Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, said that the next South Korean President should increase the country’s defense budget to counter North Korea’s rapidly developing weapons of mass destruction program, during a Tuesday interview with NK News.
And while most of the world may be focused on the DPRK’s nuclear capabilities, chemical and biological weapons are equally threatening to the ROK, Bennett argued: a development made even more clear by the recent revelation that Kim Jong Nam, the deceased half-brother of Kim Jong Un, was murdered with the VX nerve agent.
Bruce Bennett has focused on North Korean affairs for years at one of the U.S.’s most listened-to think tanks. But with so much going on on the peninsula: the fall of Park Geun-hye, an increasingly hardline position from D.C. on North Korea, and Pyongyang’s claims that it will test an ICBM capable of hitting the mainland U.S. this year, what does he make of the state of Korean affairs?
NK News caught up with Dr. Bennett after an event in Seoul to get his take on China’s response to THAAD, North Korea’s recent rocket engine test, and the upcoming South Korean presidential election.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and readability
NK News: What should be the first priority for the next South Korean president – most likely a liberal – when it comes to North Korea?
Dr. Bruce Bennett: The temptation for Minjoo will be doing things that will be offensive to Americans, and especially to President Trump, the conservatives on the U.S. side. So Minjoo has to be prepared to be very balanced in how they proceed.
For example, if you look at the military budgets passed by [former liberal president] Roh Moo-hyun, on average they increased about eight percent a year. The budget passed by [former conservative president] Lee Myung-bak, I believe the numbers averaged three to four percent a year.
Roh was balancing things by increasing the defense capability more rapidly than the conservatives did. It is not imaginable, but that is what happened. The Minjoo Party will want to reopen the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC). The complaint, besides the fact that it is a UN Security Council issue, which I think they can address, but the complaint historically pointed out is that money we get to the KIC winds up supporting the North Korean nuclear program.
“The temptation for Minjoo will be doing things that will be offensive to Americans”
What the new president has to say is “we plan to provide, USD100 million annually to the KIC. We think 30 million will be diverted to military programs. That 30 million will be used by Pyongyang to purchase – let’s say, ten Rodong missiles.”
“In addition to what we are planning to do to increase the military budget already, we will add on top of that what it costs to buy the interceptors to shoot down ten more missiles.”
The key I think there is South Korea’s Aegis ships, the ones with missile intercept capability: they don’t have missiles that would shoot down missiles. The ideal missile for Korea is SM-6.
I think that would be the way, for South Korea to buy SM-6s and not hurt all the other military programs that need the budget.
NK News: Will a Minjoo presidency bring any changes to THAAD deployment plans? How long will it take for the system to be completed?
Dr. Bruce Bennett: It’s a very tricky time, isn’t it? We don’t know who is going to be the elected president. We can guess, but we don’t know for sure and we don’t know what their policies are. Will the new president say “get rid of the THAAD,” or “let’s keep it”? We just don’t know.
NK News: Does THAAD have a “direct impact on China’s national security interests,” as Beijing claims?
Dr. Bruce Bennett: The only thing that makes sense is its radar – the missile interceptor is not a threat to China.
Let me turn it around for you; South Korea makes cruise missiles that have a 500-kilometer range, 1000-kilometer range, and a 1500-kilometer range. Those are offensive weapons, is China complaining about those? Why are they complaining about THAAD then? It doesn’t make a lot of sense.
“We have to recognize that North Korea has been building a chemical weapon for decades”
I think Xi Jinping was given some bad information by one of his military people, and now China can’t say “we will back off” because that will be a huge loss of face. I think they are kind of trapped; they still would like to convince South Korea to do what China says.
NK News: What systems, apart from nuclear, could the DPRK use to attack the ROK in a future conflict?
Dr. Bruce Bennett: We have to recognize that North Korea has been building a chemical weapon for decades. The key change, I’d argue, was in the mid-1980s.
Up to the 1970s, North Korea was building lots of armored forces. But suddenly in the 1983-5 time frame, instead of building armored personnel carriers, they took the same vehicle and started mounting artillery guns on it.
Those were to deliver chemical weapons I think. What they had concluded was that the U.S., and South Korea was racing ahead in conventional force modernization, but North Korea was not going to be able to keep up.
They had to develop asymmetric capabilities, a different approach to what the U.S. and South Korea were doing, or they were going to be left behind.
What you have to think about is the lack of preparation on the South Korean side at that time. South Korean Army soldiers, at that time, didn’t even have suits to protect them.
