About Defense Tech

Defense Tech examines the intersection of technology and defense from every angle and provides analysis on what’s ahead.

Tip Us Off

Tip for Defense Tech?

SEND IT!

It’s Confidential!

Those Nutty Norks

Dissident Web Site Reports Kim Jong Il Ordered North Korean Military Prepare for Combat

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

According to this Bloomberg report, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il broadcast a message last week to the North Korean military telling it to prepare for combat. The content of that broadcast, that Kim issued apparently issued a warning order to his military, first hit wires last night.

A web site run by former computer scientists who have defected from the North, called North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity, reported the broadcast. South Korean officials said they couldn’t confirm the report because Kim broadcast the message on a closed circuit radio the South can’t monitor.

Of course, threats from Kim are nothing new. But with South Korea and the U.S. preparing for joint naval exercises near where the Cheonan was sunk by a North Korean torpedo on March 26, things could easily get out of hand as the uber-paranoid and rather nutty Kim feels backed against a wall.

– Greg Grant

U.S. and South Korean Officials Say Nork Torpedo Sank Cheonan

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

I’m not sure how this one will break. As Robert Farley over at the Information Dissemination blog says, the South Koreans probably knew the cause of the Cheonan’s sinking shortly after it went down, and for political reasons have been playing it cool. Very cool. We’ll have to see how this plays out, but I’m amazed at the measured rhetoric coming from South Korean officials.

STRATFOR’s take is that South Korea has limited military options because of Seoul’s well known vulnerability to North Korean rocket and artillery strikes and basic economic vulnerabilities that would result from a major dust up on the peninsula. Planned economic engagement with the north will almost certainly suffer, the private intel network says. An unintended consequence of the Cheonan sinking: an overdue modernization of the South Korean military, including new ISR assets and newer ships.

– Greg

NORK Mine May Have Sunk South Korean Ship

Monday, March 29th, 2010

I’ve hesitated to write anything on last Friday’s sinking of a South Korean navy ship until official word came out from one of the parties involved. Today, South Korea’s defense minister said he is not ruling out the chance that a North Korean mine may have sunk the 1,200 ton missile corvette Cheonan. According to the AP, 58 crewmembers were plucked from the sea and 46 Korean sailors are still missing.

North Korean military officials said the exact cause would not be known until the ship was salvaged. Rough waters hindered rescue efforts, but today divers were able to reach part of the rear hull, where some survivors were thought to be located, but there was no response from hammering on the hull.

The AP story says 3,000 Soviet made mines were planted by North Korea since the 1950s in the disputed waters around the peninsula, though most were cleared. A mine was last found in 1984. Joshua Stanton, over at the One Free Korea site, providing some of the best updates on this emerging story, surmises that its unlikely the mine was a leftover; more likely that it was recently placed.

– Greg

Kang Nam 1 Mystery Trip

Thursday, July 2nd, 2009

kang-nam1.jpg

Underway for two weeks now, North Korea’s unimposing merchant ship Kang Nam 1 continues her mystery trip through the South China Sea at a sedate 10 knots. I expect this is for better fuel economy but not because her captain or Kim Jong Il want to be green. According to the Associated Press, anonymous U.S. intelligence sources said on Tuesday that she altered course back north and is now about 250 miles south of Hong Kong.

Kang Nam 1 is believed by some Western authorities to possibly be bound, or at least originally have been bound, for Myanmar with an export shipment of conventional arms — maybe mortars, or perhaps missile parts. Herein lies the rub. After Kim’s second-ever atom bomb test in May, the UN passed a resolution, binding on all member states, which gives the appearance of establishing a quarantine against maritime transport of arms or nuclear-related items for sale by the DPRK. But the resolution lacks teeth. If Kang Nam 1 can somehow make it to a friendly destination (Myanmar, or back to her starting point of Nampo, or somewhere else) without refueling in a third-party pro-UN port such as Singapore, nothing stands in her way.

