Right on Cue, North Korea Testing Ballistic Missiles, as Predicted by DIA

No sooner had the Defense Intelligence Agency issued its North Korean Military Power report, in which it predicted Pyongyang would resume ballistic missile tests, than North Korea did exactly that, lofting a submarine-launched ballistic missile Oct. 19.

The test, in which an SLBM launched from the port of Sinpo into the Sea of Japan, was detected and characterized by South Korea, which said the missile attained an altitude of about 40 miles, traveling about 280 miles downrange. Japan said two missiles were fired.

U.S. Indo-Pacific Command issued a statement saying it is “aware” of the missile launch and that “we are consulting closely with the Republic of Korea and Japan, as well as other regional allies and partners.” The U.S. “condemns these actions” and calls on Pyongyang to “refrain from any further destabilizing acts.” INDOPACOM assessed that the missile doesn’t pose an immediate threat to U.S. personnel or territory, or that of its allies, and said it will continue to monitor the situation. The U.S. commitment to the defense of South Korea and Japan “remains ironclad,” INDOPACOM said.  

The DIA, in its Oct. 15 report, said, “it is possible we could see a test of a long-range missile” from North Korea “over the next year.” Even if such tests were not forthcoming, “Pyongyang will probably focus on training and improving its missile forces, which are increasingly central to North Korea’s deterrence strategy,” the DIA said.

The report reiterates DIA’s previously stated assessment that North Korea is focusing on ballistic missiles—and its nuclear program—to deter the U.S. from an attack. The asymmetric strategy emulates some of Russia’s approach to national security since the end of the Cold War, substituting weapons of mass destruction for conventional capability. The DIA judges North Korea’s conventional power to be extremely large but increasingly obsolete, especially compared to U.S. and South Korean forces on the peninsula, hence the emphasis on the asymmetric strategy.

Pyongyang continues to pose a “critical security challenge” to the U.S. and its allies, the DIA said. The North Korea report is patterned after the Pentagon’s “Soviet Military Power” assessments of the 1980s, which it has revisited in recent years with similar reports on China.

North Korea has claimed that it’s conducted other missile tests in recent weeks, including that of a hypersonic missile, called the “Hwasong 8,” in September, although U.S. Strategic Command could not verify that. The United Nations has barred North Korea from conducting long-range ballistic missile tests or pursuing a nuclear weapons program. The last time Pyongyang conducted a long-range, land-based ballistic missile test was in November 2017, and its last known nuclear test was two months before that.  

North Korean President Kim Jong Un’s “vision” for his nation’s military is to have an ability to “directly hold the United States at risk” and compel it to make policy decisions “beneficial to Pyongyang,” DIA director Lt. Gen. Scott D. Berrier said in the report.

The DIA said North Korea’s asymmetric strategy includes cyber espionage, cyber theft, and cyberattacks on “critical infrastructure” in adversary countries. Though North Korea appeared to be on the brink of collapse 30 years ago—suffering a three-year famine that killed “almost a million people”—it endures against all odds, the DIA said, becoming “a growing menace” to the U.S. and its allies in the region.  

North Korea’s huge conventional forces are capable of a “high-intensity, short-duration attack on the South with thousands of artillery and rocket systems.” This capability could cause “thousands of casualties and massive disruption to a regional economic hub.” Kim Jong Un has put “overriding priority” on military investments, to the detriment of all other economic sectors, the DIA said.   

Conventionally, the North Korean military is suffering from accelerating obsolescence, according to the DIA. Given that the opening round of any conflict across the 38th parallel will likely be fought in the air, the DIA judges Pyongyang’s aircraft and air defense systems as decades out of date. The most advanced fighters in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) military are 1980s-vintage, Russian-made MiG-29s, which, along with a lot of 1970s and earlier aircraft, comprise the bulk of the nation’s air force. Together with ground-based, “primarily fixed, but transportable” air defense missile batteries, they are capable of “basic air defense operations.” The DPRK air force would “struggle to penetrate South Korean air defenses in an attack role.”

Pyongyang fields 900 combat aircraft, 200 transports, and 300 helicopters, the DIA said. The most modern gear is clustered around Pyongyang itself. “The capital has one of the most dense concentrations of [anti-aircraft artillery] in the world,” the report noted.

Along with the MiG-29s, North Korea has some Su-25 Frogfoot attack jets and MiG-23 Flogger interceptors. The bulk of the air force is “much older,” and the country is “one of the only air forces in the world that still operates MiG-21s, MiG-19s, MigG-17s, and MiG-15s,” the latter of which date back to the Korean War.

The bulk of air defense missile systems are Soviet-era SA-2s, SA-3s, SA-5s, and SA-13s. The latter, though a “double digit” surface-to-air missile system, is a vehicle-based system designed to hit aircraft at “medium to low altitudes,” the DIA said. The rest are systems the U.S. defeated 30 years ago in the 1991 Gulf War.

Some new systems are being introduced in very small numbers. “During a 2020 military parade, North Korea first displayed a new mobile SAM launcher and accompanying radar that externally resembled the Russian S-300 and Chinese HQ-9,” the DIA noted.

North Korean pilots only get about 15-25 flying hours a year, so their proficiency is extremely basic.

Though the industry was capable of assembling combat aircraft from kits supplied by Russia and China in the 1980s and 1990s, “that capability has waned,” the DIA judged.

To maintain “its dated force,” North Korea must rely on “cannibalization and the purchase of spare parts from overseas markets.”

Pyongyang has a very basic capability to build “small to medium” unmanned aerial vehicles, mostly based on Chinese designs, and is importing others. Some of these have been used for “reconnaissance missions over South Korea and which could be equipped with rudimentary armaments,” according to the report, which notes these have GPS-waypoint navigational capability. A sole exception to the older UAVs is one based on the American MQM-107D Streaker, “that probably was acquired from Middle Eastern sources.” Pyongyang is expected to graduate to larger UAVs in the near future.

North Korea’s aircraft industry generally is limited to building airplanes, “such as the Cessna 172,” the DIA asserted.

Though Kim and President Donald Trump held a summit meeting in 2018, committing to a “denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula, with the aim of a “lasting and stable peace regime,” there’s no evidence that Kim is abiding by that goal, the DIA said.

“In the following years, North Korea tested multiple new missiles that threaten South Korea and U.S. forces stationed there, displayed a new, potentially more capable, ICBM and new weapons for its conventional force,” Berrier said in his foreword to the report. Pyongyang will continue to be “a challenge” for the U.S. for years to come, he said.