North Korea has made no verifiable changes to its military readiness, conventional or asymmetric capabilities, General Robert Abrams, head of United States Forces Korea (USFK) said on Tuesday.
Speaking alongside Admiral Philip Davidson, chief of the United States Indo-Pacific Command at a U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services hearing in Washington, Abrams praised diplomatic progress but said he remained “clear-eyed” on the DPRK’s military capabilities.
“Little to no verifiable change has occurred in North Korea’s conventional and asymmetric capabilities that continue to hold the United States, South Korea, and our regional allies at risk,” Abrams told the assembled U.S. senators.
In his opening testimony, Abrams also pointed out that while the U.S. and South Korea had scaled back joint military exercises, North Korea had taken no corresponding actions.
“The KPA’s (Korean People’s Army) Winter Training Cycle this year commenced as it has for the past five years – with a force of over one million engaged in individual and unit-level training throughout the country,” Abrams said.
“Notably, the size, scope, and timing of training events are consistent with recent years,” the four-star general added, though also noted the reduction in North Korean rhetoric, public military displays, and weapons tests.
When facing questions on his testimony, Abrams highlighted the reduction in tensions on the Korean Peninsula and lack of ballistic missile and nuclear tests as positive indicators, while also citing the reduced military presence on the DMZ between the two Koreas.
But Abrams – who started as the head of USFK 90 days ago – also reminded the assembled senators that the North Korean military remains a significant threat in the region, and sidestepped a question on regarding his confidence level in the odds of diplomatic success with North Korea.
“Current modifications in atmospherics, however, do not represent a substantive change in North Korea’s military posture or readiness,” Abrams said.
“The North Korean military remains formidable and dangerous, with no discernable differences in the assessed force structure, readiness, or lethality my predecessor reported in 2018.”
Davidson also maintained a skeptical outlook on whether North Korea was likely to fully denuclearize, telling the senators in his testimony that the United States Indo-Pacific Command shared the assessment of Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats.
“We think it is unlikely that North Korea will give up all of its nuclear weapons or production capabilities, but seeks to negotiate partial denuclearization in exchange for U.S. and international concessions,” Davidson said.
During the hearing, the two high ranking military officials fielded questions from senators on a wide range of topics, including sanctions enforcement, China’s influence in the region, missile defense and military readiness on the Korean Peninsula.
On military exercises, Abrams told the hearing that he continued to plan joint training with Republic of Korea (ROK) forces and that smaller exercises continued as before.
The four-star general added that the cancellation of previous exercises had not yet impacted the readiness of troops on the peninsula, but that some drops may become apparent to higher echelon troop commanders in the coming months.
“Since I have been there in November, we are continuing to train, conducting combined training and exercise with our ROK counterparts, that is continuing unabated,” Abrams said.
“But it’s adjusted in accordance with some innovating things that we’ve done by adjusting size, scope, volume, and the timing so that we can continue to preserve space for Mr Bigeun and the Department of State to do their jobs.”
SANCTIONS AND OIL
U.S. Navy Admiral Philip Davidson also took questions on North Korea’s ongoing sanctions evasions efforts at sea, highlighting how the DPRK continued to rely on sanctioned ship-to-ship transfers at sea in order to continue importing oil products.
Davidson said that Beijing was neither “helping nor hurting” sanctions enforcement in the maritime space, though did admit that Moscow was typically unhelpul when it came to international restrictions against the DPRK.
“We have an ongoing, multinational ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) and ship effort to disrupt refined oil that’s going in by sea into North Korea,” Davidson told the assembled senators.
“This requires a significant amount of network work to cut it off at the supply.”
Davidson added that it was difficult to deter North Korea from attempting to procure fuel and that the DPRK was adapting its tactics to make sure the oil products keep flowing.
And while the navy admiral fell short of answering a direct question regarding Beijing’s level of involvement in the illicit transfers, he also implicated China in some of the North’s newer evasion tactics.
“(North Korea has) been doing transfers in their own territorial waters or near their own shores, and occasionally there have been some transfers in Chinese territorial waters.”
According to a previous advisory from the U.S. Coast Guard and Department of Treasury, North Korea was previously conducting many of the transfers in international waters east of Shanghai.
Currently, military assets from the U.S., UK, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand have been involved in tracking the illicit shipments, though there have been no reports of interdictions at sea.
“We can disrupt these things at the source, refer providers, whether it’s shippers, whether it’s oil brokers, whether it’s the oil companies themselves, notify the United Nations of those contributions and then have them pursued both by State … and Treasury action.”
When listing the potential effect of sanctions in North Korea, Davidson said that luxury goods may be more difficult to come by and that oil prices in the country had increased.
While it’s true that fuel prices in the DPRK were relatively high last year, a recent report from NK Pro noted that January pump prices in Pyongyang fell to their lowest levels since 2017 April 2017.
But Davidson added that it was “tough to say” if the impact of sanctions was enough to force North Korea to denuclearize.
Much of the finer detail of the questions, however, fell outside what could be discussed in a public setting, and would be provided to the senators in a closed briefing scheduled later in the day.
When answering a question on how the North’s missile programs may have been hindered by the lack of testing, Abrams indicated that North Korea may have gathered enough data to advance its missile and nuclear programs using simulations.
“It gets to a point in programs, and we can talk more about it this afternoon, that when you get to a certain point and that volume of testing that they did, then it’s that point with mature programs … then they can transition to simulation and modelling,” Abrams said.