Tag Archives: North Korea

Call for Articles: North Korea

By Dmitry Filipoff

Week Dates: May 29-June 2, 2017
Articles Due: May 24, 2017
Article Length: 1000-3000 words 
Submit to: Nextwar@cimsec.org

North Korea’s ongoing ballistic missile development program and nuclear testing has continued unabated despite international sanctions and pressure. A highly-secretive state with thousands of tons of chemical weapons, a populace cut off from the world, and over a million men under arms, North Korea poses a grave challenge for any attempting to shape its behavior or contain its potential collapse.

How could a military contingency unfold and what are its considerations? How does the U.S.-China relationship affect North Korea? How could North Korea resolve its strategic predicament? Submissions can answer these questions and more to help understand and mitigate the threat North Korea poses.

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at Nextwar@cimsec.org

Featured Image: A flag with a portrait of North Korea’s late leader Kim Il Sung is displayed as soldiers march during a massive military parade at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang, North Korea, Wednesday, April 25, 2007, to mark the 75th anniversary of the Korean People’s Army. (AP Photo/Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service) 

Sea Control 112 – Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper

Australia’s Defence White Paper, submarines and scotch? Sounds like a recipe for a fun time.

Prime Minister of Australia, the Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP, launches the 2016 Defence White Paper at the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) in Canberra. *** Local Caption *** On 25 February 2016, the Prime Minister, The Hon Malcolm Turnbull, MP, and the Minister for Defence, Senator The Hon Marise Payne released the 2016 Defence White Paper, the Integrated Investment Program and the Defence Industry Policy Statement. Together, these three documents set out the Government's direction to Defence to guide our strategy, capability, and organisational and budget planning.

Get ready for a special joint episode with the Perth USAsia Centre’s Perspectives podcast series. In this episode, Kyle Springer, Program Associate at the Perth US Asia Centre, asks Natalie Sambhi, host of Sea Control: Asia Pacific, and Reed Foster, retired US Army officer and defence capabilities analyst at IHS Jane’s, to share their thoughts on the newly-released Australian Defence White Paper 2016. Kyle asks whether Australia faces any conventional threats, and the trio also discusses major capability acquisitions planned by the white paper including submarines, international engagement with countries like the US and Indonesia, and ponders a hypothetical scenario posed by a ballistic missile-capable North Korea.

This week’s episode features the guests sipping on Bowmore 12-year old Scotch Whisky.

CIMSEC Australia Defence White Paper 2016

Image courtesy of the Australian Department of Defence.

North Korea and Asymmetric Naval Warfare

By Paul Pryce

In recent years, several detailed analyses have been produced on Iranian efforts to develop the doctrine and capabilities necessary to wage ‘asymmetric naval warfare.’ This has involved preparing the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN) and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Navy (IRGCN) to wage a kind of insurgency in the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf, employing ‘swarming’ tactics with well-armed small boats and fast-attack craft along with naval mines, submarines, and anything else that might allow Iran to exploit the vulnerabilities of a technologically superior enemy like the United States Navy (USN). In 2008, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy released an excellent example of this analysis less than a year after IRGCN forces captured 15 British Royal Navy personnel that had been operating in Iraqi waters.

Yet there are few detailed analyses of whether the Korean People’s Navy (KPN) – the maritime force of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) – could similarly employ asymmetric warfare to counter the technological superiority of the Republic of Korea (ROK) and its US allies. This is particularly surprising when one considers how Iran has only recently begun to develop such asymmetric capabilities since its mining of the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq War, which saw significant damage to the guided missile frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts in April 1988. The DPRK, meanwhile, has been contending with a capability gap against its southern adversary for far longer. Although IRIN must divide its attention somewhat between the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea, the KPN is truly split into two distinct fleets, one concerned with the Yellow Sea to the west and the other concerned with the Sea of Japan to the east. Simple geography prevents the KPN from ever truly consolidating its forces. This extends, of course, even to shipbuilding, with many vessels in the Eastern Fleet originating at Wonsan Shipyard and much of the vessels in the Western Fleet originating at Nampo Shipyard.

Helped along by the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the decline in availability of Russian military equipment, it seems the DPRK has set about developing its own defence industry and is producing new vessels that, while clearly unable to square off against ROK counterparts, could prove effective at waging asymmetric warfare at sea. Well-suited to swarming, the Nongo-class fast attack craft, which appears to be 35 metres long and displace 200 tons, could harass ROK and USN vessels. Rare glimpses of this vessel in DPRK propaganda footage suggest that the Nongo-class is equipped with a turret-mounted 76mm gun, possibly reverse-engineered from the Italian-designed OTO Melara 76mm, along with a complement of Russian-produced Zvezda Kh-35U subsonic anti-ship missiles.

Nongo class missile boat.
Nongo class missile boat.

