Update to Congress on Military, Political Developments in North Korea

The following is the Sept. 15, 2022, Congressional Research Service report, North Korea: September 2022 Update. From the reprort For more than 30 years, 16 Congresses and 6 presidential administrations have struggled with North Korea’s (officially the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea, or DPRK) advancing nuclear weapons and missile programs, human rights abuses, sponsorship […]

The following is the Sept. 15, 2022, Congressional Research Service report, North Korea: September 2022 Update.

From the reprort

For more than 30 years, 16 Congresses and 6 presidential administrations have struggled with North Korea’s (officially the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea, or DPRK) advancing nuclear weapons and missile programs, human rights abuses, sponsorship of cyber-attacks and cyber-crime, and threats to U.S. regional allies. As Members of Congress seek to shape and oversee U.S. policy toward North Korea, they may wish to consider a number of developments that have occurred since nuclear talks collapsed in 2019.

The Biden Administration says it is pursuing a “calibrated, practical approach” that “is open to and will explore diplomacy with North Korea” to eventually achieve the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. The Administration appears to envision offering partial sanctions relief in exchange for partial steps toward denuclearization. Its approach appears to be in alignment with that of South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, who assumed office in May 2022 and has hardened Seoul’s stance toward the DPRK. Since Yoon’s inauguration, Washington and Seoul have shifted their emphasis from diplomacy to deterrence, for instance by expanding the size and scope of bilateral military exercises. They also have offered Pyongyang unconditional humanitarian assistance, and Yoon has pledged to provide large-scale economic assistance if North Korea “embarks on a genuine and substantive process for denuclearization.”

Pyongyang largely has ignored attempts by the Biden and Yoon Administrations, and their predecessors, to resume dialogue and has rejected offers of humanitarian assistance, including COVID-19 vaccines. Meanwhile, North Korea reportedly has continued to produce fissile material for weapons. It also has continued to test missiles of various ranges and capabilities, including more than 30 ballistic missiles since the start of 2022, in violation of United Nations Security Council (UNSC) sanctions. The tests appear to have advanced the reliability and precision of its missile forces, and improved its ability to defeat regional missile defense systems. In March 2022, North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) for the first time since 2017. Many observers see evidence that North Korea is preparing to conduct its seventh nuclear weapons test. It has not tested a nuclear device since 2017.

The United States has responded to North Korea’s missile tests by introducing new unilateral sanctions designations, dispatching U.S. military assets to Northeast Asia, and working with the Yoon Administration to expand U.S.-ROK deterrent activities and to reinvigorate trilateral cooperation with Japan. In June 2022, the Senate passed the Otto Warmbier Countering North Korean Censorship and Surveillance Act of 2021 (S. 2129) that, among other steps, would require the State and Treasury Departments to report annually to Congress on U.S. government sanctions-related activities and enforcement.

North Korea has undertaken these activities despite signs that its economy has contracted significantly since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since early 2020, the North Korean government has largely closed the country’s borders and imposed restrictions on economic activities. Between January 2020 and January 2022, North Korea’s official trade, which already had been reduced to a trickle due to sanctions, fell by nearly 90%. The difficulty of importing food and agricultural products during the border shutdown, combined with poor weather, appears to have exacerbated North Korea’s chronic food shortages. The U.N. estimates that over 10 million North Koreans, roughly 40% of the population, are undernourished. However, there are few outward signs that North Korea’s economic difficulties are threatening the regime’s stability or are compelling North Korea to pursue engagement with the United States.

Download the document here.