A U.S. Navy spokesman indicated a lack of good data on both the ship’s fuel mileage and the capacity of her fuel tanks, though presumably experts can make basic estimates. It’s unclear to me from public accounts whether Kang Nam 1 was provided before departure with extra fuel, a large cache of which could simply take the form of fuel drums crammed into some of her holds. It’s also unclear what might happen if she’s met in international waters, in reasonably calm weather, by another North Korean-flagged ship, civilian or naval, that could conduct a primitive but effective underway replenishment. Kang Nam 1 has been trailed from beyond the horizon by a U.S. Navy destroyer, but the U.S. is proceeding very cautiously about making any sort of demand to board and inspect the cargo.

David Sanger of the New York Times suggests that Kang Nam 1’s voyage might be a provocation designed to embarrass America. I’m inclined to agree. Sean McGuire of Reuters hints that increasing leaks of outside reality into North Korea could undermine the credibility of Kim’s strident anti-U.S. rhetoric among his own people, weakening his power. To dramatically innoculate the populace against such “external disinformation” would give Kim ample motive to have set up Kang Nam 1 as bait in an elaborate propaganda trap.

(more…)

How M.A.D. is Kim Jong Il?

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

nork-teapo.jpg

A June 18 AP story reports that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) plans to launch a Taepodong-2 ballistic missile toward Hawaii in early July — possible on July 4.

The missile has a maximum range of 4,000 miles, and so will land at least 500 miles short of Hawaii. Coming so soon after Kim Jong Il’s second-ever nuclear test on May 25, one wonders what the isolated and eccentric Communist dictator is really up to.

Some analysts have said that the nuclear test, in defiance of international pressures, was intended mainly for its effect on domestic DPRK politics. Kim recently annointed his younger son, little-known Kim Jong Un, as his successor, in what pundits describe as a peculiar North Korean-style Communist dynasty. If founding father of the North Korean state, Kim Il Sung, can be labeled Kim I (“Kim the First”), that makes Kim Jong Il become Kim II. His second son, now elevated to crown prince, would then become Kim III when ailing Kim II dies, which might be soon. As one sign of the raising of Kim Jong Un within North Korean politics and society (the two are closely related), he was recently granted a special name, “Brilliant Comrade,” similar in tone to his father’s “Dear Leader.“

In understanding Kim II’s real motives behind these dramatic weapon tests, we need to remember that he wants what he wants, not what we think he wants or ought to want. To fail to focus on the infamously enigmatic Kim solely from his own perspective is to commit “mirroring” — always a mistake in modern geopolitics.

Much of the time, a dictator’s top priority is to maintain his/her own power. In the case of an actual or de facto monarch, there is also a powerful drive to keep the throne within the family, for a dynasty that goes on for many generations. If Kim Jong Il is acting now like King Kim II, which he has been for years to some degree, he may be thinking now as King Kim II as well. The self-imposed isolation of his well defended country would be one element of the throne’s self-perpetuation. Establishing a clear heir to the throne would be another.

A very important third would be the need for foreign exchange monies with which to feed and clothe his people — and with which to keep his military happy enough to maintain him and his offspring in power forever. A big international concern is that Kim II might sell a working, weaponized nuke to terrorists, perhaps for the “black market going rate” of $100 million. In these monarchical terms, his goal in doing so would be to refill the royal coffers for a while.

If the second underground nuke test was a weird form of fireworks celebration for Brilliant Comrade’s annointment, the impending ICBM test might be a gesture demanding international respect for this Kim Dynasty, combined with what could well be a gesture intended as a ransom note in a case of global nuclear blackmail — more properly, of grandiose extortion.

