What you need to know
North Korea poses a significant cyber threat to the United States with its espionage cyber programs and attack systems, while it also remains a potential catalyst for conflict in the world, aided by China’s powerful arms support.
As the world marks the 70th anniversary of the armistice that halted fighting in the Korean War from 1950-1953, military delegations from Russia and China met with their North Korean counterparts in Pyongyang. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chinese Communist Party politburo member Li Hongzhong met with North Korean Defense Minister Kang Sun Nam, strengthening the military alliance between the three nations.
North Korea supports Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and has been accused by the Biden administration of providing weapons to Russia. Beijing and Moscow have repeatedly attempted to thwart United Nation’s resolutions to increase sanctions against North Korea. However, China has joined U.N. sanctions against North Korea’s missile programs, suggesting that the “friendship” between the two countries is limited. At the same time, China remains North Korea’s primary economic benefactor.
Meetings between high-ranking officials alway end with a military parade, providing Kim Jong Un an opportunity to show off North Korea’s most powerful nuclear missiles designed to target South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. Even though the armistice ended active combat between North and South Korean, no peace treaty has ever been signed.
This means that effectively, South Korea and the U.S. are still in a state of military conflict with North Korea. Because of Pyongyang’s repeated threats against South Korea, Japan, and the U.S as well as their alliance with Russia and China, the 2023 Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community ranks North Korea as the fourth greatest threat to national security behind China, Russia, and Iran.
The U.S. Intelligence Community expects North Korea to expand its WMD capabilities and to continue being disruptive in the region and globally, threatening U.S. allies. Kim Jong Un relies on nuclear weapons and ICBMs to maintain his rule and assert dominance over South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. military. He has conducted around 100 missile tests since 2022. The North also launches missiles as a warning each time South Korea and the U.S. hold military talks or stage joint exercises. In July, Pyongyang fired two missiles after a U.S. nuclear submarine docked in South Korea.
In addition to the military threat, North Korea is a state sponsor of transnational crime. Pyongyang funds its WMD program through cybercrime, trafficking, and counterfeiting. These crimes could be used to undermine the U.S. should it go to war with North Korea or its allies.
To assess North Korea’s ability to wage war, this essay contains a PMESII framework, a national security analysis which assesses a threat country across six dimensions: political, military, economic, social, information, and infrastructure.
Politics: A regime defined by one man’s decision
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea), founded September 9th, 1948, has a population of roughly 26 million and borders the People’s Republic of China, the Russian Federation, and the Republic of Korea (South Korea). The capital of Pyongyang is the largest and most developed city in the country with a population of just over 3 million. The DPRK is a socialist autocracy whose official state ideology Juche, or Korean socialism, was developed by North Korea's founding leader Kim Il-sung. Juche stresses three principles; political objectives’ independence, economic self-sufficiency, and military strength. Juche permeates every facet of North Korean society as it is deeply ingrained in education, media, and culture.
North Korea’s first two leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il left behind a legacy of ideology referred to as Kimilsungism–Kimjongilism. The government is also guided by the Ten Principles for the Establishment of a Monolithic Ideological System (also called Ten Principles of the One-Ideology System). The Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), led by a member of the Kim family, has approximately 6.5 million members and dominates all aspects of government.
The current Supreme Leader, known as “Suryeong”, is Kim Jong Un who holds the titles of Chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), Chairman of the State Affairs Commission, and Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) among others. His grandfather Kim Il-sung, founder of the nation, served as leader until his death in 1994, and still holds the title of “eternal President”. His father Kim Jong-il, who ruled until his death in 2011, holds the title of “Eternal General Secretary” and “Eternal Chairman of the National Defense Commission”. Having endured three successive hereditary transitions of power, the resilience of the Kim regime is beyond doubt.
When Kim Jong Un took power, he purged the government of potential rivals as well as old regime holdouts from the days of his father. He has also weakened the military’s roles and privileges, and increased the power of party organizations, particularly the Ministry of State Security (the primary intelligence agency and secret police) and the General Political Department which conducts political surveillance on the military. In 2016, he convened the Seventh Party Congress, the first in 36 years, to celebrate his consolidation of power. The Eighth Party Congress held in 2021 verified that Kim Jong Un was in complete control.
The DPRK has the pretense of being democratic. Every five years, general elections for the Supreme People’s Assembly are held and overseen by the Korean Workers’ Party. Voting is mandatory and the police ensure a 100% turnout. Voters are marched to the poles where they are given a ballot with a single name on it. So, there is no possibility that Kim Jong Un will be voted out of office. Kim’s longevity is further supported by the myth of a divine mandate to rule the nation. According to state legend, his father Kim Jong-il was born in a guerrilla camp on Mount Paektu, the sacred birthplace of the Korean people. This endowed Kim Jong-il with a heavenly mandate which passes down through the bloodline.
Military: A domineering arsenal of troops and arms
North Korea’s defense budget is $4.5 billion and ranks 34 of 145 countries for overall firepower. The DPRK only has one official defense agreement, which is with the People’s Republic of China. However, it is unclear under which circumstancesops and China would come to North Korea’s aid in an armed conflict.