NORTHCOM: U.S. Needs New Ballistic Missile Interceptor by 2028 to Keep Pace with North Korea

The United States needs to deploy its Next Generation Interceptor by 2028 or sooner to keep pace with North Korea’s accelerating ballistic missile program, most recently demonstrated in Pyongyang’s successful test-firing of an intercontinental ballistic missile Thursday, Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck told the Senate Armed Services Committee. While saying he was “comfortable with where […]

Kim Jong Un in front of a the North Korea intercontinental ballistic missile. KCNA Photo

The United States needs to deploy its Next Generation Interceptor by 2028 or sooner to keep pace with North Korea’s accelerating ballistic missile program, most recently demonstrated in Pyongyang’s successful test-firing of an intercontinental ballistic missile Thursday, Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

While saying he was “comfortable with where we are today based on the intelligence I have,” the commander of U.S. Northern Command said “going forward, I do believe that [the North Koreans] could exceed my capacity and capabilities.”

Thursday’s ICBM test was North Korea’s first since 2017, but the 12th missile test this year.

State Department spokesman Ned Price condemned Thursday’s missile launch as a violation of “multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions.” It also occurred as President Joe Biden was meeting in Brussels with European Union leaders and NATO allies over next steps in confronting Russia following its invasion of Ukraine.

At the hearing, VanHerck stressed he was referring not only to the 20 Next Generation Interceptors fielding on time or earlier, but also the importance of keeping at least 44 Ground-Based Interceptors operational during that time.

The current 44 interceptors, based at Fort Greely, Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., are undergoing surface life extension programs.

The pace and capacity of Pyongyang’s ballistic missile capacity means “the funding for the service life extension program for the current ballistic missile defense capability is so crucial.” In written testimony, VanHerck mentioned that submarine-launched ballistic missiles and ICBMs were indicators of North Korea leader Kim Jong-un’s continued investment in advanced systems.

Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander U.S. North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command, delivers his remarks during the USFFC change of command ceremony aboard USS George H. W. Bush (CVN-77) on Dec. 7, 2021. US Navy Photo

Several times during the hearing, VanHerck stressed the importance of passing budgets on time to keep programs like the Next Generation Interceptor on schedule. Under continuing resolutions, programs like that are held to the previous year’s spending levels. If they were not part of the budget then, they are put on hold.

This year Congress passed an omnibus spending bill earlier this month, more than four months after the start of Fiscal Year 2022. The administration is expected to submit next year’s budget Monday.

In written testimony, VanHerck, who also serves as head of the U.S.-Canadian North American Aerospace Defense Command, said the rapid growth of North Korea’s missile program also requires “Long Range Discriminating Radar in Alaska to achieve full operational capacity on schedule.”

The two six-story sensors were in place and ready for testing late last year to better monitor North Korean activities.

When asked about the command’s ability to defend against hypersonic weapons systems he said, “I cannot defend, nor am I tasked to defend, against a hypersonic glide vehicle attack.” He added Russia has the capability now to hold high-value targets in Canada and the U.S. at risk through its arsenal of air- and sea-based conventional cruise missiles.

VanHerck said these weapons underline the need for all-domain awareness from subsea to space and the ability to determine whether, if launched, these missiles are carrying conventional or nuclear payloads. He called them “threats to the continuity of government” if the intelligence was wrong over what type of payload the missiles carried.

On the Arctic Defense Initiative, he said he is waiting for the release of the administration’s Fiscal Year 2023 budget – expected Monday – before completing work on the congressionally-requested product, to see how much money is pledged to that region’s security needs. VanHerck added he expects to turn the report in this summer.

The initiative is patterned after similar ones for Europe and the Pacific.

Saying “we must be persistent” in the Arctic, VanHerck told the panel that while work is progressing on expanding the port of Nome, Alaska, to handle Navy and Coast Guard vessels to operate on longer deployments or be stationed in the High North, the port must be dredged to 40 feet, not 30, to handle these ships.

As the situation stands now, the only Alaskan port that can now meet that requirement is Dutch Harbor, about 800 miles to the south of Nome. The deeper port would be essential to the operation of the Coast Guard’s planned six Polar Security Cutters.

The command is working with Canada on infrastructure requirements in its Arctic to better secure the region. “Operating in the Arctic is a challenge,” VanHerck said. But it is becoming an increasingly important locale for transportation along the Northern Sea Route off the Russian coast, in addition to mineral and energy exploration and production as warmer temperatures take hold.

