January 1, DPRK supreme leader Kim Jong-un expressed his intention to resume nuclear testing, as the United States continues to strengthen South Korea and supply weapons there. The North Korean leader promised to test new strategic weapons soon. According to Kim Jong-un, North Koreans should tighten their belts. At the same time, he expressed his intention to conduct denuclearization if the United States were the first to lift the sanctions. A year and a half of US diplomatic efforts to persuade the DPRK to abandon nuclear weapons ended in complete failure, and Pyongyang’s actions will be unpredictable this year.
In 2017, was the last time DPRK conducted nuclear tests and launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Then, for a year and a half, North Korea refrained from missile and nuclear tests, but from the second half of 2019 it resumed launches of short-range missiles, fired from multiple launch rocket systems, and in December it tested a rocket engine. Kim Jong-un is not just blackmailing the States, but focusing on the supply of weapons to South Korea. The lack of progress in the negotiations on the denuclearization of the North really influenced the militarization of the South, which is reaching a qualitatively new level and causing concern in Pyongyang.
The help of the Big Brother
Kim Jong-un has found some point to cling to. Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, the armed forces of South Korea, numbering 3.5 million people (including reservists) rely on the United States as the main foreign supplier of weapons (not counting national manufacturers). In 2013-17, Seoul spent over 13 billion USD on the purchase of American weapons, on programs in the field of training the army. Since 1989, South Korea has been a major US ally outside of NATO and has access to advanced US military technology and equipment.
The United States did supply large quantities of weapons to South Korea during North Korea’s voluntary moratorium on missile and nuclear testing. Lockheed supplied the South Korean Air Force with 13 multi-purpose stealth F-35A fighters. Three aircraft were shipped in December 2019, and it is planned to supply 47 more such combat vehicles. Also in December, Northrop Grumman delivered the Global Hawk drone to South Korea. In the first half of 2020, it is planned to ship three more drones. In May 2019, it became known about the deal for the supply of 94 SM-2 Block IIIB missiles for the American Patriot missile defense systems to South Korea.
The DPRK authorities were unhappy that the armed forces of the United States and South Korea continue to conduct joint military exercises. Washington and Seoul canceled the large-scale Young Eagle, Key Decision military exercises, but replaced them with smaller maneuvers called the Alliance, which were held twice last year.
Pyongyang's position is not without bias. For some reason, Kim Jong-un didn’t say a word about Russia's proposal in 2019 to upgrade Ka-32 civilian helicopters in a South Korean park, about the participation of the Russian company Almaz-Antey in the development of the South Korean missile defense system KM-SAM (seven batteries are planned to be deployed by 2022). In 2018, France delivered three Airbus A330 MRTT military tanker aircraft to South Korea. South Korea is an attractive arms market, and therefore manufacturers from various countries of the world continue to work with it, despite denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
War is when one fights to the last-ditch and another gets rich
Pyongyang is alarmed by the dynamic development of the military-industrial complex of its southern neighbor. The North Korean crisis can be compared with the Cold War, only in miniature, within the same peninsula. The DPRK nuclear threat factor, the potential threat of the Second Korean War are the drivers of defense research and development in South Korea and contribute to investment in the production of weapons. In 2018, the military budget of South Korea amounted to 43.1 billion USD (10th place in the world). For comparison, the DPRK spends on the maintenance of its army only 7.5 billion USD a year, while having a numerical superiority over the South Korean military by 2 times. In 2019, defense spending in South Korea amounted to 2.6% of GDP - more than in India (2.4%), France (2.3%), Turkey (2.5%). In August 2019, Seoul announced plans to invest 239 billion USD in the development of the defense sector in 2020-24.
As the experience of the United States, Western Europe, and Russia shows, producing weapons is beneficial not only to strengthen their own defense potential but also to sell to foreign markets, which is a profitable business. Prior to the tightening of international sanctions, North Korea earned this by selling its cheap small arms, tanks, and artillery to countries in Africa and Asia. South Koreans follow the same path, having a technological advantage over the DPRK. After 2010, reforms were carried out in the military-industrial complex of South Korea in order to establish the production of competitive products according to NATO standards. South Korea is only inferior to Israel in terms of defense research expenditures, and the developed machine-building complex allows, like the United States, Russia, and China, to produce products for the ground forces, navy, air force, albeit to a lesser extent.
Foreign companies are involved in the defense sector, and medium and small enterprises capable of producing weapons components are subsidized. Known as automobile manufacturers in Ukraine and the world, South Korean companies Daewoo and Hyundai produce tanks and other types of armored vehicles, surface ships and submarines. The South Korean self-propelled howitzer K9 was developed on the basis of the American analog M109A2, and the submarine of the Chang Bogo class was based on the German diesel submarine Type 209, the FA-50 fighter was based on the American F-16 aircraft. South Korea concluded contracts with Estonia, Finland, and Norway for the supply of self-propelled howitzers, with Indonesia for the supply of 6 submarines, with the Philippines for the supply of 2 frigates, and with Indonesia, Iraq, Thailand, and the Philippines for the supply of training and combat aircraft. Oman and Poland are considering acquiring the South Korean K2 tank.
A light aircraft carrier capable of accepting American F-35B fighters capable of carrying out vertical landing, a South Korean multi-purpose fighter KF-X, and Sejong Daewang class destroyers are under development. South Korea plans to modernize its navy so that it can carry out tasks not only in coastal waters and the surrounding Pacific Ocean (“green water navy”), but also in the open ocean anywhere in the world (“blue water navy”), as in the USA, Russia, China, India, France, and the UK. DPRK is annoyed that South Korean industrialists are commercializing the ongoing North Korean crisis. In response, Pyongyang decided to play on the nerves of Seoul, to make it clear that the nuclear threat is real and the development of conventional weapons will not help to avoid it.
Kim Jong-un's nightmare
North Korea fears South Korea’s development of its own ballistic missiles as opposed to North Korea’s missile program. Two years ago, South Korean President Moon Jae In agreed with his American counterpart Donald Trump to revise the 2012 bilateral agreement on restrictions on ballistic missile production. Prior to this, Seoul could produce missiles with a flight range of not more than 800 km, capable of carrying warheads of not more than 500 kg. Pyongyang is afraid of discussions in South Korean society about the development of its own nuclear weapons. In November 2019, former South Korean Foreign Minister Song Min Sung proposed the creation of limited-range tactical nuclear weapons to deter the DPRK and reduce its dependence on the United States in defense. According to a Gallup survey, 60% of South Koreans support the acquisition of nuclear weapons.
To date, the implementation of this initiative is hindered by the participation of South Korea in the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Tests. The USA and Europe are against the expansion of the club of nuclear powers. The appearance of nuclear weapons in South Korea will be hostile in China, which is against even the deployment of US missile defense systems in the country. Following South Korea, Japan wants to acquire nuclear weapons. In this case, the geopolitical situation in the Asia-Pacific region will not change in favor of the Middle Kingdom. South Korean missiles can be used to deter not only the DPRK but also China.
Kim Jong-un once again opted for muscle games to force the US to stop reinforcing South Korea’s defense capabilities. However, Seoul will carry out militarization until Pyongyang renounces nuclear weapons. Kim Jong-un’s moratorium on missile and nuclear testing does not inspire Moon Jae In’s confidence. The collapse of denuclearization will deepen the confrontation between South Korea, the United States and North Korea in the spirit of the Cold War. This year, various variants of DPRK provocations are possible: from launching a satellite into outer space to new nuclear tests and testing of intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine ballistic missiles.