26.02.2024 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

A digest of the inter-Korean unrest of late January/early February 2024

A digest of the inter-Korean unrest of late January/early February 2024

We ended the previous text with the 7 January firing and then separately noted the 14 January ICBM launch, but tensions are not subsiding and their new degree is gradually becoming the new normal. Missile launches on one side, joint exercises on the other.

From 15 to 17 January, the navies of the Republic of Korea, the United States and Japan conducted joint exercises in waters south of Jeju Island. Two South Korean destroyers, five U.S. Navy ships, including the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson, and two ships of the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force participated. It was the first trilateral naval drills since an agreement was reached last June to hold them regularly.

“The exercise aimed to strengthen the three countries’ deterrence and response capabilities to North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats as well as maritime threats,” the ROK’s JCS said in a press release. “It also focused on responding to maritime security threats, including the transport of weapons of mass destruction, and strengthening trilateral cooperation in establishing a rules-based international order.”

From 15 to 26 January, the United States and South Korea held their first joint cyber security exercise at the ROK Cyber Operations Command, aimed at enhancing their ability to respond to and combat growing threats emanating from cyberspace. During the exercise, experts from the two countries exchanged information on hacking attempts and response measures. In the future, the allies intend to develop cooperation in this area, including the expansion of exercises and drills, professional training and technology exchange. It is noted that Seoul and Washington are also studying ways to counter DPRK’s illegal activities in cyberspace.

From 16 to 25 January, the Republic of Korea’s military personnel (a P-3 patrol aircraft and about forty servicemen) took part in the Sea Dragon international anti-submarine warfare exercise led by the United States off the coast of Guam. The exercise has been held annually since 2014 with the participation of countries that have maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft in their air forces. The purpose of the Sea Dragon exercise is to improve the capabilities of air assets in anti-submarine warfare.

On 19 January, the KCNA news agency, without disclosing details, reported that North Korea had successfully tested the Haeil-5-23 underwater nuclear weapon system, which is under development. The test was conducted in response to “hostile manoeuvres by the US Navy and its allies” involving a US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. “The armed forces of the DPRK will by no means allow reckless military-confrontational hysteria, by responsible, resolute and courageous application of deterrence forces will instil fear in enemies and reliably defend on the basis of powerful force the security of the state and peace in the region.”

In response, South Korea condemned the North’s reported weapons test as a violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions and a provocative act that threatens peace on the Korean peninsula and around the world. Moreover, on 21 January, a spokesman for the South Korean presidential administration said that analysis showed that information about the DPRK conducting an underwater nuclear weapons system test the day before was exaggerated or fabricated.

On 18 January, the UN Security Council held “in-depth consultations” behind closed doors on North Korea-related issues – de facto as South Korea began its two-year term as a non-permanent member this month. The representative of the Republic of Korea drew attention to the DPRK’s changing nuclear policy and emphasised the need to pay attention to all types of threats posed by North Korea, rather than limiting it solely to long-range missiles. However, this seems to have been the end of the story.

On 22 January, a Boeing RC-135V strategic reconnaissance aircraft of the US Air Force flew over the Korean peninsula for more than five hours. Equipped with the latest equipment, the American aircraft can monitor enemy missile forces at a distance of hundreds of kilometres.

On the same day, 22 January, the US military magazine Air & Space Forces reported that this month the US Air Force and the Japan Air Self-Defence Force conducted a joint exercise in the East Sea involving two US B-1 Lancer bombers and four Japanese F-15 fighters. According to the U.S. military, the purpose of the exercise was to enhance the deterrence force’s capabilities and build the tactical capacity of the U.S.-Japan alliance.

From January 22 to February 2, the US and South Korean special operations forces (1st US Special Forces Green Berets and Polaris) held their first joint training exercise of the year at the training centre in Pocheon, Gyeonggi Province. The goal was to practice joint operations, improve interoperability and improve individual combat skills. For a fortnight, the two countries’ special forces trained in such areas as physical training, live firing (day and night), special skills, first aid in combat, aerial fire control, small group combat skills, and special operations. As part of the training, allied forces carried out successful penetration and reconnaissance of key conditional enemy targets, after which they deployed aircraft to destroy them.

On 24 January 2024, the DPRK launched several cruise missiles towards the Yellow Sea. As reported by the KCNA a day later, it was the first test launch of a new type of strategic cruise missile, the Pulkhwasal-3-31, which is under development. The test was another step in the “continuous upgrade of weapon systems, a regular and mandatory activity of the General Missile Directorate and the National Defence Research Institute subordinate to the directorate” and is part of the regular tasks of the relevant research institutions.

