North Korea arms naval “gray zone” against the South


After months of relative restraint, the Korean peninsula is experiencing a new arms race. Since announcing the medium-term defense program in 2020, South Korea has ordered a Dosan Ahn Changho-class and conducted a test firing of a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) on September 15. (ROKN) is expected to commission a light aircraft carrier within a few years. North Korea has also tested its new cruise missile, which has traveled around 1,500 km and recently resumed ballistic missile testing after a six-month hiatus. As South Korea prepares for the future wartime operational transfer of control (OPCON) from the United States by acquiring state-of-the-art platforms and strengthening its capabilities for autonomous military operations, there has been a lack of debate on a comprehensive strategy to counter North Korea. conventional and asymmetric military threats.

The strategy is not simply to acquire technological superiority over its adversaries. As Richard Betts defined the strategy, it is a “plan to use military means for political ends”. Before discussing the need for new platforms, experts and practitioners in South Korea should carefully consider North Korea’s military strategy and design suitable operational plans that can best deter North Korean aggression. Because there is no consensus on strategy, South Korea is wasting precious time overcoming internal dissent over the need for certain platforms. Likewise, when South Korea announced its intention to deploy High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) batteries to the United States in 2016, strong national resistance delayed the establishment of related facilities. The root cause of the delay was the lack of strategy, or the lack of a convincing explanation of the need for new defense systems.

This article aims to facilitate discussions on South Korean military strategy by outlining North Korean capabilities and objectives at sea. First, North Korea is absent from a high seas navy and focuses on capability development asymmetric. North Korea has around 700 surface vessels, but most of them are small and old. The bulk of its surface ships are high-speed missile boats and patrol boats, capable of conducting operations only at close sea. The vessels which are considered relatively large are two Najin-class frigates and two Nampo– class helicopter frigates, but the Najin-Class frigates were first introduced in the early 1970s, possessing insignificant armaments, and the Nampo-class frigates cannot be compared to the ROKN Dokdo-class neither the Sejong the Great-Aegis class destroyers. Instead, North Korea has around seventy submarines; his GoraeClass submarines – have demonstrated their ability to launch nuclear-powered SLBMs. What should be at the center of ROKN’s concerns, therefore, are North Korea’s submarine capabilities.

The real question, however, is what North Korea’s objectives are at sea. Compared to South Korea, which has open access to the high seas, not only are North Korean waters separated from east to west. , but they are also obstructed by the existence of South Korea and Japan to the south and east. International sanctions have hampered North Korean imports and exports abroad, and many regimes such as the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) have forced North Korea to resort to illegal maritime transshipment of goods. Additionally, North Korea lacks the naval power to protect its limited maritime lines of communication. Consequently, the North Korean aims at sea cannot be equivalent to the Mahanian concept of “commercial access” on which the American strategy of “freedom of navigation and overflight” is based. On the other hand, North Korea is well aware of its naval modesty and has probably focused on developing “anti-access” capabilities.

North Korea’s submarine force is best suited for the anti-access objective. Today, underwater detection is a formidable task because the seas are very wide and extremely deep. The high-end sonar attached to a few warships and several buoys installed by surveillance aircraft are insufficient for detection. The only viable measure is to maintain close surveillance of the submarines at the dock and to remain vigilant once those submarines are gone. In addition to submarines, North Korea also has twice as many mine warfare ships as South Korea, several coastal artillery guns, and a diverse set of anti-aircraft missiles such as the SA-2 and the SA-5s to prevent the deployment of adversaries. forces in its theaters of operations.

In wartime, these bundles of anti-access technologies pose a significant challenge to US and ROK operations at sea. With multiple layers of defensive capabilities, strategic aerial bombardments and landing operations are becoming increasingly difficult, and aircraft carrier navigation off the coast of North Korea can be too risky. In other words, another “Inchon landing” that reversed the adverse situation of the Korean War will be impossible in the future scenario. Moreover, once an outright war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula, the potential exchange of nuclear weapons will obscure any further tactical considerations.

