One month after its unexpected nuclear test on January 6, North Korea on Sunday launched the satellite named Kwangmyongsong-4. The combination of nuclear and ballistic missile technology potentially gives North Korea a powerful strategic military capability. Another key part of this strategic capability is a specialized unit, the KPA Strategic Force.
The Strategic Force of the Korean People’s Army is the North Korean military unit responsible for the country’s strategic-level missiles and rockets and is a key component of Pyongyang’s nuclear strategy. Effectively, it is the organization for the North’s missile and nuclear arsenal, as well as potentially its chemical and biological weapons.
The existence of this force in charge of the use of nuclear weapons is evidence of North Korea’s ongoing desire for nuclear capacity. Considering the significant resources needed for the nuclear program, this should have a certain impact on Pyongyang’s politics and economy, as well as giving clues to the regime’s future choices. For example, China, which opened its doors to the U.S. in 1971-72, prepared its own nuclear power before its economic reformation.
ORGANIZATION AND COMMAND
The Strategic Force is a corps-level command falling under the KPA General Staff for routine command and control but policy-wise is managed and controlled by the WPK Central Military Commission. The current commander of the force is General Kim Rak Gyom. Kim has held that post since at least 2012, when the unit was first named the Strategic Rocket Force. The command’s headquarters is located in Songchon County, South Phyongan Province.
Ultimate authority over the Strategic Force likely belongs to the KPA Supreme Commander, Kim Jong Un, especially in wartime
Ultimate authority over the Strategic Force likely belongs to the KPA Supreme Commander, Kim Jong Un, especially in wartime. The DPRK Law on Consolidating the Position of Nuclear Weapons State dictates that “The nuclear weapons of the DPRK can be used only by a final order of the Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army to repel invasion or attack from a hostile nuclear weapons state and make retaliatory strikes.”
Much remains unconfirmed regarding the unit, however, and significant information may be inferred based on two similar units in foreign nations: China’s PLA Rocket Force (formerly Second Artillery Corps) and Russia’s Strategic Missile Troops. According to Andrew Scobell and John M. Sanford of the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College, “Information concerning the specific control and command of WMD is vague and unclear due to the newness of this aspect of the KPA.”
According to Joseph Bermudez, author of KPA Journal, at least some of the Strategic Force’s assets may be placed under control of KPA corps commanders during wartime. Whether this would apply to nuclear-armed missiles and rockets, however, is unclear.
Command and control of the nuclear arsenal is likely conducted primarily through hardened command and communications facilities and land-based communication channels such as fiber optic cable for increased security and reliability. Photographs published in 2013 by North Korea’s state media revealed the existence of a “U.S. Mainland Strike Plan” showing lines straight from the DPRK to numerous locations in U.S. territory. Presumably, such a plan is for nuclear-armed ballistic missiles operated by the KPA Strategic Force, though the ability of North Korea to actually carry out such a plan at this time is questionable.
HISTORY & CURRENT STATUS
The existence of a dedicated strategic missile and rocket unit in the KPA dates back 17 years. According to a 2015 report by Hong Min, a research fellow in the North Korean Studies Division of the Korea Institute for National Unification, “The creation of the strategic force by North Korea is akin to the cases of the former Soviet Union and China in which they formed strategic rocket units at the military strategic level to diversify and effectively operate nuclear weapons.”
Prior to 1999, the KPA had two national-level artillery corps possessing long-range conventional artillery and rockets. In 1999, one of the two artillery corps was reorganized to be focused on ballistic missiles and strategic rockets and was designated the Missile Guidance Bureau (Joseon inmingun misail jidoguk). In 2012, it was renamed Strategic Rocket Force (Joseon inmingun jeollyak roketeugun). The first known reference to the unit as Strategic Rocket Force was on March 2, 2012, in a state media report on an inspection of the unit’s headquarters by Kim Jong Un. The unit’s name was shortened to Strategic Force (Jeollyakgun) by March 2014.