It was North Korea’s first known cruise missile launch since September 2023, when the country test-fired two long-range strategic cruise missiles with simulated nuclear warheads towards the Yellow Sea.

Hours after the North fired missiles during his visit to the 17th Fighter Wing at Cheongju Air Base, South Korean Defence Minister Shin Won-sik said North Korea will face the end of its regime if it goes to war, hours after North Korea fired several cruise missiles into the Yellow Sea as part of its latest series of weapons tests. At the facility, which operates 40 F-35 stealth fighter jets, Shin urged pilots to retaliate sternly in the event of any North Korean provocation by using the fighters’ stealth and precision strike capabilities. The North called the defence minister’s remarks “the worst kind of ridiculous statements” that could be a “catalyst for a physical clash”.

On 24 January, the head of the Republic of Korea Navy said that its special forces units (including the UDT underwater bomber team) had been conducting winter training for 10 days. During such training, they practiced techniques for penetrating deep into enemy territory from the sea (using high-speed rubber boats), moving and manoeuvring in snowy and mountainous terrain (including on snowmobiles and skis), conducting reconnaissance and evacuation operations, and covertly striking targets.

On 28 January 2024, the Joint Chiefs of Staff of South Korea reported that several launches of DPRK cruise missiles of an unidentified type were recorded around 8 a.m. in the Sea of Japan. The launches were carried out from the vicinity of Sinpo, where there is a DPRK submarine base, as well as the relevant production and testing infrastructure, which led to the theory that there could be launches from an underwater position.

A day later, the KCNA clarified the situation:  Kim Jong-un “together with the secretaries of the Party Central Committee, the commander of the Navy and other leading cadres supervised the test launch of a strategic cruise missile from the submarine Pulhwasal-3-31” (the same missile that was launched on 24 January). The said missiles flew 7421 and 7445 seconds over the Sea of Japan and hit the target accurately. The DPRK leader expressed great satisfaction with the result of the test and emphasised that “the cause of nuclear armament of the Navy is the urgent task of the time and the core requirement of building the nuclear strategic armed forces of the state. And put forward the programme tasks for the implementation of the naval nuclear weapons and the multifaceted expansion of the nuclear deterrence space of the State’s nuclear deterrent forces.” In addition, Kim “discussed issues related to the construction of the nuclear submarine and other advanced ships, outlined the next tasks for relevant areas and the state action plan, and made an important conclusion on ways to fulfil them.”

In response, Lee Seong-joon of the ROK Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said at a briefing that Pyongyang’s reported underwater cruise missile test results could be “greatly exaggerated“.

On 30 January at around 7 a.m., North Korea launched several cruise missiles toward the Yellow Sea for the third time.

According to a 31 January report by the KCNA, the firings were carried out by strategic cruise missiles of the Hwasal-2 type. Their purpose is stated to be “to test our army’s readiness for an urgent counterattack and to improve its ability to launch a strategic strike.”

From 1 to 20 February, the ROK and US Marine Corps held the first joint exercises of the year at a training range near the city of Pohang, Gyeongsang Province. A total of about 400 troops, K808 wheeled armoured vehicles, KAAV amphibious armoured vehicles, K-1A2 tanks, unmanned aerial vehicles, and helicopters are taking part. The programme includes live firing, close combat and interaction with mechanised units, airborne, assault, medical and engineering training.

On 2 February at around 11 a.m., North Korea fired another launch from the west coast. The KCNA reported that the test of an “ultra-large cruise missile warhead” was “conducted as part of the regular activities of the General Department and its subordinate defence research institutes to dramatically develop technology in various facets of new weapons, including function, power and control, and has nothing to do with the situation in the region.”

That all the launches “raised serious concerns” for the US and ROK was so expected that we will simply omit this volume of news. Except for a radio interview with ROK Reunification Minister Kim Yong-ho: North Korea’s provocations seek to provoke security concerns and drive a wedge into South Korean society ahead of April’s general election, while the North’s food distribution system has completely collapsed amid chronic food shortages.

It is worth recalling that cruise missiles fly low and maneuver well, which allows them to evade missile defences. In addition, cruise missile launches are not in direct violation of UN Security Council resolutions prohibiting North Korea from using ballistic missile technology. “But it could pose a serious threat to South Korea’s security, as such missiles could carry nuclear warheads.” This view, in particular, is held by Hong Min, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute of National Unification.