The prominence of submarines in KPN modernization efforts is also telling. The old Romeo- and Whiskey-class diesel-electric submarines received from the Soviet Union are being phased out in favour of some domestically produced designs. Satellite imagery as recent as July 2014 indicates North Korea is building a submarine with a length of 65.5 metres and a displacement of between 1,000 and 1,500 tons, which has been dubbed the Sinpo-class, for addition to its East Fleet. South Korean media sources, such as Yonhap News, claim that the design is reverse-engineered from a Soviet Golf-II diesel-electric submarine and could deploy ballistic missiles. Others, like the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, believe the design to be based on older Yugoslavian designs like the Heroj- and Sava-classes. However, little else can be discerned about the lone vessel of this class spotted in satellite imagery.

The most compelling aspect of KPN asymmetric warfare to date is the continued prevalence of the Yeono-class midget submarines. First introduced in 1965, these vessels require a crew of only two to operate but can carry six or seven passengers, proving useful for DPRK covert operations against South Korea and Japan. With a submerged displacement of 130 tons and a length of approximately 20 metres, each is armed with two 533mm torpedo tubes. It is believed that a Yeono-class submarine fired the torpedo that sank ROKS Cheonan, one of South Korea’s Pohang-class corvettes, in March 2010. Although the KPN reportedly has only ten Yeono-class submarines left in operation, the attack on ROKS Cheonan demonstrates how such a weapon, deemed obsolete by Western standards, might still present a very real threat to network-centric navies like that of the ROK.

CNO Admiral Jon Greenert visits the Cheonan memorial in May 2013. U.S. Navy photo.
CNO Admiral Jon Greenert visits the Cheonan memorial in May 2013. U.S. Navy photo.

The North Koreans are not alone in recognizing the potency of midget submarines like the Yeono-class. Since 2007, Iran has acquired 14 submarines of this class and is domestically producing its own derivative of the design, known as the Ghadir-class. The convergence of Iranian and North Korean naval doctrine underscores the need for further analysis of the latter’s intentions, capabilities, and potential impact on the security of the Korean Peninsula’s littorals. The KPN’s Soviet submarines and swarms of small Kusong-class torpedo boats might have once seemed to American and South Korean defence planners to be sufficiently straightforward a threat to counter. But the vessels described here demonstrate that the DPRK is adapting to its strategically disadvantaged position and lack of technological sophistication.

This is particularly problematic for the ROK Navy, which has focused so heavily in recent years to attain blue-water status. According to the analysis of Vice Admiral (retired) Yoji Koda of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, the ROK has limited anti-submarine warfare capabilities. In this sense, the Yeono-class perfectly exploits one of the ROK Navy’s most glaring capability deficits. Satellite imagery may have picked out a vessel as substantial as the Sinpo-class, but what might it miss? Based on the successful engagement against ROKS Cheonan, it would not be a surprise if the DPRK were actively working on a new design based on the Yeono-class. Such small vessels would not be spotted as readily as a 1,500 ton submarine openly berthed at Sinpo South Shipyard.

Another area of some uncertainty regarding DPRK asymmetric capabilities is minelaying. Naval mines were of significant importance to the KPN during the Korean War – so much so that 70% of the casualties suffered by USN vessels during that conflict were due to mines laid by DPRK forces. Yet subsequent research suggests those mines were laid with significant Soviet guidance and training, and it would be a stretch to assume DPRK mine warfare has gained much in sophistication since then. There are also no indications whether the KPN currently operates dedicated minelaying vessels. In the absence of such, DPRK mine warfare would certainly be inefficient but it could, in the most desperate of circumstances, even employ civilian vessels in such a role. For example, during the Korean War blockade of Wonsan, the DPRK made use of local sampans as minelayers. It would be wise of the ROK Navy to not bet on that scenario and invest in improved mine countermeasures.

The DPRK is among the most secretive regimes and so detailed information on its military capabilities is scarce as has been indicated here. Yet what little can be prised from open source information shows that the DPRK is at least as advanced as Iran in its ability for asymmetric warfare at sea. It is vital that further attention be paid to the evolution of the KPN so that, first and foremost, incidents like the sinking of ROKS Cheonan are not repeated, but also to ensure that any potential intervention by the international community against the DPRK proceeds without significant loss of life or assets for the ROK and its allies.

Paul Pryce is Political Advisor to the Consul General of Japan in Calgary and a long-time member of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC). He has previously written as the Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Maritime Nation Program.

The Republic of Korea Navy: Blue-Water Bound?

By Paul Pryce

Defence Reform Plan 2020 (DRP2020), originally set out in 2005 by the Republic of Korea’s (ROK) Ministry of Defence, presents an ambitious vision for future military capabilities. For the Army, this will mean personnel reductions – specifically a total drop in troop strength from 690,000 in 2005 to 500,000 by the end of 2020 – in an effort to promote a more modern, professional force. For the Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN), meanwhile, this has meant a shift in the focus of procurement projects so as to attain the status and prestige of a blue-water navy’. In other words, the ROKN will seek expeditionary capabilities, operating across the deep waters of the open oceans, rather than concentrating on its traditional role of securing South Korean littorals against intrusion by the military forces of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) or foreign fishing vessels.

