SEOUL – A photo of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un directing a meeting of military officials is generating ripples across South Korea.
The photo, published in North Korean state media on Wednesday, accompanied a story about Kim overseeing a meeting of the Korean Workers’ Party’s Central Military Commission.
So far, so normal.
What raised hackles is that in the background could be seen a map – carefully blurred out – of South Korea’s east coast.
The photo appears at a time when North Korea is on a missile0testing spree, and is making multiple allusions to tactical, rather than strategic, nuclear weapons.
Kim and his handlers are past masters at strategic ambiguity. But Pyongyang’s current development emphasis on shorter-range delivery systems, and related hints in official statements, suggests weapons designed for battlefield use in the Korean theater, rather than cross-Pacific strategic deterrence.
With the Korean Peninsula engulfed in a near-constant conflict of nerves, the photo in question looks like both a crafty feat of psychological warfare and a low-cost deployment of propaganda.
It was reprinted widely in South Korean media, which routinely monitor North Korean media, winning prominent placement in the country’s most widely read newspaper, the Chosun Ilbo, and the leading news agency, Yonhap.
It showed a bespectacled Kim sitting at a table surrounded by officials and officers, examining notes. To his side, a uniformed and bemedaled briefing officer stood beside a map of South Korea’s eastern coastline.
The markings on the map, which looked to be around 3 meters in height and two meters in width, were blurred out.
Northern media said that the meeting discussed “modifying the operation plans” of North Korean army units and “issues related to reorganization of key military organizational formations.”
Pyongyang state media commonly reveal photos and footage of military might – from strategic missiles on transporter-erector-launchers to special-forces assault rifles with oversized magazines. Such photos are eagerly dissected and discussed by Pyongyangologists and arms experts.
More rarely, Kim is shown in front of maps and graphics. In 2017, a year of high tensions with the US, he was photographed in front of a map of Guam, and subsequently, of a chart with missile destinations terminating in Austin, Texas.
With the pro-engagement Moon Jae-in administration having left office in May, to be replaced by the current conservative Yoon Suk-yeol government, at least one South Korean civil servant took Kim’s bait.
“We find it highly likely that [North Korea] will escalate the level of military threat against us, given that it also intentionally released a map showing South Korea’s eastern region,” an unnamed official of South Korea’s Ministry of Unification warned Yonhap.
So why South Korea’s east coast?
The key north-south lines of communication of the Korean Peninsula run up the more densely populated east coast. The capitals of the two Koreas, Seoul and Pyongyang, both sit astride these lines.
The rugged and mountainous northeast coast of South Korea is more sparsely populated. These terrain and population factors have made it vulnerable to infiltration.
Imbalances of forces, battle scenarios
In the 1960s and ’70s, there were multiple firefights in the area between South Korean forces and North Korean infiltrators. In the 1990s, two North Korean mini submarines separately ran aground on the northeast coast. The 1996 infiltration attempt sparked a massive and bloody manhunt.
However, after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, and the dissolution of key supporter the Soviet Union, North Korea’s economy imploded. More promisingly, in the first decade of the 2000s, liberal administrations in Seoul initiated inter-Korean rapprochement.
Amid these trends, North Korean military thinking shifted. With its regular forces unable to afford the high-tech kit US-led coalitions wielded in the Gulf Wars, national funds were instead concentrated on weapons of mass destruction – notably, ICBMs and nuclear devices.
In 2017, serious fears arose of North Korea-US war. Those fears were extinguished by the surprise dalliance between Kim and then-US president Donald Trump. However, tensions returned after Trump walked out of a 2019 summit. In 2021, North Korea announced a new list of weaponry – including tactical nuclear arms.
This year, North Korea has tested a wide variety of short-range delivery systems: hypersonics, train-launched ballistic missiles and multiple-launch rocket systems. There are signs that it is preparing for another nuclear test – quite possibly with a small-yield tactical device rather than the high-yield strategic warheads it has pursued prior.
That could be a game changer – particularly if deployed on the east coast.
As regards invasion scenarios, “the assumption is that the North Koreans would concentrate their main thrust on the west of the country, targeting Seoul,” said Go Myong-hyun, a North Korea watcher at Seoul’s Asan Institute.
“I hear South Korean conventional troops have the upper hand on the eastern front,” Go told Asia Times. “It is possible our troops could push up there – so maybe the North wants to balance its firepower on the eastern front.”
For Kim personally, there is a particular vulnerability: In recent years he has spent considerable time and overseen major investments in the east coast resort city of Wonsan – just north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
But a concentration of North Korean firepower on the east coast would have offensive reasons, too – because of its target-rich environment.
Strategically, South Korea’s Marine headquarters depot is sited in the east coast city of Pohang, while the port city Busan further south is a key reinforcement hub for US troops who would arrive from Japan and elsewhere in the event of hostilities.
Economically, targets on the east coast include the car- and ship-manufacturing center of Ulsan (“Hyundai Town”), as well as nuclear reactors.
Kim rejigs doctrine
In a 2021 Party Congress, North Korea announced that tactical nuclear weapons were on its arms shopping list. These have smaller nuclear yields than strategic nuclear weapons, which can lay waste entire cities, and which Pyongyang already possesses.
Tactical nuclear devices are delivered via battlefield systems – usually tube or rocket artillery. They can be used for “grid-square removal” – that is, denying an enemy a maneuver space – or to obliterate a key target – such as a base, depot, or port – more effectively than conventional explosives.
The expectation among North Korea watchers is that if Kim decides on another nuclear test – and activity has been reported at the underground test site at Punggye-ri – it will be of a tactical, not a strategic device.
“North Korea’s level of nuclear [warhead] miniaturization is estimated to be around 60 centimeters in diameter,” Kim Jung-sup, a senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute, said at a forum in Seoul last week, as reported by Yonhap News Agency. “In order to be mounted on [the nation’s] new tactical guided weapons and hypersonic missiles, like the Hwasong-8, it needs to become even smaller.”
And with new equipment, new doctrine. Kim announced at a military parade this year that his nuclear force “can never be confined to a single mission.”
He continued, “If any forces try to violate the fundamental interests of our state, our nuclear force will have to decisively accomplish its unexpected mission.”
While that statement is a masterpiece of strategic ambiguity, delivery systems are already in place.
As reported by Asia Times in January, North Korea’s testing of hypersonic missiles – against which there is currently no reliable defense – points to a possible shift away from long-range deterrence to short-range offense.
So to return to Kim’s media play on Wednesday: The map at his elbow and the reference to new delegations of command responsibility are – potentially – two more pieces of the puzzle.
“Tactical nukes, and delegating decisions on their use to ground-level commanders, suggests North Korea would deploy tactical nukes to make up for the disparity in firepower on the eastern front,” said Go.
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