In the 80s and even in early 1990s when I came to South Korea, they would say “Oh, North Korea would never use chemical weapons because they are brothers, and would never do that to us.”
“They won’t break the chemical weapon conventions,” they said – but North Korea never agreed to the chemical weapon conventions.
“A key element we forget is North Korea’s biological weapons”
NK News: Are U.S. and ROK forces well prepared against chemical attacks?
Dr. Bruce Bennett: Let’s say I have a full chemical suit on. If I get chemical on that suit, I have to take it off. Depending on the kind of the suit, I have 12 to 24 hours before it will go through the suit.
When I take it off, what am I left with? A raincoat? Not very much. That means even if we have suits for all of our soldiers, we are still not very well prepared. North Korea’s got a whole lot of chemicals.
We don’t know how many for sure, but the typical statement is that North Korea can fire around 500,000 artillery shells per hour, for the first few hours. I think it was former USFK Commander General Leon J. Laporte, when he was the general here in the early 2000’s, who said: “for North Korea, one out of every three artillery shells will be chemical.”
That is around 160,000 in one hour.
Can you imagine being in the forward battalion in South Korea and getting hit with 2-3-4000 artillery shells that are chemically-armed? I think it will be hard for the forces to maintain their full cohesion. Some units will be very well prepared and with good leadership, others the leadership won’t be as good. It makes us more vulnerable because of that.
NK News: What about biological weapons?
Dr. Bruce Bennett: A key element we forget is North Korea’s biological weapons. Remember, Kim Il Sung was not an armor officer, he was not an artillery officer: in his mind, he was Special Forces. Special Forces can’t carry enough chemicals to do major damage; they can’t shut down an airfield.
But Special Forces can carry enough biological weapons to cause major damage to facilities. They have 200,000 Special Forces, and they are not all the same as the American Special Forces, but it is their mindset, their philosophy, their thinking, that makes them dangerous.
A biological weapon is a major part of how they would operate. Special Forces would carry it into use against ports and airfields.
Remember the North Korean drones that flew over the Blue House and took pictures a couple years ago? How did we know that they had taken pictures of the Blue House? When it crashed, and we pulled the camera off of it and found out.
Are there North Korean drones flying over South Korean airfields every day? Every week? I don’t know, but I don’t know if we are watching for that thing. I think the drones can be used for that kind of attacks.
“They believe, like the Soviets believed, that more is better”
For biological weapons, drones can carry enough. Drones can’t carry enough chemicals, and are not big enough to carry nuclear. But biological is a possibility.
NK News: What is the DPRK trying to tell the world with the recent test of a new high-thrust rocket engine?
Dr. Bruce Bennett: I think they are playing with different designs, trying to decide what and which they are going to get the best effect with, they are experimenting to see how they work. They haven’t been, for many years, they had problems in building their engines.
Now they seem to be doing pretty well doing that. The transition to solid fuels – that’s a big change. They are trying different configurations to see what they get the best performance with.
The tradeoff is the better you get your engines to work, the bigger payload it can carry. Getting a nuclear weapon on a missile, you are going to have real tradeoffs there – getting a really good engine performance is key to that.
They believe, like the Soviets believed, that more is better.
The problem they are going to run into is, sooner or later, is that the U.S. is going to say “enough is enough” and they are pushing very close to that right now, based on what Secretary Tillerson said recently. I don’t think North Korea realizes how dangerous that is for their future.
NK News: Do you have any theories on the VX agent that was used to kill Kim Jong Nam?
Dr. Bruce Bennett: VX was originally developed by the British in 1950. The big thing about the British test was the reaction on different parts of the body. Such as if I put it on the cheek, if I put it on the chest, or put it on the hands or the legs.
Their conclusion from the human testing was, it takes 25 times as much VX on the palm to kill or to affect somebody as the amount it takes on the cheek. The cheek is far more lethal.
So what did North Korea do? They have women put it on their hands, which is not going to be as vulnerable as they put it on their cheek. The quantity we are talking about to affect a hundred-kilogram person is half a milligram.
I mean that is the incredibly small amount. We don’t know if those ladies had pure VX on their hands or had oil with VX mixed into it: we don’t know as Malaysia certainly haven’t released the full results of their test.
The interview was organized with the help of Korea Foundation for Advanced Studies (KFAS), a nonprofit foundation which hosted Dr. Bennett’s “Evolving Security Challenges in Korea” seminar.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: ROK MND
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