SEOUL — A photo of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un leading 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, completely normal.
What made you cringe was that you could see in the background a map – carefully blurred – of the east coast of South Korea.
The photo comes at a time when North Korea is testing missiles and makes multiple allusions to tactical rather than strategic nuclear weapons.
Kim and his masters are masters of strategic ambiguity. But Pyongyang’s current development emphasis on shorter-range delivery systems, and related allusions in official statements, suggest weapons designed for battlefield use in the Korean theatre, rather than for Trans-Pacific Strategic Deterrence.
With the Korean peninsula engulfed in a near-constant clash of nerves, the photo in question looks like both a shrewd feat of psychological warfare and a low-cost propaganda deployment.
It was widely reprinted in South Korean media, which regularly monitors North Korean media, gaining pride of place in the country’s most read newspaper, the Chosun Ilbo, and the main news agency, Yonhap.
It showed a bespectacled Kim sitting at a table surrounded by officials and officers, reviewing notes. Beside him, a uniformed and medal-winning information officer stood next to a map of South Korea’s east coast.
The markings on the map, which appeared to be about 3 meters high and 2 meters wide, were blurred.
Northern media said the meeting discussed “the modification of operation plans” of North Korean army units and “issues related to the reorganization of major military organizational formations”.
Pyongyang’s state media often reveals pictures and images of military power – 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 weapons experts.
More rarely, Kim is shown in front of maps and charts. In 2017, a year of high tensions with the United States, he was photographed in front of a map of Guam, then a map with missile destinations ending in Austin, Texas.
With the pro-engagement Moon Jae-in administration leaving office in May to be replaced by current conservative government Yoon Suk-yeol, at least one South Korean official has taken Kim’s bait.
“We think it is very likely that [North Korea] will escalate the military threat level against us, given that he also intentionally released a map showing the eastern region of South Korea,” Yonhap an unnamed South Korean Unification Ministry official warned.
So why the east coast of South Korea?
The main north-south lines of communication on the Korean peninsula run up the more densely populated east coast. The capitals of the two Koreas, Seoul and Pyongyang, both straddle these lines.
The rugged and mountainous northeast coast of South Korea is less populated. These terrain and population factors made it vulnerable to infiltration.
Force imbalances, battle scenarios
In the 1960s and 1970s, there were several exchanges of fire in the region between South Korean forces and North Korean infiltrators. In the 1990s, two North Korean mini-submarines ran aground separately 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 the main supporter of the Soviet Union, North Korea’s economy imploded. More promisingly, in the first decade of the 2000s, liberal administrations in Seoul initiated an inter-Korean rapprochement.
Amid these trends, North Korean military thinking has changed. With its regular forces unable to afford the high-tech kit that US-led coalitions used during the Gulf Wars, domestic funds have instead been focused on weapons of mass destruction, including ICBMs and devices. nuclear.
In 2017, serious fears arose regarding the war between North Korea and the United States. Those fears were extinguished by the surprise banter between Kim and then-US President Donald Trump. However, tensions returned after Trump left a 2019 summit. In 2021, North Korea announced a new list of weapons, including tactical nuclear weapons.
This year, North Korea has tested a wide variety of short-range delivery systems: hypersonic, train-launched ballistic missiles and multiple-launch rocket systems. There are signs that he is preparing for another nuclear test – most likely with a low-yield tactical device rather than the high-yield strategic warheads he has pursued before.
It could be a game-changer, especially if it’s deployed on the east coast.
As for the invasion scenarios, “the assumption is that the North Koreans would focus their main thrust on the west of the country, targeting Seoul,” said Go Myong-hyun, a North Korean observer at Reuters. Seoul Asan Institute.
“I hear that South Korean conventional troops have the upper hand on the eastern front,” Go told Asia Times. “It’s possible our troops could push up there – so maybe the North wants to balance their 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 resort town of Wonsan on the east coast, just north of the demilitarized zone (DMZ).
But a concentration of North Korean firepower on the east coast would also have offensive reasons – due to its target-rich environment.
Strategically, the South Korean naval headquarters depot is located in the east coast city of Pohang, while the southern port city of Busan is a key reinforcement hub for incoming US troops. of 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 redirects doctrine
At a Party congress in 2021, North Korea announced that tactical nuclear weapons were on its weapons list. These have lower nuclear yields than strategic nuclear weapons, which can devastate 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 elimination” – i.e. denying an enemy space to maneuver – or to annihilate a key target – such as a base, depot or port – more effectively than conventional explosives.
North Korea watchers expect that if Kim decides to conduct another nuclear test – and activity has been reported at the Punggye-ri underground test site – it will be a device tactical and non-strategic.
“North Korea’s nuclear level [warhead] the miniaturization is estimated to be about 60 centimeters in diameter,” Kim Jung-sup, senior researcher at the Sejong Institute, said at a forum in Seoul last week, as reported by Yonhap news agency. “To be mounted on [the nation’s] new tactical guided weapons and hypersonic missiles, like the Hwasong-8, it must become even smaller.
And with new equipment, a 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 attempt to violate the fundamental interests of our state, our nuclear force will have to decisively accomplish its unexpected mission.”
While this statement is a masterpiece of strategic ambiguity, delivery systems are already in place.
As Asia Times reported in January, North Korea’s testing of hypersonic missiles — against which there is currently no reliable defense — points to a possible shift from long-range deterrence to short-range attack.
So, to return to Kim’s media piece 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 nuclear weapons and the delegation of decisions on their use to ground-level commanders suggests that North Korea would deploy tactical nuclear weapons to compensate for the disparity in firepower on the eastern front,” Go said.
Follow this writer on Twitter @ASalmonSeoul