Sunday, August 23, 2015

Okay, Now I'm Worried

Although talks are going on between North and South Korea, am I making too much of the fact that the broke North Korea with a rotting military actually managed to put more than 50 of their hard to maintain and crew submarines at sea?

North Korea is doing something:

The meeting at the Panmunjom truce village inside the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) began on Saturday evening shortly after North Korea's deadline for Seoul to halt anti-Pyongyang propaganda broadcasts or face military action. It broke up before dawn on Sunday.

Even as the talks restarted, the rivals were on high military alert, with the North deploying twice the usual artillery strength at the border and a majority of its submarine fleet - more than 50 vessels - away from bases, the South's defense ministry said.

They doubled their artillery and sent the majority of their sub fleet to sea? The former wouldn't be too difficult since you just have to tow stuff. It doesn't even have to work or have much ammo available.

But putting subs to sea means they have to be crewed and seaworthy. That takes a good deal of time and a lot of effort to prepare. And they're old.

They put more than 50 to sea. If that is accurate, of course. But this article says that 70% of North Korea's 77 subs are at sea and "undetectable." So they either submerged or sank.

And the South Koreans say this:

The official said he couldn't immediately confirm whether the North's submarine activity was one of its strongest since the 1950-53 Korean War.

So this is unusual at the very least, if that question arose.

As my 2012 The Military Balance assesses, "[North Korean] equipment is in a poor state, and questions remain over personnel training, morale and operational readiness."

So even if this isn't the strongest ever deployment, the fact that it is being done now when their military is in such bad shape says a lot about the effort needed.

Mind you, I don't think North Korea could win a war with South Korea and her allies--essentially America and Japan. I can't imagine that even North Korea's leaders are so lost in their fantasy world that they believe they could win.

Although I'll admit that massive chemical weapons use and perhaps some nukes would give them a shot if it shattered the South Korean military and allowed the North Korean troops to carry out a nearly unopposed road march south.

But the prospect of defeat might not deter North Korea's leadership.

Perhaps the long collapse is finally coming close.

Perhaps in response the North Korean leadership sees the alternatives as an uprising with a military unwilling to defend the regime on the one hand; and on the other, a losing conventional war with South Korea that rallies the people around the regime, decimates their own military which may be less than loyal, and rallies the survivors after a ceasefire.

Remember, North Korea went to a strategy of kooks, nukes, and spooks--using spies to control their people and nukes to deter invasion--because the large military is unaffordable.

But it really is a problem for the regime to starve the military of resources.

So why not engineer the reduction of the useless for domestically dangerous army by South Korea?

North Korea really just needs the ability to bombard Seoul--not advance to Pusan.

And really, why would the North Koreans care if any of their submarines survive? Their most glorious use would be to demonstrate the horrible nature of their many enemies and end the money drain to keep them in service.

This strategy for regime survival assumes we and the South Korea don't march north--even a little bit--and assumes China doesn't march south, of course. Perhaps North Korea does have some nukes that they believe could deter such a bad final outcome.

Or they believe the threat of Chinese intervention will stay our hand.

And remember, if we look at all kinds of indicators that would signal an invasion (and we do), North Korea could fool us because the North Koreans wouldn't need to carry out a lot of activities that we would detect if the purpose of the war is not to win a war but to safely lose and rally the people, decimate useless parts of the military and generally chop it down to size without releasing trained and possibly angry troops into the civilian world.

Perhaps North Korea blinked over their 48-hour deadline for South Korea to stop their loudspeaker news broadcasts at the DMZ.

Or perhaps Kim Jong-Un was simply overly optimistic that his forces could be put in position in 48 hours.

Perhaps I just don't know nearly enough about what North Korea is doing and not doing to realize that my pucker factor shouldn't be rising to dangerous levels.

UPDATE: The submarine deployment is indeed "unprecedented."

And this is a bad time for things to go boom in the neighborhood:

The Pentagon said on Sunday it was aware of reports of an explosion at a U.S. military base in Sagamihara, Japan, but said it could not confirm the blast occurred on the base.

During a crisis is a bad time to have explosive accidents. If it was an accident.

UPDATE: Talks continue:

South Korean President Park Geun-hye demanded on Monday that North Korea apologize over recent landmine blasts, even as the bitter rivals held marathon talks to defuse tensions that have brought the peninsula back to the brink of armed conflict.

Are the North Koreans talking because they realize they made a mistake and want to talk back their threat?

Or do they just need time?

Question: where are the 50+ North Korean subs going? The Korea Strait to interdict shipping? To positions to unload commandos (which could be in Japan, too)?

Sometimes people send in the diplomats to further war aims and not to avoid war.

UPDATE: I've read some who claim suspending the exercises even for a short time reflected the Obama administration "blinking" in the face of North Korean threats. I disagree.

If our troops are in the field on exercise (without live ammo, or little) and the enemy invades, those troops are dead meat if hit. It makes perfect sense to pause and see what is going on in case all Hell is about to break loose.

We paused and then resumed the exercises. Although if we didn't see many of the indicators we believe we'd see on the eve of invasion, keep in mind my caveat above about what North Korea might be thinking.