As for the type of missile, Hong suggests that they were improved versions of Pongae missiles modelled on Russian S-300 and S-400 missiles.

In the same days, it was reported that Kim Jong-un visited a shipyard in Nampo, where he called for strengthening the North Korean Navy’s capabilities as part of stepping up preparations for war and defending maritime sovereignty. The DPRK leader stressed that strengthening the country’s navy is the “most important issue”, which also requires the modernisation of the DPRK shipbuilding industry.

In addition, on 2 February, in response to the British Daily Telegraph’s report that the United States was planning to deploy B61-12 nuclear bombs at the Royal Lakenheath Air Force base for the first time in 15 years, North Korea accused the United States of bringing the world closer to “nuclear war.” According to Lee Ji-sung, a researcher at the North’s Society for the Study of International Politics, this shows that Washington is “the main culprit in the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the mastermind behind the nuclear arms race, and the initiator of starting a nuclear war.”

On the South Korean side, on 2 February, special operations troops of the ROK and U.S. land forces completed the first joint exercise of the year at Rodriguez Proving Ground in Pyeongchon, Gyeonggi-do Province, involving members of the North Star Battalion of the Land Forces Special Operations Command and the U.S. First Special Forces Brigade.

Then, on 2 February, South Korea’s Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Yang Yong-mo visited the US Navy’s King’s Bay (Georgia) strategic submarine base for the first time and boarded the Ohio-class submarine USS Alaska (SSBN-732). During the talks, representatives of the fleets of the two countries discussed in detail ways of strengthening co-operation to deter and respond to threats from the DPRK, and agreed to intensify joint exercises, training and exchanges.

On 6 February, an American RC-135U Combat Sent reconnaissance aircraft was in the airspace over the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan for an extended period of time.

Meanwhile, the 76th anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) was approaching. In 2023, North Korea held a night military parade to mark the occasion, where it displayed the Hwasong-18 intercontinental ballistic missile for the first time, marking the 75th anniversary of the founding of the armed forces.

Amid the escalation, everyone was expecting another parade or other show of force, but on February 8, 2024, Kim Jong-un simply paid a congratulatory visit to the DPRK Ministry of Defence. “He was accompanied by his esteemed daughter” and secretaries of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea. Ceremonially photographed with the generals, Kim “delivered a landmark speech in which he called for maintaining the armed forces in full combat readiness, adding that Pyongyang would no longer have to go through ‘unrealistic tests’ as it engages in talks and co-operation with South Korea.”

In addition, a gala reception and concert was held to mark the occasion, to which Kim again attended with his daughter. The keynote speaker there was Park Jong Chong, who “expressed his confidence that all army commanders will keep deep in their hearts the trust and privilege of the esteemed Comrade Kim Jong Un, without the slightest deviation of even 0.001 mm from the intention of the Party Central Committee to show precise and unconditional performance in devising one operation and making one plan, in giving one command, and thereby honourably fulfil the important mission and basic duty of the People’s Army.”

On 9 February, Admiral Kim Myung-soo, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, inspected the readiness of the Army Missile Command and the Air Force Fighter Wing to repel North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats. During the inspection, Kim ordered soldiers to maintain an “airtight” position for missile response and firmly retaliate in case of enemy provocation.

Also, since 9 February, along with four other countries, South Korea has been conducting the US-led multinational air exercise Cope North in Guam. In addition to the “elephant walk”, which involves a tight formation of planes cutting down en masse before takeoff, South Korean troops took part in an aerial medical evacuation and an exercise in the airborne landing of personnel and cargo by troops.

But the most interesting thing awaits us in the spring. There is a probability that during April-May this year five aircraft carriers of the US Navy will be deployed near the Korean peninsula. The “Ronald Raegan”, “Carl Vinson” and “Theodore Roosevelt”, which are already nearby, may be joined by aircraft carrier groups headed by the “Abraham Lincoln” and “George Washington” (the latter is to replace the “Ronald Reagan”, which is under repair in Japan). Officially, Washington refused to comment on this information, citing security concerns, but conspiracy theorists have already made speculations.


Konstantin ASMOLOV, candidate of historical sciences, leading researcher at the center for Korean studies, Institute of China and Contemporary Asia of the RAS, especially for online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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