Reflecting the elevation of the force itself is the continued promotion of its commander despite lack of position change
The U.S. Department of Defense and the Korea Institute for National Unification assessed that in 2012 – when the unit was renamed as the Strategic Rocket Force – the unit was elevated to the same level as the Ground Forces, Navy, Air and Anti-Air Force and is now considered one of the “four services” within the KPA. Reflecting the elevation of the force itself is the continued promotion of its commander despite lack of position change. Since being appointed commander as a lieutenant general in 2012, Kim Rak Gyom has been twice promoted: to colonel general in February 2014, and to full general sometime in 2014 or 2015.
This elevation of status is evidence of the increasing importance of the nuclear and missile deterrents in North Korea’s military strategy. Under the reign of Kim Jong Un, Pyongyang has emphasized the development of a credible nuclear deterrent alongside development of North Korea’s economy, a policy referred to as the Byungjin Line. The elevation of the Strategic Force, however, may also reflect a desire by the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea to maintain more direct control over the nuclear and missile arsenal, rather than doing so through too much of the military command structure. This, too, may be part of the shift from pure Songun (Military-First) politics toward Byungjin Line politics.
Along with North Korea’s determination to improve its nuclear capacity, as seen by the fourth nuclear test on January 6, the force’s status is also increasing. Commanding General Kim Rak Gyom was promoted to four-star general last December, following his previous promotion to three-star general in February 2014. Kim Jong Un has visited the training site of the Strategic Force on June 30, July 10 and July 27 in 2014.
An incident right before the nuclear test implies a correlation between this force and North Korea’s nuclear program, Jeong Chang-hyeon, adjunct professor of Kookmin University pointed out. Kim Jong Un’s remark about a hydrogen bomb on December 9 last year, came right after the Office of Foreign Assets Control in the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned the Strategic Force on December 8. The U.S. sanctions were a reaction against North Korea’s submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) test, Jeong said.
Then, seven days later, on December 15, Kim Jong Un signed a document to order the fourth nuclear test, according to Rodong Sinmun’s report.
Pyongyang’s growing interest in the Strategic Force, as well as its nuclear capacity, has a number of implications for the country’s politics and economy.
Kim Jong Un’s Byungjin policy is different from Kim Il Sung’s Byungjin slogan, which prioritized military power over economy. Kim Jong Un, on the contrary, asserts that nuclear capacity is helpful not only for national security but also economic development. Kim Dong-yup, professor of University of North Korean Studies compared Kim Il Sung’ Byungjin, Kim Jong Il’s Songun and Kim Jong Un’s Byungjin, then pointed out the concentration on security is decreasing, in his recent academic article.
This has caused the transitions in distributing resources between sectors like military, party, conventional army and Strategic Forces. Nuclear program led by the party and the Strategic Force directed by the General Staff Department under Supreme Commander is a symbol of this transition.
“There has been an increase in the status of the party as a main agent in developing, managing and sophisticating nuclear weapons,” the report written by Hong reads. He pointed out the leader’s role in strengthening hierarchy and party-centered reconstruction during nuclear development.
As an example, Hong cited the frequent replacement of high-ranking military officials, a reported prohibition of the use of “command” in units below the level of services (Ground Forces, Navy, Air and Anti-Air Force and Strategic Force) and the measure to degrade other units to “bureaus,” and the strengthening of reporting system of unit commanders.
This has resulted in the strengthening of Kim Jong Un’s position, as evidenced by the “April 1 Nuclear Possession Law,” adopted at the Supreme People’s Assembly in April 1, 2013. “The nuclear weapon of DPRK can be used when hostile nuclear states invade our nation, for the purpose of repelling and revenging, directed only by the supreme leader’s final order, the fourth article of the law reads.
Previously, North Korea granted privilege to the military to found trade companies in order to sustain themselves, Hong said. This was an untouchable authority during the Songun period, but there have been continuous conflicts between the party and the military.