Arctic fisheries have historically been vital for global food supply.

In prepared testimony, he said he was “excited by the opportunities for building partnerships in the Arctic and the continued shared effort to maintain the stability and security of the entire region. The upcoming Arctic Security Forces Roundtable, to be held in Alaska in May 2022, will provide the United States with a rare opportunity to host an international forum focused specifically on Arctic security and military cooperation.”

VanHerck said China’s interest in the Arctic has been steady over the past five years, sending a research vessel to its waters. He added the Chinese “are not only active in the Arctic but in the Bahamas” and the Caribbean.

Military Planners Should Map Out Operations in Warming Arctic Waters, Expert Says

The United States reminds Canada and Russia often that Washington regards the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage as straits used for international navigation, not exclusively theirs to control, an international maritime law expert said Wednesday. James Kraska, a professor at the Naval War College, said that with warming waters, military planners are regarding […]

The Coast Guard Cutter Healy, a 420-foot polar icebreaker, transits to the Gulf of Alaska, July 20, 2021. Healy and its crew are currently on a 133-day deployment into the Arctic as part of a circumnavigation of North America to conduct Coast Guard missions and to support scientific research. U.S. Coast Guard Photo

The United States reminds Canada and Russia often that Washington regards the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage as straits used for international navigation, not exclusively theirs to control, an international maritime law expert said Wednesday.

James Kraska, a professor at the Naval War College, said that with warming waters, military planners are regarding these waters “as a surface [area] for operations,” recognizing that the “oceans are going to be the quickest way to move large forces” from one place to another.

But, he added there are chokepoints on both sea lanes that have military and commercial implications. The Northern Sea Route, closest to Russia – which also has the largest territorial claims in the Arctic – appears to be the most accessible, especially for trade between Asia and Europe.

“Russia had greater ambitions” in the Arctic than the other seven nations with territorial claims there, Kraska said during a panel at the Norwich University Military Writers’ Symposium. As a consequence, Moscow “has done a better job of building out infrastructure” from expanding its fleet or icebreakers, to modernizing its ports and ramping up its military presence to back up its claims to control of the Northern Sea Route.

The Kremlin, when looking at the other seven members of the Arctic Council, sees either NATO allies of Washington or western partners, like Finland and Sweden.

At the same time, since World War II, Washington has relied on freedom of navigation and overflight across the globe to prevent the rise of a hegemonic power in Europe and Asia that threatens the global order. To Washington’s mind – in presidential directive and Navy policy – a strait is “not just a transit route.” Kraska added that Canada and Europe have “the exact same interests [in maintaining freedom of navigation and overflight], though it may not be as obvious to them,” as does the U.S.

For Russia, the U.S. and Canada, the Arctic has also been a region of strategic stability, despite testing each other’s defenses. In asserting its freedom of overflight, Moscow has tested NORAD defenses over the North Pole and around Iceland, he noted.

“The United States and Canada are connected to their treaty partners only by the oceans,” Kraska said.

U.S. Needs ‘Resilient’ Strategy to Counter China, Russia in Arctic, Experts Say

The United States “needs resilient people and resilient equipment” to meet mounting security and economic challenges posed by Russia and China, according to a panel of Arctic security experts. Moscow’s vision of the Far North as “the Russian Mecca” and Beijing’s ambitious Polar Silk Road initiative present economic obstacles to the United States, the experts […]

The aurora borealis over Ice Camp Seadragon during Ice Exercise (ICEX) 2020. US Navy Photo

The United States “needs resilient people and resilient equipment” to meet mounting security and economic challenges posed by Russia and China, according to a panel of Arctic security experts.

Moscow’s vision of the Far North as “the Russian Mecca” and Beijing’s ambitious Polar Silk Road initiative present economic obstacles to the United States, the experts said.