Why wouldn’t China offer to buy out any nukes that Kim II might move close to selling, perhaps at a price of two or ten times the going rate for the ilk of al Qaeda? Beijing could simply provide to Kim Jong Il, as “foreign aid,” a few briefcases full of a tiny fraction of the U.S. Treasury bonds they own. This would be a bargain, compared to the benefits to ultra-ambitious and autocratic China of maintaining peace and stability in Asia and preventing the global destabilization that a terrorist nuke blast would surely create. After all, China continues to show some disregard for human rights, so why should it care overly much for the welfare of Kim II’s subjects? Foreign aid like this would actually or at least potentially improve the welfare of those subjects.

(more…)

Epic Fail: North Korean Bottle Rocket Assumes Underwater Trajectory

Sunday, April 5th, 2009

kim jong il.jpgNorthern Command reports:

North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command officials acknowledged today that North Korea launched a Taepo Dong 2 missile at 10:30 p.m. EDT Saturday which passed over the Sea of Japan/East Sea and the nation of Japan.
Stage one of the missile fell into the Sea of Japan/East Sea. The remaining stages along with the payload itself landed in the Pacific Ocean.

Sounds like the second stage never separated –or ignited– giving the birdie about as much thrust as a slab of granite. Hence the splish-splash just east of Japan. No doubt if we were the shooters, we’d call it a catastrophic success. Bureaucracy!
I’m sure the only people more disappointed than the Nork regime are our friendly neighborhood MDA suits, who were counting on the launch to calibrate their radars and to remain relevant.
Quote of the day, from the most righteous Arms Control Wonk blog: Oh-for-three. These guys really suck.
–John Noonan

Real Korea Worry: Chem-Bio

Tuesday, October 17th, 2006

North Korea’s newly-tested nuke is bad news, for sure. But the bigger worry, says Popular Mechanics is the “huge arsenal of mass casualty weapons” that Kim & Co. have been assembling for 45 years: biological and chemical arms.
vstory.us.clean.ap.jpg

While it would be foolish not to be gravely concerned about North Korea’s purported development of an offensive nuclear capability, the actual threat for the foreseeable future is, arguably, minimal. North Korea’s threadbare economy (it has a GDP of $40 billion — compare that to California’s gross state product on $1.55 trillion per year) is incapable of maintaining an effective nuclear weapons program. Its nuclear science is at best second rate and, certainly, is second hand.
In contrast, as one North Korea expert explained to me, CBW is mass destruction on the cheap. “Biological and chemical weapons are very inexpensive, many, many times cheaper than nuclear.” Another expert gave this grim assessment: “The use of anthrax is a distinct possibility for this nation [North Korea]…“
The consensus among weapons inspectors, intelligence analysts, academics and others I have interviewedwhich is backed up by the available open source material-is that North Korea has developed anthrax, plague and botulism toxin as weapons and has extensively researched at least six other germs including smallpox and typhoid. It is also believed to have 5,000 tons or more of mustard gas, sarin nerve agent and phosgene (a choking gas). The Center for Nonproliferation Studies says North Korea ranks “amongst the largest possessors of chemical weaponry in the world.” South Korea’s military estimates half of North’s long-range missiles and 30 percent of its artillery are CBW capable…
Yet the West’s myopic obsession with North Korea’s nuclear efforts has allowed this far more real and equally lethal threat to escape into the shadows: a WMD program, backed by in excess of 13,000 specially trained troops, capable of devastating its southern neighbor, attacking U.S. troops in Asia and disrupting the regional economy in ways that could see the U.S. and other western nations plunged into crisis.
Yes, the new [United Nations] resolution 1718(2006) includes a reference to biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction, but only as an afterthought, and the resolution exists only because of the nukes and their perceived threat. Unfortunately, in this case, as with others, the world is overly focused on a potential retina-searing nuclear detonation, without properly appreciating the very clear-and-present CBW killer that exists just a virtual button’s push away from Kim Jong Il’s perfectly manicured fingernails.

If the whole thing sounds a little hysterical to you, chem-bio guru Jason Sigger says: get real. The story is “100 percent right in regards to N. Korea. And you can extend that argument to China, Iran, Syria, Israel, Pakistan, and India, and potentially in the near future (because of Iran), Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and others.”

