The Regime That Will Not Die: The North Korean Hybrid Threat

North Korea remains a threat to the United States and South Korea, and policy options are limited.

By Bradley Martin
March 25, 2013

After attempts to launch missiles, repeated nuclear detonations, and threats to attack the United States, citizens and international relations scholars have turned their eyes upon North Korea. While the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is widely seen as a Cold War relic, in reality, it is a complex and multi-dimensional hybrid threat with various warfare capabilities at its disposal. These capabilities endanger South Korea and also American forces located in the region.

Hybrid threats are characterized by conventional, asymmetric, and cyber capabilities, or are enemies that can use all forms of war−all of which North Korea possesses. While much has been made of the age of North Korean military equipment, it has a large conventional army with significant numbers of tanks, armored vehicles, and artillery poised for a quick strike or unleashing massive artillery barrages on Seoul. In both instances, significant casualties would occur. North Korea also possesses significant short-to-medium range missiles, such as SCUD missiles and the No Dong missile family. Fortunately for the region, North Korean efforts to develop long-range inter-continental ballistic missiles have been limited.

North Korea remains dedicated to expanding its weapons of mass destruction capabilities, which many believe include significant stockpiles of chemical weapons and the ability to produce biological weapons. Unfortunately, due to the limited information available, few accurate determinations can be made about the exact composition of its chemical or biological weapons stockpiles. A significant step for North Korean nuclear development has included evolving from somewhat crude plutonium nuclear devices to more advanced highly enriched uranium weapons. However, it appears the DPRK’s most successful efforts to create weapons of mass destruction include scientific partnerships as well as trade in missiles and nuclear technology with Iran and Syria.

North Korea’s illicit activities allow the regime to generate revenue to support government elites as well as augment and enhance its military technology. These activities include large-scale efforts to counterfeit American currency, narcotic trafficking, and counterfeit cigarette distribution networks. The DPRK’s asymmetric warfare capabilities include small submarines known as “midget submarines” that can be used to insert spies and special forces into South Korea or to attack South Korean naval vessels, such as what occurred with the South Korean corvette, Cheonan. Additionally, the country has previously constructed tunnels and extensive bunker systems, which the terrorist group Hezbollah used against Israel in the 2006 conflict.

The last capability North Korea possesses is a limited but growing cyber component. While none of its capabilities are as advanced as China’s, the DPRK is suspected of using its cyber warfare unit of 3000 people for launching cyber attacks against South Korean government and banking websites, and most recently media outlets.

Due to the cost of conventional military forces and continuous American defense commitments to South Korea on the high end of the use-of-force spectrum, North Korea is likely to expand its capabilities by improving its stockpile of weapons of mass destruction. On the low end of the use-of-force spectrum, North Korea will likely continue its efforts at developing asymmetric and irregular warfare capabilities, including special-forces and cyber-attack capabilities, to continue to harass and subvert South Korean and American interests.

Policy options for the United States remain limited. Any consideration of preemptive attacks is unlikely, as this course of action would subject South Korea to significant counter-attack. Furthermore, the foreign policy blunders in Iraq and Afghanistan have left American policy makers weary of intervention. Conversely, North Korea is not likely to conduct a conventional attack on South Korea because of the possibility of South Korean and American counter-attack. This leaves a policy of containment of North Korea’s actions as the most likely outcome, which means the Korean Peninsula will likely remain a tense powder keg, creating difficulties for residents of the region, diplomats, and military planners. While North Korea is not an existential threat to the United States, its actions can threaten American allies and interests in Asia through its complex hybrid capabilities.

Bradley Martin is a graduate of the Master of Security Studies Program at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas (M.S.S, December 2012). He also holds a Graduate Certificate in Terrorism and Counterinsurgency Studies.

Photo courtesy of Retlaw Snellac via Flickr.

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