Speaking Tuesday, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Randy Kee said the Arctic had proven to be a region “where technology is always challenged” by extremes. The severe conditions make military operations “quite demanding and quite challenging.” This remains the case now as temperatures climb and cause sea levels to rise globally, coupled with more violent weather conditions. It also makes the Northern Sea Route, which Russia claims as its own, more attractive as a shipping route to Europe, especially for China. It opens the Arctic to more mineral and natural resource exploration and exploitation, another Chinese goal of diversifying its energy suppliers.

On the security front, Kee, now with the Wilson Center, said the best way to “ameliorate the challenges is through partnership agreements” – such as NATO and NORAD with the Canadians – and keeping an airbase in Thule, Greenland. While he underlined interoperability with partners and the need for investment in research and development, he added, “exercises [are] a critical element … where we stress the force.”

While saying exercises like Trident Juncture were important building blocks to show presence, Kee said “we need to return to scale” on the magnitude of the Cold War’s Rimfrost Exercises to address the new military situation and climate changes.

Kee, speaking during a Hudson Institute online forum, added that the services’ Arctic strategies “will categorize the challenges and opportunities” in the region.

Among those security challenges to Washington and allies are Russia’s dual-track approach in the Arctic — building ports and airfields that can be used for civilian purposes for energy production and shipment, tourism and transpolar commercial shipping, as well as military power projection – according to Hudson’s Richard Weitz.

“The Arctic is the fourth wall” in Russia’s security thinking, he said. Unlike its western, eastern and southern borders, Moscow can operate “without having to compete with others” in the Far North. It is by far the largest nation in the Arctic.

As a sign of how important the Arctic has become, the Kremlin is designating the region as its Fifth Military District. It has moved Mig-31 fighters into airfields there and deployed hypersonic missiles, while it is hardening coastal defense ships that are capable of operating in ice as weapons platforms.

Moreover, the Kola Peninsula is the major home port of the Russian ballistic missile submarine fleet, said Hudson’s Bryan Clark. It could also be a region where the Chinese operate from.

“Monitoring for [submarine activity] is important,” but the United States Navy only operates in the Far North in the most favorable conditions, Clark said. Its surface fleet is not ice-hardened. Clark suggested large undersea unmanned vehicles with towed array sensors coupled with the passive Sound Surveillance Systems [SOSUS] would be ways to monitor submarine activity heading toward the Atlantic.

Clark also noted another Russian military advantage in the Arctic. Because satellite communications are spotty and there are few sensors in the region, a Russian electronic warfare attack “can easily blind” the few operating there. “They don’t have a lot of resilience,” he said. Those facts make electronic warfare “more of a concern than in other regions” that need to be addressed. Again, he suggested unmanned aerial systems for sensing and communications as a way to build resilience. But there’s “not a lot of demand” for that kind of investment, Clark said.

As a safety measure, particularly as merchant and potentially cruise ship transits increase, Clark said deploying an expeditionary sea base vessel would help search and rescue missions and also cut time and distance needed to care for the sick and injured.

The lack of ice-hardened surface vessels in the Navy and the Coast Guard, which now operates only one heavy and one medium icebreaker, make Freedom of Navigation operations challenging Russian territorial claims difficult. The few American Coast Guard ships available also limit strict enforcement of fishing, mineral exploration and other regulations in the American Exclusive Economic Zone, the panel agreed.

As for China’s approach, Weitz said instead of being confrontational as it was six years ago by demanding recognition as a special case in Arctic affairs, Beijing is “emphasizing win-win.” The Polar Silk Road is pushing infrastructure investment, including laying undersea communication cables, as well as ports, airports and highways “to build leverage” and to influence smaller nations in the Arctic like Greenland. It has also stepped up its research and scientific efforts in the region.

In a 2018 White Paper, Weitz clearly states “China has a role” – from shipping routes to climate and mineral development – although it is 1,000 kilometers from the Arctic.