Air Force are located.The distance from the launch site is about 350 kilometers, and on August 31, North Korean media published photos from the August 10 extended meeting of the DPRK Central Military Committee, in which Kim Jong-un was pointing at Keryongdae on the map.

It is noteworthy that reports of the DPRK conducting command and staff exercises appeared for the first time, which became a reason for Pyongyangologists to gossip.

Finally, on September 2 at about 4:00 a.m., North Korea fired several cruise missiles in the direction of the Yellow Sea – just in response to the final stage of the Freedom Shield, where the US and the ROK repelled attacks of this very type of weapon.
The author wishes to make a few further remarks: First, the protocols of the exercises of both sides show that both the North and the South appear to have studied the chronicles of the ongoing Special Military Operation in Ukraine very seriously and are now adjusting their tactics and strategy based on the practical recommendations of the Ukrainian crisis.

Secondly, one curious point is particularly noteworthy.In his speeches, Kim Jong-un often describes war as not only a confrontation between military and technical aspects, but also “a confrontation between ideas, ideals and morals,” emphasizing “the tradition of victory based on ideological-political and spiritual-moral superiority.”And further, “What is really necessary on the battlefield is not the numerical and technical superiority of armed equipment, but the overwhelming ideological and spiritual power of the warriors handling it – that is the revolutionary philosophy and military doctrine inherent in the heroic KPA.”

“Pyongyangologists” draw the wrong conclusions from such passages, which fits into the image of the DPRK as an ‘Evil State.’It is supposed to ignore military innovations and rely only on the high spirituality of the troops, allowing North Korean fighters to pelt the enemy with their own bodies.In fact, if we look beyond words, the DPRK is seriously developing the military-technical component of its combat potential, and doing so not only in the nuclear missile sphere.

Thirdly, both sides openly practiced war with the use of nuclear weapons, about which the author has repeatedly noted that if nuclear conflict breaks out, it will not be localized.It is advantageous for both sides to inflict maximum disarming damage on the enemy with the first strike, with the expectation that this will exhaust the enemy’s resources, destroy its communications and its will to resist.

Fourthly, such mutual demonstrations of force return us to the rhetoric of the Cold War, an important element of which was a lot of bellicose words against a background of mutual anger.This is because – despite the rhetoric – both Kim Jong-un and Yoon Suk Yeol are running their respective nations as pragmatists, neither of them ready to destroy half their lands for ephemeral goals.

While under Lee Myung-bak there were people in the Armed Forces ready to launch a “blitzkrieg” against the North if they were allowed, the author has no information about such “young officers” under Yoon Suk Yeol.

Moreover, the pragmatism of the two leaders begins to manifest itself in another important point. Although talk of “reunification” has not gone off the agenda for ideological reasons, both North and South are beginning to move away from certain illusions associated with Korean unification and the perception of Korea as a unified and purely temporary divided state.

In the South, the Ministry of Reunification is changing its structure, no longer supporting inter-Korean projects and shifting its focus to propaganda and confrontation. In effect, it remains the “Ministry of Northern Affairs,” but may no longer be a stand-in for the Foreign Ministry.

In the North, we see sharply reduced references to the “united front department,” which was the equivalent of the South Korean ministry but a party rather than state body, and increasingly frequent use of South Korea’s official name.

The reader may recall that North and South Korea use different terms for their state (Daehan and Joseon), and South Korea – for the North – was the territory of “South Joseon” temporarily seized by South Korean puppets, or, when the warming of relationships started, the “South Side.”Thus, it was implied that the South was part of a single space, and the geographic name “Daehan” was taboo, so much so that, if evil tongues were to be believed, naming the ROK that way could be grounds for criminal charges. Now, the word “Daehan” is mentioned not only by the KCNA, but also by Kim Jong-un himself, and for the author this is a sign that Pyongyang has begun to see the South as “another state” rather than as part of a divided country.

The author would like to believe that until the end of Yoon Suk Yeol’s rule, North-South relations will mimic the Cold War – bellicose speeches, demonstrations of force, arms race, but at the same time avoiding steps that could lead to a real armed conflict. Unfortunately, much depends not only on the position of official Seoul: there are also Washington and dangerous non-state authors like Park Sang-hak and other NGOs who stand ready to provoke.

Therefore, in one way, the author is taking a breath of relief, but that same breath is also just to get new air in his lungs, because further demonstrations of force, causing panic headlines of the category “Korean Peninsula on the brink of war,” still await reporting this year.


Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences, Leading Researcher of the Center for Korean Studies at the Institute of China and Modern Asia of the Russian Academy of Sciences, especially for the online magazine «New Eastern Outlook».

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