Trump sanctions may be diminishing North Korea's military capability
There is a powerful sign that North Korea’s military capabilities have been seriously weakened by a devastating lack of oil, now that sanctions and their enforcement have been ratcheted up by the Trump administration.
The Wall Street Journal reports:
North Korea’s armed forces have scaled back their annual winter military exercises this year, U.S. officials said, a development they believe reflects growing pressure from international sanctions on the isolated nation’s economy and its military preparedness.
The North Korean maneuvers, which typically run from December through March, were slow in getting started and are less extensive than usual, according to American officials familiar with intelligence reports and experts outside the government.
The annual military exercises conducted by both sides (US-Korea on one side and North Korea on the other) are extremely important, not just for the purposes of readiness and training, but as theatre in the ongoing stare-down between the two sides technically still at war. North Korea places enormous weight on the perceptions the outside world has of its military might, the splendor of the Kim dynasty, and willingness to go to war. Few people outside of the regime itself believe that North Korea could win a military showdown, but most knowledgeable people worry that a desperate regime would be willing to inflict horrendous damage on South Korea (and the US, if possible) up to and including a nuclear attack. The ten thousand-plus artillery tubes pointed at the South Korean capital have served the purpose of deterring such an attack for many years.
In this context, the failure of the regime to conduct normal-level military exercises carries danger of lessening its deterrence. What else, besides fuel shortages, could persuade the regime to scale down its ritual display of military prowess? The Journal sees it as a “possibility”
One possibility is that restrictions on shipments of oil and refined petroleum products to North Korea imposed by the United Nations have led the country, which has one of the world’s largest standing armies, to conserve fuel by cutting back on ground and air training exercises.
“Where this will have an effect is on ground-force readiness,” said Joseph S. Bermudez Jr. , a military analyst for 38 North, a website on North Korean affairs run by Johns Hopkins University’s U.S.-Korea Institute. “Military units have to train to maintain their proficiency.”
Still, military analysts inside and outside the government cautioned that the development hasn’t yet led to a dramatic decrease in the North’s military capabilities. There also appear to be no signs that sanctions are limiting North Korea’s push to strengthen its nuclear and missile arsenal.
From what I have read over decades of watching North Korea, the regime is able to prioritize quite brutally, maintaining the military while a million people starved in a famine in recent memory. I have little doubt that they have put almost all their chips on the nuclear/missile program, which according to reports is not yet capable of delivering a nuclear attack on a specific target. In the meantime, has the readiness of ground forces and the maintenance of the artillery and replenishment of munitions suffered? The fact that elite troops assigned to the border have been defecting and are parasite-ridden suggests that beneath a thin veneer, the military is crumbling, aside from its top priority nuclear programs.
No petroleum necessary for this manuever
There may be, in other words, a window of opportunity in which the existing threat from conventional forces has diminished while the effectiveness of the future nuclear threat has not yet been realized. If this is true, it would be the ideal time to leverage that vulnerability into something – perhaps something previously unimaginable – in the way of meaningful concessions from the world’s first and only communist dynasty.
Unlike his father and grandfather, KJU has direct experience of life in the West having gone to boarding school in Switzerland. Unlike them, he is full of adulation for elements of Western culture such as basketball players. He may be approachable if he believes the critics of Trump who claim he is crazy and bent on war, and fears that his vulnerability could lead to a war that could end his regime and kill him. The satisfaction of bombarding Seoul and launching missiles at Japan would be cold consolation for his corpse.
My guess – and that is all it is – is that President Trump’s team is dreaming up some carrots (exile in a desirable location with plenty of money) to combine with the sticks of military might.
It may be a slim chance, but it is better than the status quo, which has North Korea ont hr path of a nuclear capability for sale to the highest bidder.