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.
Against opaque attacks - which could undermine international investors' confidence in the South's economy and would test the leadership of President Lee Myung-bak — retaliation options are limited.
"A secret attack, which disguises the author of the crime, is very hard to identify," said Mr. Choi. "In that kind of case, it is very difficult to answer what we would do."
The South has been historically unable to respond effectively against such operations, but if the KPA attacks openly — as in November's shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, during which four people died — South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin has indicated he would upgrade retaliation.
The danger would be whether the North would then retaliate against the response, sparking a cycle of escalation.
"If you are the South, you have to have escalation dominance. It must be clear to North Korea that they are going to pay a higher price," said Mr. Pinkston. "I am not confident that the South is prepared for that."
Seoul is disadvantaged in that situation: It has to safeguard its economy, which is subject to global capital markets; it is beholden to its people and to international pressure; and it has to answer to its public for the lives of its own troops. None of these conditions hinder Pyongyang's freedom of action.
Still, South Korean public opinion has hardened against the North.
"After the Cheonan, we saw division in South Korean public opinion, but after Yeonpyeong, the public felt very different," said Kim Tae-woo, of the Korea Institute of Defense Analyses. "There was a feeling that patience is not the way to protect the national interest."
There was public uproar over Seoul's ineffective response to the Yeonpyeong shelling. Satellite photos indicate that South Korean counterbattery fire against KPA artillery did not hit any of the launch systems involved in the fatal barrage.
The South is refortifying its five front-line islands close to the disputed "northern limit line" in the Yellow Sea, and the defense minister has strongly hinted that future southern retaliation would include airstrikes.
"If they attack again, we will retaliate without fail," Mr. Kim said. "And that has the possibility to trigger bigger conflict."
A spiraling escalation would raise the nightmare scenario of the resumption of full-scale hostilities on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea has threatened to use nuclear weapons if war breaks out. Global financial markets would be devastated in a Korea-based conflict because Northeast Asia is the world's third-largest zone of economic activity, after North America and Western Europe.
What's more, the United States, signatory to a mutual defense treaty with South Korea, would be dragged in, and U.S. naval and Marine personnel in Okinawa and Tokyo also could be involved.
The KPA's Achilles' heel might be its conventional forces' command and control and its offensive sustainability.
"They know that their division is tasked to take that hill and that town — day one, day two, day three — until they get to Busan [South Korea]," said Mr. Bermudez. "What happens when this gets all screwed up? Their command-and-control network is weak and, as best we can tell, their greatest weakness is their inability to handle the unexpected."
Moreover, with the North's shortage of fuel and vehicles, the KPA would lose momentum the further south it penetrated as its supply lines absorbed near constant attack from U.S. air forces.
Yet while U.S. Marine Corps and Army air-mobile forces could — theoretically — outmaneuver the one-dimensional KPA, a U.S.-South Korean victory is not a foregone conclusion, said Mr. Bermudez. KPA special forces, targeting ports, airports and transport hubs, would try to prevent U.S. forces from reaching the battlefield.
"If they can degrade reinforcements, they have a small window of opportunity to overwhelm the South Korean defenses, capture a major portion of the peninsula and force a negotiated peace," he said.
Even if air-mobile troops do deploy, they would face the North's bristling air defenses, Mr. Bermudez said, citing the prominence of anti-aircraft weapons in Pyongyang military parades.
And although North Korea has not yet managed to convert atomic materials into warheads, and its missiles are, as yet, unable to reach the continental U.S., its nuclear threat can be delivered closer to home — such as by ship — to strategic effect: Nullifying U.S. Marine deployment.
"What if North Korea tells Japan, 'If you support the Americans, you become a target?' and then they pop a nuke in Sea of Japan?" Mr. Bermudez said. "It would cause a great deal of debate and that could paralyze Japanese support for the United States, just long enough to make a difference."
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