With the report from NK News last month that North Korea had successfully launched another missile from a submarine off its east coast, the focus these days seems to be on its missiles. To be sure, Pyongyang’s ballistic arsenal is improving and will soon – if not already – pose a very credible threat to much of Northeast Asia. That includes Japan and many U.S. military bases in the Western Pacific Ocean, as well as South Korea.
However, what doesn’t make the headlines is the astonishing number of artillery pieces and multiple rocket launchers that North Korea has positioned just north of the DMZ that can reach Seoul – and beyond. This is important to note for two reasons.
MORE IS CLEARLY BETTER
First, the ability to preemptively neutralize North Korea’s artillery and rocket launchers is limited. Artillery placements in the North are often dug into the backsides of the mountains along the DMZ. When the time comes, the guns are rolled out facing South, but being dug in on the far side means that there is no line of sight from the South to visualize the positions, making them very difficult to take out before they are employed.
Moreover, the sheer numbers of such artillery pieces is insurmountable to be countered by conventional weaponry. Although I am quite certain that military strategists have at least considered electromagnetic pulse (EMP) devices to “fry” the electronics of the pieces, those weapons are likely not equipped with such modern technologies – and while one might thus be tempted to see them as outdated, they are probably not vulnerable to EMP countermeasures.
That leaves explosive devices, but for the sheer volume in question, it would be necessary to carpet bomb every suspected area in order to be certain of getting all such positions. Even then, some would likely escape direct hits and remain functional. Tactical nuclear devices might get the job done, but the use of atomic weapons adds an unwanted political dimension to the problem, and their use would likely result in Kim Jong Un authorizing the use of his own nukes.
North Korea’s rocket launchers, as well as some artillery pieces, are road mobile, which creates more complexity to the problem of defense, either preemptively or reactionary. Further, rocket launchers fire several projectiles at once, and then they can be moved to avoid detection. In short, Seoul faces a firing line of epic proportions and the arsenal of weapons is not easily defeated.
LOWER AND FASTER IS BETTER
Second, while the U.S. Patriot and THAAD systems are likely able to shoot down many, even if not all, of the North’s ballistic missiles, artillery shells and low-angle rockets are an entirely different matter. Artillery shells are too small and are too fast out of the barrel for anti-missile systems, and rockets typically are not launched at high enough angles to give such defensive measures much of an opportunity to intercept them – and they also are fast right from launch.
These older but plentiful weapons constitute the bulk of the threat facing much of the population of South Korea today. Additionally, these arms are tried and true, likely to be more reliable than – even if not as accurate as – some of North Korea’s newly developed guided missiles, at least for now.
But it is their payloads that command attention as well as their staggering numbers. Both artillery shells and rockets can be equipped with biological or chemical agents that would cause far more damage than conventional explosives. A previous article of mine discusses the potential devastating and disruptive effects of a few such agents.
According to a 2012 report by the Nautilus Institute, North Korea had as of late 2011 a total of 20,500 artillery and rocket launchers. The comprehensive and detailed study, admittedly basing its analysis upon certain assumptions and suppositions, provides interesting data on weaponry. However, in the opinion of this writer, it contains some overly optimistic conclusions about limited ranges and South Korean survival rates. Even so, as the author states up front, the analysis was intended to generate further study.
North Korean Rocket Launchers and Long-Range Artillery
64 kms with rocket assisted projectiles
New – Yet Unknown
This is in addition to an estimated 4,400 self-propelled artillery guns and 7,500 mortars as of late 2011. Those numbers have almost certainly increased in the five years since compilation. Such daunting figures place all of Seoul and a significant portion of the interior of South Korea within range of Pyongyang’s arsenal.
IN SEARCH OF WISDOM
Is there a way out, some means to get off the horns of this dilemma? Preemptive strikes seem out of the question for a number of both practical and political reasons. Thus, I am reminded of the powerful Serenity Prayer by the late theologian turned political philosopher, Reinhold Niebuhr, that I quote here:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
This entreaty from more than 80 years ago is particularly appropriate today with regard to North Korea.
Featured Image: Rodong Sinmun
With the report from NK News last month that North Korea had successfully launched another missile from a submarine off its east coast, the focus these days seems to be on its missiles. To be sure, Pyongyang’s ballistic arsenal is improving and will soon – if not already – pose a very credible threat to much of Northeast Asia. That includes Japan and many U.S. military bases in the Western
Robert E. McCoy is a retired U.S. Air Force Korean linguist and analyst/reporter who was stationed in Asia for more than fourteen years. He continues to follow developments in East Asia closely. Mr. McCoy’s book Tales You Wouldn’t Tell Your Mother is now out. He can be contacted via his website http://musingsbymccoy.com/ which also lists his previous essays and has personal vignettes on Asia (Tidbits) not published elsewhere.