North Korea’s Warning: ‘We Are in a War!’ – Expect High-Intensity Provocations
Continued Strengthening of Defense Capabilities
Possibility of New Weapon Reveals and Additional Nuclear Tests
As North Korea defines the inter-Korean relationship as a hostile and belligerent relationship, the possibility of high-intensity provocations in the future is highlighted.
Kim Yo Jong, the deputy director of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea responsible for North Korea’s foreign policy, went on record stating that President Yoon Suk Yeol’s New Year’s speech, which emphasized increased pressure on North Korea, has provided legitimacy and justification for North Korea to expedite its nuclear capabilities. This raises concerns that North Korea may escalate threats and employ various strategies in response.
Yang Wook, a researcher affiliated with the Asan Policy Institute, recently published a report titled ‘2023 North Korean Nuclear Development Status and Assessment: Provocation to Continue in 2024 Amid Strengthening Defense Capabilities.’ In this report, Wook highlights that “North Korea conducted a total of 31 strategic weapon test launches until December 18 of the previous year.” Although this number was slightly lower than the 33 tests conducted in 2022, the country continued to unveil a more comprehensive array of strategic weapons.
Notably, these weapons represent the ongoing implementation of the “Five-Year Plan for Defense Development” proposed by North Korean authorities, which entered its third year in the previous year.
In 2021, North Korea introduced this five-year defense development plan during the 8th Workers’ Party Congress. The plan outlined specific objectives, such as the miniaturization and tactical deployment of nuclear weapons, the development of super-sized nuclear warheads, enhancing the accuracy of long-range missiles reaching up to 15,000 kilometers, the creation of underwater and ground-based solid propulsion intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and the acquisition of nuclear submarines equipped with underwater-launched nuclear strategic weapons.
Researcher Yang further explained, “North Korea declared the successful development of solid-fueled ICBMs through the launch of the Hwasong-18 ICBM three times last year,” and “Additionally, they unveiled new nuclear submarines and underwater nuclear strategic weapons, constituting another set of ‘five major strategic tasks.'”
In fact, over the past year, North Korea introduced an improved submarine named the North Korean submarine Hero Kim Kun Ok, suspected of having the capability to launch submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) alongside Haeil-1 and Haeil-2, which are assessed as nuclear torpedoes.
North Korea is actively investing in acquiring reconnaissance and surveillance assets while also expanding its nuclear attack weapon systems.
According to researcher Yang, “When we consider the nuclear weapon operation strategy as ‘strategic reconnaissance-decision-strike,’ it’s evident that North Korea still has a weakness in strategic reconnaissance.” He added, “North Korea is well aware of this vulnerability. Kim Jong Un issued directives for developing reconnaissance satellites and drones with a cruising range of 500 kilometers during the 8th Party Congress.”
In response to these directives, North Korea has significantly emphasized introducing military reconnaissance satellites in the current year, successfully achieving orbit on the third attempt. Furthermore, in drone development, they unveiled models such as the Satellite-4 type and Satellite-9 type, which emulate the U.S. Global Hawk and Reaper drones.
“North, Possibility of High-Intensity Military Provocation”
From Nuclear Pressure to Conventional Provocation
Need to Keep in Mind
North Korea’s drive to enhance its defense capabilities is expected to persist throughout this year without interruption. In her inaugural speech of the year, Kim Yo Jong referenced President Yoon’s New Year address, where he emphasized exerting pressure on North Korea. She quipped, “We wholeheartedly welcome President Yoon Suk Yeol of the Republic of Korea for his continued ‘unique contributions’ to our nation’s significant military advancements.”
This declaration signifies their intent to pursue illicit nuclear development, exploiting measures aimed at bolstering pressure in response to the North Korean nuclear threat at the U.S.-Korea alliance level. Additionally, North Korea has hinted at potential high-intensity provocations during the party’s plenary meeting at the end of the previous year.
Oh Kyung Sub, the head of the planning and coordination office at the Unification Research Institute, offered insight in a recently published report titled “Kim Jong Un Regime’s Intentions Regarding South-North Relations and Unification Path, along with Potential Responses.” He noted, “Given Kim Jong Un’s characterization of the inter-Korean relationship as a belligerent state of war during the party’s plenary meeting last year, it is anticipated that North Korea will escalate military tension on the Korean Peninsula through high-intensity military provocations against the South.”
Researcher Yang asserted, “North Korea can anticipate a provocation pattern primarily centered around nuclear pressure,” and he foresaw the possibility of them unveiling new strategic weapons, such as conducting a 7th nuclear test and deploying solid-fuel medium-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs).
Of particular concern is the potential for threats like the unveiling of a super-large nuclear warhead model and the prospect of an 8th nuclear test. If the 7th nuclear test focuses on small nuclear warheads, the subsequent test will likely involve super-large nuclear warheads.
Researcher Yang also posited that North Korea might operationalize follow-up measures about the dissolution of the September 19 South-North Military Agreement through the forward deployment of various tactical nuclear missiles and similar actions.
Furthermore, he emphasized, “North Korea may expand beyond nuclear provocations to encompass conventional provocations.” He explained, “Through a hybrid strategy, they could gradually escalate activities such as missile launches, nuclear tests, GPS and communication disruptions, cyberattacks, to instill fear among South Koreans.”
In the worst-case scenario, Yang added, “Conventional force provocations, such as a surprise attack on the Cheonan ship and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, cannot be ruled out.”
“Likely to Embark on Offensive South Operations and Information Gathering”
Intelligence Authorities, Noting the Possibility of Early Year Provocations
With North Korea’s announcement of a ‘cleanup’ of South-related organizations, there is growing concern that their operations may escalate.
Director Oh highlighted that sectors engaged in military-based anti-South activities would witness significant reinforcement. He stressed the importance of monitoring the Reconnaissance General Bureau, established in 2009 through the amalgamation of the Party’s Operations Department, Room 35, and the People’s Armed Forces Reconnaissance Bureau.
Director Oh further stated, “In anticipation of forced unification, North Korea will aggressively conduct anti-South operations and gather information.” He emphasized the need for the National Intelligence Service and the police to enhance their anti-communist investigative capabilities significantly.
In a related context, the National Intelligence Service, in a year-end press release, warned, “North Korea is likely to engage in military provocations early in the upcoming year, coinciding with major political events in South Korea.” They drew attention to reassigning key figures responsible for anti-South provocations to military and operational agencies.
Previously, North Korea appointed Kim Young Chol, the person responsible for the Cheonan ship and Yeonpyeong Island incidents, as an advisor to the United Front Department in June of the preceding year. In August of the same year, Ri Yong Gil and Park Jong Chon, who were in charge of the DMZ wooden box mine provocation, were appointed as the Chief of the General Staff and the Director of Military Affairs, respectively.
The National Intelligence Service disclosed, “Following the ICBM (Hwasong-18) launch on the 18th of last month, Kim Jong Un directed his close associates to ‘prepare a plan that could create a significant impact in South Korea early next year.'” They affirmed their readiness to counter any early North Korean provocations, collaborating with relevant agencies.