The Kim regime uses the military to support its legitimacy domestically and to ensure North Korea’s relevance as a global player. The country compensates for its small population and limited manpower with excessive military spending and the expansion of its missile arsenal and nuclear program. The primacy of the military in state planning was made evident in Kim Jong Un’s speech to the 8th Workers’ Party Congress, “Building the national nuclear force was a strategic and predominant goal” which enables North Korea “to bolster its powerful and reliable strategic deterrent for coping with any threat by providing a perfect nuclear shield… making our state’s superiority in military technology irreversible and putting its war deterrent and capability of fighting war on the highest level.”
After more than three years of covid restrictions and food shortages, U.S. officials believe the combat-readiness of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) has declined. That said, the country possesses a standing military of 1.2 million soldiers with reserves of 600,000 and 200,000 paramilitary. Military service is obligatory for both men and women at age 17 and service length varies from 5-13 years. This means North Korea has the fourth largest army in the world.
The KPA Air and Anti-Air Force has 947 aircraft, of which 458 are fighters and 114 are dedicated attack aircraft; 205 helicopters, including 20 attack helicopters; 6,645 tanks and 38,944 armored vehicles. Its artillery includes 5,000 self-propelled artillery, 5,000 towed artillery, and 2,920 mobile rocket projectors. On the sea, the Navy consists of 519 ships, 0 aircraft carriers, 0 helo carriers, 35 submarines, 0 destroyers, 1 frigate, 4 corvettes, 169 patrol boats, and 1 mine warfare ship.
The North Korean nuclear arsenal is believed to contain 200 nuclear weapons. In 2022 alone, the DPRK conducted 70 missile tests. And since 2006, North Korea has carried out at least six nuclear tests. A strategic location within missile range of South Korea which lies only 56 kilometers from the demilitarized zone (DMZ) is one of North Korea’s biggest advantages. To make matters worse, North Korea allegedly possesses a stockpile of chemical weapons such as sulfur mustard, chlorine, phosgene, sarin, and VX nerve agents. In total, they may have as many as 2,500 to 5,000 tons of nerve, blister, blood, and choking agents. These chemical agents can be launched using conventional rockets and missiles. Because North Korea has the world’s largest arsenal, the potential impact of an attack is alarming. North Korea could launch a high-intensity, short-duration attack on Seoul which would be devastating to the civilian population and disrupt South Korea’s financial systems, air transport, and supply chains.
Economy: North Korea’s depression amidst the Covid-19 pandemic
Exact and reliable economic data on North Korea is difficult to obtain. In 2022, analysts estimated that North Korea’s GDP was roughly $20.5 billion, its external debt $5 billion, and foreign reserves $5 billion. The per capita GDP is about $788 per year.
The Heritage Foundation rates the North Korean economy as the least free economy in the world. The government controls nearly 100% of economic activity, setting production levels, prices, and wages. Entrepreneurship is nearly impossible through legitimate channels. Consequently, most of the GDP derives from state-owned enterprises. North Korea has a military first policy called “songun”which results in military spending of 15.9% of GDP. This diverts resources away from the civilian population. At the same time, Pyongyang uses its missile and nuclear arsenal as bargaining chips to negotiate international aid.
North Korea is a net importer with imports totalling $904.78 USD million compared to $304.25 USD million in exports. China is the primary trade partner and financial benefactor. This makes Pyongyang extremely dependent on Beijing. International sanctions prevent North Korea from importing many types of military and dual use technology. However, Russia and China bypass these sanctions and export sensitive materials to the country.
During the pandemic, North Korea adopted a particularly harsh lockdown regimen and closed its borders from 2020 until mid-2023. The July celebration of the 70th anniversary commemorating the end of the Korean War marked the first occasion a foreign delegation was hosted in over three years. North Korea’s economy and its people have felt the severity of the lockdown’s effects. Food shortages have persisted in the country since the famine that killed nearly one-million people in the mid-1990s. Each year, North Korea’s grain production falls about 1 million tons short of feeding the entire population. About half of the shortfall is made up through unofficial trade with China.
During the pandemic, agricultural output fell off while border closures significantly reduced trade with China. For this reason, it is believed that the country is suffering from widespread starvation. Kum Jong Un set solving the food problem as a policy objective for 2023. He did the same in 2021, but the situation only worsened.
While the country is ideologically socialist in practice, it is somewhat of a mixed economy integrating limited aspects of markets and state-capitalism. Kim Jung Un controls export licenses, which are an important source of foreign reserves. However, a small group of elites are granted concessions they can exploit to enrich themselves. The general population is also engaging in some market activity as the government turns a blind eye to the black market helping to fill the gaps created by shortages of food and other necessities.
As the national currency, the North Korean won (KPW) is not particularly useful. Citizens often use dollars, yuan, and euro for black market transactions and as a store of wealth. The combination of tight government controls, shortages, and limited licenses fuels mass corruption. On Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, North Korea scores as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, 171 out of 180.
