Amid another night of talks between North Korea and South Korea aimed at defusing tensions, reports emerged of large scale North Korean (DPRK) military maneuvers. Along the border, DPRK artillery strength has doubled, special forces have possibly been moved, while a majority of its submarines appear to have been deployed. In the words of a senior official at Seoul’s Defense Ministry, “This is an extremely grave situation”. So far, two days of talks between both countries have failed to produce a positive result and this deployment by the North seems to be aimed at keeping tensions high.
On August 10th, two South Korean soldiers lost their legs to landmines near the DMZ. The DPRK was blamed for having planted them though Pyongyang has repeatedly denied its involvement. As a result, South Korea for the first time in more than a decade resumed propaganda broadcasts over the DMZ. Thursday, August 20th saw an artillery exchange between the North and South. Several DPRK shells landed in a remote area of South Korea without damage though in response South Korean forces targeted dozens of shells at the source of the DPRK artillery. Pyongyang has said that the broadcasts were the reason for the artillery exchange and shortly after submitted a threat of further attacks if propaganda broadcasts failed to stop within 48 hours.
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As a result, South Korea and the U.S. on Friday raised their five-stage Watch Condition by one notch to level 2, allowing them to boost stealth and reconnaissance activities with a variety of intelligence systems. On the other side of the border, Kim Jong-un placed frontline troops in full combat readiness, declaring a “quasi-state of war.” Since then both countries have been conducting talks to reduce the potential for escalation though the military deployments of the North over the weekend show that it is keen to undermine the talks.
In speaking with reporters, an unnamed senior official for the South Korean Defense Ministry said, “Seventy percent of North Korea’s submarines left their bases, and their locations are not confirmed”; a figure that equates to 50 DPRK submarines. He added, “It’s around 10 times the usual. We have not seen in decades that many submarines that are simultaneously out of their bases” and “This is the level where we can expect something really worrying to happen? we don’t know what kind of operations they are and will be undertaking where.” To counter this, South Korea is mobilizing antisubmarine assets such as destroyers, P-3C patrol planes and Lynx antisubmarine helicopters to find the missing DPRK submarines.
The submarine deployment is not the only move the DPRK has made. Since Friday the DPRK has doubled its artillery strength on the border with additional forward-stationed 76.2-milimeter artillery guns. Additionally, on Monday morning it was reported by Yonhap that 10 air-cushioned landing craft and special forces left their home base in Cholsan to a forward naval base about 60 km north of the DMZ. This though is unconfirmed and has been refuted by South Korean military officials.
The DPRK is not alone in conducting military maneuvers. On Saturday, four U.S. F-16s and four South Korean F-15s fighter jets undertook simulated bombing runs close to the DMZ as a show of force. Meanwhile, U.S. and ROK forces numbering nearly 80,000 troops are taking part in annual summer military drills. These drills though were temporarily suspended after an artillery exchange. Additionally, six South Korean fighter jets that were taking part in the Red Flag Alaska exercise with the U.S., returned to South Korea on Sunday, several weeks early.
It has been reported that Beijing is bulking up its troop deployment along the China-DPRK border. Photos show People’s Liberation Army units transiting through Yanji, the administrative center of the Yanbian Korean autonomous prefecture which is less than 30 km from the border.
On Saturday afternoon at the request of Pyonyang, senior advisers to South Korean President Park Geun-hye and DPRK leader Kim Jong Un began a meeting that continued into Monday morning at the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom in an attempt to diffuse tensions that have emerged over several recent incidents. The negotiations are being led by South Korean national security adviser Kim Kwan-Jin and his DPRK counterpart Hwang Pyong-So — a close confidant of leader Kim Jong-Un. So far though the DPRK has refused to admit to placing the landmines and the talks which have already lasted for over 25 hours have failed to produce any positive results.
The DPRK is believed to have more than 70 submarines including 20 1,800-ton Romeo-class, 40 300-ton Sang-O-class and 10 130-ton Yono-class vessels. By comparison, the South Korean Navy operates 13 submarines, consisting of nine units of the 1,200-ton 209-class and four 1,800-ton 214-class. While South Korea’s submarine fleet is greatly outnumbered by the DPRK, the submarines of the latter are older and in many cases outdated.
What is immediately evident from this situation is that a majority of the DPRK undersea fleet is capable of deployment despite limited funding available for training, upkeep, and fuel. Regardless of if this deployment is intended for battle or as a show of force, the DPRK is expending a significant amount of its limited diesel fuel stores for such a large operation.
While the North’s submarine fleet is outdated, such a large deployment can conceivably seriously strain the abilities of the South Korean Navy in monitoring and countering them. One must also remember that it is very likely that a DPRK midget submarine was behind the sinking of the South Korean corvette, ROKS Cheonan, in March 2010 that claimed the lives of 46 sailors. At the time, U.S. and South Korean naval forces were conducting joint anti-submarine warfare (ASW) exercises nearby and the chance that a DPRK submarine could successfully engage a ship fitted for ASW missions highlights the threat from the North’s submarines even if they are outdated.
As for the artillery, the DPRK already has an estimated 13,000 pieces along the border. Many of them are within range of Seoul posing a significant threat to the capital if the North decided to mount an attack. While the DPRK has not necessarily doubled the number of artillery pieces on the border, it has doubled the number of crews manning them, crews that are now on full alert and ready for combat.
Talks between the North Korea and South Korea are entering their third day and so far have produced no tangible results, at least that the public is aware of. The deployments by the North are meant to show and prove the resolve of Pyongyang. On the other hand, the submarine deployment in particular is especially costly in terms of resources and seems in some ways, overboard if it is solely meant to be a show of force. Regardless, nearly three quarters of the North Korea’s submarine fleet has deployed in less than two days and their whereabouts are unknown. This does not create an ideal security situation and in light of the talks aimed at reducing tensions, show that the DPRK has a different agenda.