Seriously, I see this all the time in the “combating WMD” community. The arms control and counterproliferation people talk “WMD” but the subtext is “nuke.” Even the majority of the consequence management tasks are now “dirty bomb” or “improvised nuclear device” scenarios… [the] mentality is [that] nukes are the only thing that can drastically affect US military power in any region of the world.

But there are other threats, too.

Nork Test: No Big Whoop?

Friday, October 13th, 2006

“There is no question that the political and security implications of the [recent North Korean nuclear] test are huge and almost entirely negative,” writes Ivan Oelrich, over at the Strategic Security Blog. “The technical significance of the test is somewhat less than meets the eye.“
puppet3.jpg

[A week ago,] the outside world knew that the North Koreans had plutonium available from fuel rods that had been removed from the reactor at Yongbyon. We knew that at least some of the plutonium had been separated out of the fuel rods and, since separation is a fairly straightforward process, it was a fair assumption that most or all of the plutonium had been separated. So we knew about their plutonium supply (and the test tells us nothing more about that), but another key question remained: Could they fashion the plutonium into a bomb?
…Before the test, we did not know whether the North Koreans could build an implosion bomb or not. Had the test been successful, we would now know that they could, although we would still not know how close they were to a useable weapon; their test device might have weighed tons and been a once off, rigged up, laboratory experiment. But the test was not successful, so we still dont know whether the North Koreans can build a workable implosion bomb. Presumably the North Koreans learned something from the test so the probability of the next test being successful is somewhat higher than the probability that the first test would have been successful. This is not much of difference, leaving us in pretty much the same position we were in before the test…
Why might the test have failed? An implosion bomb uses conventional high explosives to compress plutonium until it becomes critical, that is, it will sustain a run-away chain reaction. The pressure from the conventional explosives has to be carefully controlled, for example, it must be symmetric or else it is like squeezing a ball of putty: pressure on one side doesnt compress the plutonium, it just squirts it out the other side. The most likely reason for the failure is some problem with the compression and there is any number of reasons why the compression might not be adequate. If the test were carefully instrumented (which is not necessarily the case), the North Koreans should be able to narrow down the cause, which will give them a much improved chance for success with their next test.

UPDATE 10/14/06 11:20 AM: “Initial environmental samples collected by a U.S. military aircraft detected signs of radiation over the Sea of Japan, possibly confirming North Korea’s nuclear test,” the Washington Post reports.
UPDATE 10/15/06 7:06 PM: “The proposition that the apparently low yield of the test is a failure is not self evident,” says Defense Tech pal John Pike, pointing to this Weekly Standard piece. After all, Pike notes, the yield on the American B61 nuke can range anywhere from a third of a kiloton to more than 350 kt.
UPDATE 10/15/06 7:23 PM: No excerpt will do justice to this epic retelling of North Korea 50-year quest for the Bomb. So just go and read the whole thing.

Big War Machines Pushed for Korea Fight

Tuesday, October 10th, 2006

There are still a whole heap of unknowns, in the wake of North Korea’s nuclear test. But here’s something you can take to the bank: every admiral, every Air Force general, and every Congresscritter with a big, hulking, weapon system is going to crow about how his gazillion-dollar machine is the key to fixing the Korean problem.
ddxs.jpgEven before Kim’s October surprise, Air Force officials like Maj. Gen. Charles Dunlap Jr. were railing against “boots-on-the-ground zealots” and “neo-Luddites” who “quot[e] counterinsurgency manuals from the horse cavalry era.” Instead, Dunlap insisted, we should be pouring money into “air power our most effective national security component.“
With the Army lobbying for a bigger chunk of the Pentagon budget, expect the volume on these Air Force and Navy-first screams to be turned up several notches in the months to come. Wanna shell the Norks’ nuke facilities from way out in the sea? Then you need a big ol’ DD(X) destroyer to do the shelling. Attacking from the air? For that, you just have to have a next-generation, long-range bomber. Oh, and a whole bunch of conventionally-armed Trident ballistic missiles, too. And so on…
Of course, “American air units in South Korea, Japan, and the United States, plus the US Third and Seventh Fleets, are available to blockade North Korea and strike at targets of opportunity” today, Arms and Influence notes.

