SEOUL | Their Soviet-style uniforms and goose-stepping parades through Pyongyang may make the Korean People's Army (KPA) appear outmoded, but defense experts warn that the North Korean military is a strategic threat and will soon be equipped to target the U.S. mainland.
Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, whose weeklong tour of Asia brings him to Seoul on Friday, said this week that North Korea’s nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles are “becoming a direct threat to the United States.”
Speaking in Beijing on Tuesday, Mr. Gates told reporters after talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao that he thinks Pyongyang could develop a “limited capacity” to hit the U.S. mainland “within five years.”
North Korea has detonated nuclear devices twice, in 2006 and 2009, and has tested a range of ballistic missiles over the past decade, though none are yet able to cross the Pacific Ocean.
North Korea is probably the most heavily militarized society on earth. Pyongyang’s “songeun” (military first) policy prioritizes the military in national affairs, allowing the KPA to maintain 1.1 million regular troops among a population of 23 million. By contrast, South Korea fields 680,000 troops from a population of 48 million, with 28,000 U.S. troops in support.
The KPA also boasts missiles that can reach any point in Korea or Japan with nuclear weapons. It has one of the world’s largest artillery forces, with some 14,000 tubes and launchers, many dug in within range of Seoul.
The third key element of the North Korea military threat triad is its estimated 200,000 special-force commandos.
While some experts say the KPA — underequipped, low-tech in capability and lacking fuel to carry out maneuvers — is a hollow force, other specialists point to its strong motivation and deep operational focus.
“Compared to any Western army, the KPA is essentially an obsolescing military, but its troops are amazingly well disciplined,” said Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., editor of the KPA Journal. “There are cases where fathers and sons have served in the same units, and those units have trained for the same mission for decades.”
They have proved effective. In 1968, the spy ship USS Pueblo was captured in the Sea of Japan, and special forces from North and South clashed along the demilitarized zone. In infiltration missions in 1968 and 1996, KPA special forces, cut off in the South, fought with skill and determination.
After 2010’s two fatal attacks — the sinking of a South Korean warship and the shelling of a South Korean island - the peninsula is as tense as at any time since 1968, said Choi Jin-wook, of the Korea Institute of National Unification.
With angry officials in Seoul reluctant to engage Pyongyang in negotiations, most experts do not expect the KPA’s next provocation to be a matter of if, but rather when. And it is likely to be covert.
“My expectation would be something with plausible deniability,” said Daniel Pinkston, who heads the Seoul office of the International Crisis Group. “Something like a cyber-attack, a biological attack or special forces disguised as terrorists attacking infrastructure — some kind of low-level harassment.”
North Korean special operatives launched an attack on South Korea’s presidential mansion in 1968, bombed the South Korean Cabinet during a visit toYangon, Myanmar (then known as Rangoon, Burma) in 1983, and blew up a South Korean airliner in the Middle East in 1987. Although North Koreans were captured and confessed after each event, Pyongyang denied any responsibility.
The hard-line state also denies any role in the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan in March, when 46 sailors died, even though an international investigation determined a North Korean torpedo sank the ship.