“The reshuffling the interest from the military to the party has been a continuous trend since 1990s. Jang Song Thaek was the person who pushed this plan, by transferring the Kangsong Trade Company from the military to the party, but this failed. Nuclear development is a good pretext for Kim Jong Un to reboot this plan, citing the ‘transferring the strategic value’ from the conventional weapon to the nuclear power,” Hong told NK News.
Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at the Sejong Institute, echoed the growing influence of the party as a general trend since Kim Jong Un’s inauguration. Kim Jong Un has been trying to downsize the military sector, which had expanded during his father’s era and this sometimes causes conflict, such as in the dismissal of Ri Yong Ho in 2012, Cheong said.
“The Workers’ Party of Korea leads the nuclear development, at the department of munitions industry. The party will pass the nuclear weapon to the Strategic Force, once it is developed,” Cheong told NK News. However, this a implies transition of the military’s role in North Korea, rather than an implicit downsize of its share. This has accompanied the economic changes.
Cheong said nuclear development has a certain impact on North Korea’s economic structure.
“Since the nuclear program started, a number of munitions factories have been transitioned into the light industry sector, such as fisheries. Ensuring the established authority of the military sector, North Korea made them contribute to the people’s lives,” he said.
Cheong compared this to Cuba’s case, which designated the tourism industry to the military while pushing forward its economic development.
‘North Korea’s military now produces consumer goods, rather than weaponry to export. This enlarges the domestic market and eases the extreme poverty’
This strengthens North Korea’s domestic market and increases its ability to overcome international sanctions, multiple experts said.
“North Korea’s military now produces consumer goods, rather than weaponry to export. This enlarges the domestic market and eases the extreme poverty. For example, we can observe more bicycles at the border regions. There used to be three bicycles users out of 10, but now it is about seven out of 10,” said Cheong.
Hong also viewed the existence of the market in North Korea as likely to improve, citing that the ammunition expense has not decreased by developing nuclear weapons. North Korea is compensating for the financial losses by admitting the market economy, Hong said.
“North Korea, which is isolated from military alliances and external economic relations, should cover the cost to develop nuclear weapons, relying solely on its entire internal resource capacity,” Hong’s report reads, saying the regime’s dependence on market will increase.
However, another expert indicated a cautious view on the rapid effect of North Korea’s nuclear development of its economy, even though it has created an environment to manage the economy reasonably by obtaining nuclear power, out of extreme militarism. Kim Dong-yub pointed out that new facilities for Strategic Forces may cost more resources, which might be another challenge for Kim Jong Un’s Byungjin in its concentration on the economy.
“Generally, North Korea has limited resources and finance,” Kim told NK News. Kim, though, also recognized the indirect and psychological influence of nuclear weapons power, which encourages people’s motivation for production with relief on security issues. “This will raise the total pie of its economy, and gradually improve the situation.”
On the other hand, the increasing nuclear provocations will increase the isolation of Pyongyang, both Cheong and Hong agreed. However, they found clues of an open-door policy in the future, as China has.
“China successfully conducted a nuclear test in 1964 and equipped intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) before establishing diplomatic relations (in 1972),” Hong said. Hong expects North Korea may imitate this model in the future, but not in the near future.
“Kim Jong Un is young. His main interest is stability of the regime, for now. Once he succeeds in ensuring the long-term seizure of power, he might consider economic reformation.” Regarding this, Cheong predicted a kind of “deal” between neighborhood countries on the condition of freezing the nuclear program, in order to get out of this isolation. Kim pointed out Pyongyang’s dilemma in his academic article.
“North Korea cannot overcome its crisis without an open-door policy,” he said. “However, it is hard to succeed with eternally obtaining nuclear power.”
It seems necessary to keep our eyes on the young leader’s choices, after consolidating his leadership.
Featured Image: Rodong Sinmun
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