However, it remains to be seen what opportunities for punitive and disarming strikes exist, or what the North Korean response would be… The facilities are too dispersed, often in the worst kind of geography for precision bombing, mountainous terrain. Even if the US were able to hit every North Korean nuclear and production facility, the obvious question would be, What’s next?
We can predict at least one immediate consequence: a North Korean attack on South Korea. Whether the North Korean army tries to seize control of the South, or merely retaliate with conventional and chemical artillery attacks on Seoul and other population centers, the US would need ground forces to take the next step: eliminate the North Korean government. Even with its nuclear fangs removed, the North Korean government would remain a menace to the South, and perhaps would have reasons to try for one last gamble to end the decades-long stalemate on the Korean peninsula…
The United States has an impressive array of carrier battle groups, attack submarines, tactical air assets, and strategic bombers that it can hurl at North Korea. However, the last several years have taught Americans an important lesson about warfare: your own strength matters far less than what you actually do with it.

UPDATE 4:39 PM: The Herald-Tribune has a good rundown of just how piss-poor the Norks’ conventional forces really are.

The military in North Korea is by far the largest consumer of the countrys scarce resources. But even so, its combat jet pilots get only about two hours of flying time a month, its soldiers sometimes have to grow their own food, and much of its equipment is old and outclassed by that of its neighbors. According to South Korean and Western experts, if a conventional war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula, the best the North Korean military could manage would be to fight to a bloody stalemate.
It is the deep insecurity born of these shortcomings, the experts say, and not any desire to grab attention or gain leverage, that drove President Kim Jong-ils decision to defy international warnings and declare this week that his country had tested a nuclear weapon.

Nork Fallout: Asia Arms Race?

Tuesday, October 10th, 2006

So here we are, 36 hours later, and everybody is still talking about North Korea’s nuclear test. But despite all the nervous chatter, not much has changed, at least in the short term. (Down the road is a much different story.)
China-japan.jpgCondemnations of the Norths brazen act aside, China is no more willing now than they were last week to risk a collapsed regime on their border — it almost assures a flood of refugees and a US military ally sharing a border with China. The USs options are similarly limited even if we know where all their nuclear sites are, its unlikely wed be willing to bet that the unpredictable Kim regime wouldnt retaliate against Seoul. That leaves us to do what weve gotten good at with North Korea: issuing a strong condemnation and then hoping that CNN switches back over to coverage of Jon Benet Ramsey.
The only big potential short term implication is if the international community demonstrates that this test was a fake, or a dud. Then the North will be forced to up the ante to compensate for the embarrassment (just as the nuke test was to compensate for the humiliating failure of the July long range missile test).
The real impact of the Kim’s nuclear trial is in the long term. That’s when things have the potential to get extremely scary. Not only do you get the possibility of the Norks throwing a nuclear yard sale for terrorists. But for Japans new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, it energizes his push to strengthen Japans security capacity like nothing else could have. Abe had already appointed a number of fellow conservatives in Foreign Ministry and Defense positions in the cabinet, hes declared his intent to modify the constitutions limitations on Japanese military capacity, and he mooted the possibility for a Japanese pre-emptive strike against North Korea in the aftermath of the July missile tests. The pacifist nature of Japans constitution is reasonably well-ingrained in Japanese political culture, and he would have met a lot of resistance in these moves. That resistance will be drastically weakened by the North Korean test. From there, its a short logical step to the usual scenarios of a Sino-Japanese arms race in East Asia. And there’s only one word for how that scenario plays out: Gulp.
Matthew Tompkins