But is such a shift from a green-water navy to blue-water possible? Furthermore, is it desirable, given the ROK’s strategic situation? To understand the evolution of this still relatively young navy, it is worthwhile consulting a resource compiled by another regional partner. Particularly valuable insights can be found in a paper produced for the US Naval War College in 2010, entitled “The Emerging Republic of Korea Navy: A Japanese Perspective,” by (retired) Vice Admiral Yoji Koda, who formerly served as the Commander-in-Chief of the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force and interacted considerably with his ROKN counterparts from 1997 onward. VADM Koda briefly charts Korean naval history, starting from actions of Yi Sun-shin at the Battle of Myeongnyang in 1597 that thwarted a Japanese invasion, but his accounts of force modernization and expansion efforts by the ROKN since the 1990’s are the most detailed sections of the paper and will be of most interest for readers wanting to know what role the ROKN might play in the increasingly complex security order of the 21st century Asia-Pacific.

VADM Koda highlights two concerning capability gaps faced by the present-day ROKN: anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and mine countermeasures (MCM). On the first point, although the ROKN maintains a robust force of fast patrol craft to counter clandestine intrusions by North Korea, “the ASW posture of the ROKN still remains questionable today, in relation to the perceived threat of North Korean submarines and the geopolitical nature of the country.” Despite evidence suggesting that the Pohang-class corvette ROKS Cheonan was sunk in March 2010 by a torpedo launched by a North Korean submarine, there have been no compelling efforts by the ROKN to shore up its ASW capabilities. Perhaps the only saving grace for ROKN ASW has been, according to VADM Koda, the acquisition of three ASW-capable Gwanggaeto the Great-class destroyers in 1998-2000 and a small fleet of Westland Lynx helicopters. Though the ROKN is not without its own submarines – specifically four Sohn Won-yil diesel-electric submarines and nine Chang Bogo-class diesel-electric submarines – these are geared toward anti-surface warfare (ASUW).

The ROKN’s MCM capability has also been diminished by the decommissioning of coastal minesweepers donated by the United States following the Korean War. At the time of VADM Koda’s writing, the ROKN minesweeper fleet consisted of only three Yangyang-class coastal minesweepers and six Swallow-class coastal minehunters, which he deemed “not yet sufficient for the current security and military situation around the peninsula”. However, the ROKN seems to have recognized this vulnerability to the DPRK’s own doctrine of asymmetric warfare; in 2015, the ROKN launched the first vessel of the Nampo-class, a domestically built minelayer, and plans are in place to produce several new minesweepers based on the design of the Yangyang-class in the coming years. Even so, the ROKN could not solely carry out an MCM role in a future conflict on the Korean Peninsula – VADM Koda identifies the Tsushima Strait as vital to the logistics of any multilateral response to North Korean or Chinese aggression against the South. Unfortunately, no formal agreement currently exists between the Japanese and ROK authorities about conducting combined military operations, which would be crucial to ensuring a clear division of labour on MCM, with the ROKN securing the western end of the Tsushima Strait and the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force (JMSDF) locking down the eastern channel. This stems from several ongoing political disputes between Japan and the ROK, including the status of Tsushima Island (known as Daemado Island in the ROK). The dispute over the island has persisted since 1948 and shows little sign of reaching a final resolution.

Korean Ship sails in formation at the end of Exercise Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2006. U.S. Navy photo.
Korean Ship sails in formation at the end of Exercise Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2006.

The ROKN has demonstrably obtained blue-water capabilities. As the paper notes, ROK President Lee Myung-Bak approved the establishment in 2009 of the Cheonghae Anti-Piracy Unit and its deployment to the Gulf of Aden in support of Combined Task Force 151. A few months later, the ROK joined the Proliferation Security Initiative. New, domestically built surface combatants, such as the Sejong the Great-class destroyers and Incheon-class frigates, possess impressive capabilities and the capacity to project South Korean power beyond the country’s coastal waters. The ROKN has also succeeded in expanding its amphibious capabilities, particularly through the commissioning of its first Dokdo-class amphibious assault ship in 2007 and the replacement in 2014 of aging US-transferred landing ships with the new Cheon Wang Bong-class. VADM Koda interprets this interest in amphibious capabilities as a reaction to the “bitter experience” obtained when the ROKN “found itself unable to participate sufficiently in the multinational relief operations on northern Sumatra, in Indonesia, after the earthquake and tsunami in December 2004”.

In short, while the paper cites ample evidence to believe the ROKN is on course to become a blue-water navy (and perhaps already has), the country’s policymakers and defence planners should pay more thought toward the objectives they wish their maritime forces to fulfill. Boasting the blue-water label and participating actively in humanitarian operations abroad may benefit national prestige, but North Korea remains a paramount security threat. It is clear that the ROKAF assesses its own capabilities as so vastly superior to their DPRK opponents that another attempted invasion of the South would be impossible, and this can be seen in the ROKN’s focus on the quality of landing craft over quantity. But the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan demonstrates that the ROKN ignores ASW and MCM capabilities at the peril of its brave sailors.

Paul Pryce is Political Advisor to the Consul General of Japan in Calgary and a long-time member of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC). He has previously written as the Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Maritime Nation Program.