Society: Pervasive poverty prompts the authority to use state violence
Due to the stranglehold the Communist Party has on civil society, rule of law in North Korea is weak. Property rights, judicial effectiveness, and government integrity score well below the world average according to the Heritage Foundation.
Since the famines of the 1990s, the state’s ability to rule through ideology has faltered, so the state turned to violence to control the populace. This shift in policy is confirmed by the increased number of public executions as well as the expanded roles of the Ministry of People’s Security (MPS), the State Security Department (SSD), and the Military Security Command (MSC).
Additionally, Kim Jung Un’s expansion of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program to keep the country relevant globally has brought more intensive foreign sanctions, which have made the country poorer. With increasing hunger and the diminishing of already-low standards of living, ruling by ideology becomes even more difficult, prompting Kim to use more state-violence.
Information: State-controlled media and imminent cyber-warfare
All North Korean media is controlled by the state as are all means of expression. Foreign media and smuggled in USB sticks, cell phones, and DVDs are strictly prohibited. It is also forbidden to listen to South Korean radio and television programs. To further impede cross border communication, the regime manufactures cellphones that cannot make international phone calls. Despite the risk and harsh penalties, some citizens still dare to glimpse into the outside world. According to a report by the Transnational Justice Group, a human rights organization which interviews North Korean escapees, at least seven people in the past decade have been executed for watching or distributing South Korean K-pop videos.
North Korea’s sophisticated international cyber program which engages in espionage, cybercrime, and hacking is critical to advancing their military efforts. The White House estimates that half of North Korea’s missile program is funded through state-backed cybercrime. In 2016, North Korean hackers exploited the SWIFT system to steal $81 million from the Bank of Bangladesh. Last year, they stole $600 million in cryptocurrency from a video-gaming company in Vietnam as well as $100 million from a California cryptocurrency firm. North Korean hackers also stole $625 million from a Singaporean blockchain technology company.
Beyond Pyongyang’s cybercrime efforts, the country also can attack infrastructure and other sensitive targets in the U.S. or allied nations. This includes attacks on transportation, communication, and financial institutions. Additionally, North Korea employs its cyber program for espionage, pilfering data from media, academic institutions, defense contractors, and government offices and agencies. Frequently, this information is utilized to bolster the progress of Pyongyang’s military and WMD programs.
Infrastructure: Poor amenities disrupt North Koreans’s daily life
Due to a lack of technical know-how and finances, North Korea struggles with infrastructure and has a poor internal transport system. Of the country’s 82 airports, only 39 have paved runways. It has 7 seaports, 25,544 kilometers of roadways, 7,435 kilometers of railways, 2,250 km of waterways, and a merchant marine fleet of 264 vessels. The only registered air carrier is Air Koryo, which maintains 4 aircraft and makes 103,560 passenger flights and 250,000 freight flights per year. North Korea produces no oil and has no proven oil or natural gas reserves. However, it does produce more coal than it uses. It has limited energy production capabilities.
Electric power generation is inconsistent, and the grid suffers from a lack of maintenance and lack of access to replacement parts due to western sanctions. Telecommunications are improving, but in May, the first attempt to launch a military spy satellite into orbit failed. Roughly 5% of the population has a fixed line phone while 25% have cell phones and internet, but the cost is extremely high relative to local wages, making these luxuries inaccessible to most people.
Conclusion: North Korea is a potential war catalyst with China
In a direct conflict, North Korea would not be a match for the United States. The U.S. possesses complete dominance in nearly every category of weaponry, manpower, and economic power. Moreover, North Korea’s economy and infrastructure are so fragile that the country would be unable to sustain weapon manufacturing or provide for its people once a war commences.
The situation, however, changes if China were to enter the war, as it ranks as the world’s third most powerful military. Nevertheless, it remains uncertain whether China would actively engage in combat or simply support North Korea through supplies and funding.
While North Korea’s Hwasong-17 missiles are believed to have the potential to reach the U.S. or parts of Japan, their actual range and accuracy have not been thoroughly tested. Yet, a North Korean attack on South Korea could be utterly devastating.
Furthermore, beyond the scope of conventional warfare, North Korea poses a significant cyber threat to the United States. This threat persists not only during times of conflict but also during periods of peace, with the potential for cyberattacks on critical U.S. infrastructure, communications, and financial networks.
In conclusion, while North Korea’s military capabilities and economic vulnerabilities indicate that the U.S. would hold a clear advantage in a direct confrontation, several factors warrant ongoing vigilance and robust defensive measures. The involvement of China, with its significant military power, poses a potential complicating factor. Moreover, the threat of missile attacks, including the possibility of North Korea's Hwasong-17 missiles reaching the U.S. or parts of Japan, adds another layer of concern. Additionally, the persistent risk of cyberattacks targeting critical U.S. infrastructure, communications, and financial networks demands continued preparedness. To safeguard U.S. national security interests effectively, a comprehensive approach is essential, encompassing diplomatic engagement, strategic alliances, and cutting-edge cybersecurity measures.
TNL Editor: Kim Chan (@thenewslensintl)
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