Forget Nukes. Will Kim Jong Un Pull Back His Big Guns?
South Korea has just complicated the already fraught negotiations with Kim Jong Un by raising the question of his heavy artillery zeroed in on Seoul.
SEOUL— South Korea has come up with a demand that seems sure to complicate claims of “a new era” on the Korean peninsula.
As a prelude to denuclearization, Korean negotiators are asking North Korea to pull back thousands of artillery pieces and multiple rocket launchers capable of reaching targets anywhere in the northern half of South Korea, including major U.S. military bases 40 miles south of the line. South Koreans, in working-level talks, are pushing the proposal even as the U.S. and South Korea were suspending joint military exercises in line with pledges made by President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un at last week’s summit in Singapore
The implication is plain: If suspension of war games marks the first step in a grand confidence-building scheme, it’s up to the North Koreans to respond with a significant step or two of their own. More than nukes and missiles, North Korean artillery and rockets pose an immediate threat under which South Koreans have lived ever since the Korean War ended in a heavily armed truce in 1953.
"In light of consultations between the North and the United States over the denuclearization issue,” a government source told the South Korean media, “we have to craft measures to drastically reduce military tensions by removing practical threats." The South “suggested moving the North's artillery that threatens the Seoul metropolitan area to rear areas so as to actively implement the Panmunjom Declaration” in which South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in and Kim on April 27 called for “complete denuclearization.”
For decades, while South Koreans have been worrying about North Korean cannon and rocket fire, the North has been steadily increasing their numbers and range.
By now about 14,000 artillery pieces are estimated to be deployed within 10 to 20 miles of the line between North and South. A 300-millimeter rocket launcher is capable of reaching the strategic U.S. air base at Osan and the new U.S. Forces Korea headquarters complex at Pyeongtaek, according to Seoul’s defense ministry, while 240-millimeter rocket launchers and 170-millimeter howitzers can hit targets anywhere in or around metropolitan Seoul, the port of Incheon, and surrounding Gyeonggi Province, home to 25 million people.
Stephen Tharp, a retired U.S. army officer who spent years here analyzing North Korean military issues, sees the idea of persuading the North Koreans to pull back their artillery as mission impossible. “Even if they did it, how can you verify it?” asks Tharp, who often joined in talks with the North Koreans, long since suspended, in the joint security area at Panmunjom where the Korean War truce was signed in July 1953. “Verifying is ludicrous.”
The overwhelming problem is the defense afforded by mountains and ridgelines that make North Korean artillery virtually unreachable from the South Korean side.
“They’ve got holes in the back of mountains,” says Tharp, while inside the mountains “we don’t know what their tunnels look like” — or, for that matter, how extensive they are, where they lead or how they’re inter-connected. Basically,they’re vulnerable only to air strikes at tunnel openings, many of which presumably would be decoys.
The threat posed by North Korean cannon and rocket launchers, not mentioned by Trump and Kim at Singapore and seemingly overlooked by senior U.S. negotiators, arose as the U.S. and South Korea prepared to call off traditional war games beginning with Ulchi Freedom Guardian, a show of force held annually in August involving up to 20,000 U.S. troops. On Monday, U.S. officials sent from Washington to help organize the exercise were told the planning had been cancelled.
Much of this exercise was played on computers but also featured live artillery fire, bombing runs, and tanks and infantry storming hills and valleys 15 miles south of the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.
"The South Korean and U.S. military authorities have been having close consultations over the combined exercises that U.S. President Donald Trump has said he will stop," said a carefully worded statement from a government source, "This week, the South Korean and U.S. defense ministries will jointly announce the results of their discussions."
The decision marks the end of decades of exercises together – none perhaps so upsetting to the North Koreans as the “decapitation” exercises in recent years when U.S. and South Korean marines and special forces simulated landings, infiltrated to the center of power and knocked off the leader. The message was clear — if Kim Jong Un failed to behave, a “preemptive strike” on his nuclear and missile facilities was not the only option.
Cancellation of the war games, to be sure, comes with a “snapback” warning that the U.S. and South Korea will go right back to business as usual if the North Koreans fail to show signs of denuclearization as Trump and Kim agreed. As long as South Korea’s President Moon pursues reconciliation and dialogue with the North, however, joint exercises are seen as receding into the long history of North-South confrontation.
U.S. and South Korean forces last trained together last month in “Max Thunder” involving war planes from both countries. North Korea showed its discontent by abruptly cancelling negotiations between senior officials from both countries at which they were to follow up on Moon’s meeting with Kim in April. It was during renewed military talks last week, after the Singapore summit, that South Korea suggested the North Koreans pull back their artillery and rocket launchers.
Tharp believes suspension of war games will be temporary while the North Koreans show no real signs of getting rid of their nukes and missiles. North Korea’s state media on Monday harked back to the need to “implement the Panmunjom Declaration” but said nothing about denuclearization, much less withdrawal of artillery from above the Demilitarized Zone dividing North from South.
Tharp sees little if any chance of a viable deal on the artillery and rockets that loom so close to the Seoul-Incheon megalopolis. They’re largely mobile — the cannons are on tracked vehicles, the rocket launchers on wheels — meaning the North Koreans could easily return them to the tunnels from which they emerged after having created an impression of pulling them back . Although half of North Korea’s armed forces of 1.2 million troops are within 40 to 50 miles of the North-South line, most of them are well out of sight. (I have gazed through telescopes into North Korea from half a dozen vantages on the southern side of the DMZ. Never have I seen any sign of North Korean troops or vehicles other than guard posts.)
Under the circumstances, analysts believe nothing short of aerial bombardment could effectively counter such formidable weaponry. With artillery from South Korea so powerless against hidden targets, Kim Sung-hak, who lectures on military issues at Hanyang University, believes the North Koreans would be far more likely to use conventional weapons against the South rather than launch nuclear-tipped missiles.
North Korea, moreover, may be all the more insistent on keeping its artillery in place while reducing its nuclear strength. “Without nuclear weapons, their long-range artillery is their only deterrent to attack,” as Kim Sung-hak observes. “They did not say anything to this proposal from South Korea.”
South Koreans, meanwhile, have other ways to keep troops in fighting trim. South Korean fighter planes, warships, and marines on Monday opened two days of war games in defense of two rocky islets known to the Koreans as Dokdo in the East China Sea, a.k.a. the Sea of Japan. The imaginary enemy was an historic foe, Japan, which calls the islets Takeshima and claims them as Japanese territory even though the Korean Coast Guard holds them.
Tharp doubts the cancellation of the Ulich games is the opening of a new era, as claimed in Singapore. “One time is not a big deal,” he says. “Eventually the skills are going to start degrading. Over time it will have a bigger effect … It’s regrettable — but won’t cause us to lose a war.” He predicts the big joint exercises will resume when it becomes clear that Mr. Kim is not living up to the expectations of Mr. Moon or Mr. Trump.