So, can North Korea’s anti-access capabilities be largely ignored in peacetime? At first glance, North Korean waterways are insignificant as trade routes, and trade traffic is almost absent above the northern dividing lines. Ferries regularly sail north to Vladivostok and fishing vessels operate near the Northern Limit Line (NLL) in the West Sea and East Sea, but entry is strictly prohibited. in pre-designated areas and lanes. China’s anti-access capabilities are particularly threatening since the South China Sea carries around a third of the world’s shipping. However, if the maritime lines of communication near the North Korean coast are insignificant, why should we care about North Korea’s anti-access capabilities which are defensive in nature? Paradoxically, this is because North Korea uses them for offensive purposes.

Enter the concept of “gray area”, a space between peace and war. It also refers to activities which aim to “achieve its security objectives without recourse[ing] direct and significant use of force. In the North Korean context, this is the use of asymmetric anti-access capabilities to drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States, weaken the credibility of the American engagement and possibly drive American forces out of the Korean Peninsula.

North Korea and South Korea are neither at peace nor at war. The Korean War ended in an “armistice” in 1953 but prevented a resumption of war for nearly seventy years. More recently, the two Koreas signed the Comprehensive Military Agreement in 2018 to establish a land / sea peace zone near the demarcation lines. Despite years of relative peace without major war on the peninsula, North Korea is taking advantage of the gray zone to achieve its political ends. The Yellow Sea is particularly cloudy. Since the Commander of the United Nations Command, General Mark Clark, unilaterally enacted the NLL in 1953, North Korea has largely respected the de facto line. But at the military armistice commission meeting in December 1973, North Korea requested prior permission to enter the five islands (Baekryeong, Daecheong, Socheong, Yeonpyeong and U Island) and in 1977, a declared an exclusive economic zone which covered areas under the NLL. In addition to diplomatic protests, North Korea has repeatedly instigated armed skirmishes in the West Sea, culminating in the sinking of the ROKN Cheonan by a miniature submarine in 2010.

After 2010, North Korean gray area operations in the West Sea became increasingly sophisticated. Instead of directly confronting the superior naval forces of the Republic of Korea, North Korea is mimicking the construction of Chinese man-made islands in the South China Sea to build military installations in the disputed waters. Typically, Hambak Island was an uninhabited island prior to 2017, when North Korea began installing military installations. Hambak Island is just 8 km north of South Korean Island U and less than 60 km from Incheon Airport, one of the busiest international airports in Asia. Not much is known about the exact armaments and the purpose of this militarization, but in an emergency North Korea can easily deploy forces near South Korea. In 2015, North Korea also installed coastal guns and artillery on other NLL annexed islands such as Gal, Ari and Changrin Island.

As with the construction of Chinese man-made islands in the South China Sea, North Korea’s militarization of uninhabited islands in the West Sea not only violates the “good faith” of previous agreements with South Korea, but also establishes gradual accomplished facts in disputed gray areas. Seeing that ambiguity, asymmetry and incrementalism are three hallmarks of gray area operations, North Korea is ambiguously using its asymmetric forces to gradually change the status quo without suffering serious repercussions. The ultimate goal is to impose limited costs on South Korea, weaken the extensive deterrence of the United States by engaging in operations that do not respect the stated red lines, and ultimately drive out influence. of the Korean Peninsula. It is for this reason that Song Kim, the North Korean ambassador to the United Nations, called on the United States to “take the first step towards abandoning its hostile policy”, just days after its launch. ballistic missile test.

In short, North Korea fully understands its weak position in the maritime domain and imitates the Chinese revisionist strategy of gray zone operations to gradually overturn the status quo. As such, South Korea must first understand the North Korean strategy and respond with appropriate measures that prevent the achievement of conflicting goals. Recent additions of 3,800-ton submarines, SLBMs and future light aircraft carriers will certainly advance South Korean military capabilities. But let us remember, North Korea fully understands its position of technological inferiority and has nevertheless devised a gray zone strategy to achieve its political ends. What ultimately deters North Korea is a reliable second-strike nuclear capability. Will North Korea be deterred by South Korean conventional SLBMs and a slightly larger carrier than ROKN Dokdo-to classify? These are the questions practitioners must answer before acquiring new platforms and promoting the transfer of OPCON in wartime.


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