North Korea's Surprisingly Deadly Navy

The Korean People's Navy can cause a lot of trouble for the South.

There has been much buzz in recent months about a new spate of Korean People’s Navy (KPN, North Korea’s navy) activities. For a navy that was thought to have atrophied since the end of the Cold War for lack of funding, a fleet revitalization program was believed to be unthinkable. Or so it would seem.

It is true that North Korea could not afford a major naval modernization program, despite signs of its economy picking up. Nonetheless, one ought not to overlook incremental upgrades undertaken to date. Pyongyang remains fundamentally interested in sustaining regime security. This is especially the case because North Korea’s persistent economic gap with its southern rival mitigates the likelihood of a second Korean War ignited by a North Korean southward offensive. The regime appears more interested (at least for the time being, while it continues with economic recovery) in consolidating its domestic political stability following the leadership change after Kim Jong-il’s death in late 2011. At the same time, Pyongyang is also focused on deflecting foreign criticisms, especially from Seoul and Washington, about its alleged human-rights violations.

A survey of the North Korean policy discourse highlights a consistent theme: that of a country struggling to maintain its preferred pathway of sociopolitical and economic development premised on the “Juche” self-reliance concept and the “Military-First Policy” against external pressures. Much rhetoric has been focused on the nuke and ballistic-missile programs. The consistent theme surrounding their potential use calls for deterring an American–South Korean northward invasion. Failing which, Pyongyang would unleash an all-out offensive down south. The additional threat issued by Pyongyang is to widen the war beyond the Korean Peninsula in the event of such a contingency by targeting U.S. bases in Japan with missile retaliatory strikes to forestall any reinforcements being dispatched across the Sea of Japan. In times of peace, the role of North Korean nukes and ballistic missiles remains that of deterrence. Under this protective umbrella, however, that is where North Korea’s naval modernization becomes interesting to watch.

Barring a full-scale, renewed war on the Korean Peninsula, the strategic deterrent capabilities possessed by Pyongyang provide a “safety net” that allow the North Korean leadership to engage in the threatened or limited use of force to further its political objectives. In other words, North Korea could still resort to conventional military means to express its displeasure with any American, Japanese or South Korean moves perceived to be detrimental to its national interests. For example, the Yeonpyeong Island artillery shelling episode on November 23, 2010 came after repeated North Korean warnings against South Korea’s live-firing exercises near the contested Northern Limit Line (NLL) in the Yellow Sea. Seoul’s response was limited at best, and it was unclear whether the subsequent silence of North Korean guns on that fateful day was attributed to effective South Korean counterbattery fire.

One cannot lightly dismiss the Yeonpyeong shelling or alleged North Korean sinking of the Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN) corvette Cheonan in March of that same year. These provocations were in no small part emboldened by Pyongyang’s possession of what amounts to a rudimentary nuclear deterrent complemented by its reported significant arsenal of chemical and biological weapons. It is difficult to imagine the peacetime use of North Korean nukes. In times of war, it is also questionable whether this capability would be more decisive than, say, the numerous artillery and multiple-launch rocket pieces forward-deployed in camouflaged, hardened shelters near the Demilitarized Zone. These conventional weapons could rain a hellish barrage on Seoul in the opening hours of hostilities, and cause significant destruction before they are put out of action. Therefore, be it those artillery arrayed against Seoul or nukes or both, under present circumstances, Pyongyang enjoys a rather wide berth to pursue a range of policy options— including limited conventional military provocations— without having to fear significant South Korean and American retaliation.

Amongst various options for low-intensity military provocations, gunboat diplomacy in the Yellow Sea appears to be a North Korean favorite. At the least extreme end of this spectrum, massive wargames are conducted simulating repelling an Incheon 1950s-style amphibious invasion, or more ominously, simulating the capture of South Korean islands along the NLL. At the other end of the spectrum are armed seaborne infiltrations similar to the Gangneung submarine incident in September 1996, which involved direct clashes with South Korean security forces within southern territory. On numerous other occasions, especially close to U.S.-ROK military exercises, KPN patrol forces have crossed the NLL. At times these incidents turn fatal, such as back in June 1999, June 2002 and November 2009, when the KPN and ROKN clashed in the Yellow Sea.