Here's What You Need to Remember: North Korea poses a tremendous threat to its neighbors, and to the United States. But poverty has made it difficult for the DPRK to acquire the weapons it needs to compete militarily with these countries. Make no mistake; North Korean scientists and engineers have done an extraordinary job with the nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
North Korean weapons engineers have done remarkable work with remarkably little. Fortunately, North Korea has been largely cut off from the international arms market for a long time, even from suppliers such as China and Russia. While North Korean industry is not primitive, it cannot support the development of multiple modern military systems. South Korea, on the other hand, has taken great advantage of the international arms market, acquiring technology from foreign powers, defraying costs through joint projects, and exporting weapons in order to earn hard cash and create economies of scale.
If North Korea somehow regained access to these markets, and if it could manage the resources necessary to acquiring new weapons, what would it want?
As much as anything, North Korea requires an integrated air defense network that can identify and defeat incoming threats. At present, North Korea sports an air defense network that combines imported Soviet technology (mostly from the 1960s) with indigenously developed equipment. In combination with dense anti-aircraft artillery and a variety of small, portable systems, this network could give the United States pause, if not seriously pose a threat to U.S. airpower.
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But North Korea could very much use a modern SAM defense system, such as the Russian S-400 or the Chinese HQ-9. An advanced long-range air defense system could even reach into South Korea, threatening U.S. and ROK staging areas as well as civilian air traffic. A modern defensive system could also effectively be used for offense, giving Pyongyang yet another tool for badgering South Korea and the United States.
Pyongyang has displayed an interest in UAV technology since the early 1970s, and began producing its own drones in the 1990s. Over time, the DPRK has acquired a number of drones from international sources, allowing it to integrate foreign technology into its own production lines. At present, North Korea has a small fleet of drones dedicated to surveillance, scouting, and (relatively unsophisticated) attack, along with a system of command and control for managing those UAVs.
North Korea’s drone program could benefit enormously from a direct infusion of technology from China or Russia. China in particular has enjoyed remarkable success on the international drone export market, and the transfer of larger, more capable drones to the Korean People’s Army (KPA) could jumpstart the organizations transition to becoming a twenty-first century military force. The KPA could also use some assistance integrating drones into its force structure, which Chinese or Russian advisors could undoubtedly provide.
North Korea operates a great many submarines, but none of them have any modern characteristics. The DPRK produces some small boats domestically, but has a legacy fleet imported from China and the Soviet Union. Although dangerous in their own way, this flotilla does not compare favorably with that of similarly positioned foreign navies.
The North Korean submarine force could very much use a new, modern boat. Although the basic design is growing long in the tooth, a Russian Kilo-type would substantially increase the range, effectiveness and lethality of Korean People’s Navy (KPN). Alternatively, the KPN could acquire new, advanced boats from China. New submarine technology would also make it easier for North Korea to develop its own underwater nuclear deterrent.
North Korea’s fighter fleet is ancient and undercapitalized. Moreover, modern fighters are probably more difficult to design and build than ballistic missiles, or nuclear weapons for that matter. North Korea’s air force could desperately use any kind of modern fighter, from the more advanced versions of the Su-27 family to any of the recent fighter aircraft developed by China. Even the JF-17, a modern derivative of the MiG-21, would help substantially. Such aircraft would not necessarily equalize the competition with Seoul, but they would make the DPRK’s air force less of a joke.
Moreover, access to international markets would also give North Korea a chance to take advantage of modern avionic upgrades that would bring its air force into the current century. Training and doctrine would remain a problem for as long as the DPRK is strapped for cash, but modern simulator software and hardware could go some distance towards resolving even those problems.
North Korea has taken great advantage of its reputation for recklessness, whether or not it has earned it. Anti-satellite weaponry would fit well into North Korea’s arsenal of disruptive weapons. Such weapons would serve two purposes. First, they might lessen the advantage that South Korea, Japan and the United States have in the theater. North Korea does not depend on satellite communications for its military effectiveness, but these other countries do. Second, the capacity to destroy satellites would offer North Korea yet another means of elaborately displaying its contempt for international society. The destruction of satellites runs the risk of creating vast debris fields that result in “no go” areas in near space, which is the sort of thing most countries shy away from. But Pyongyang has long exhibited a tolerance for this kind of behavior.
To be sure, even advanced militaries struggle with anti-satellite technology. But as this technology matures, North Korea is in many ways ideally positioned to threaten U.S. dependence on space-based military assets. Moreover, anti-satellite weaponry could leverage the DPRK’s growing expertise in the design and production of ballistic missiles.
North Korea poses a tremendous threat to its neighbors, and to the United States. But poverty has made it difficult for the DPRK to acquire the weapons it needs to compete militarily with these countries. Make no mistake; North Korean scientists and engineers have done an extraordinary job with the nuclear and ballistic missile programs. But the world is quite lucky that the DPRK has been cut off from the international market for sophisticated weapons. However the Trump administration decides to deal with North Korea, keeping Pyongyang isolated from the arms market should remain a central policy goal.
Robert Farley, a frequent contributor to the National Interest, is author of The Battleship Book. He serves as a senior lecturer at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky. His work includes military doctrine, national security and maritime affairs. He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money, Information Dissemination and the Diplomat.
This first appeared in 2017 and is being reposted due to reader interest.
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