Events in Iraq Give Pyongyang New Confidence
Stratfor Intelligence

Mar 27, 2003


As Japan prepares for its first spy satellite launch March 28, it is stepping up observation of North Korea over concerns that Pyongyang might test a ballistic missile around the same time. And North Korea may well be preparing another missile test, particularly as U.S. forces get ready to encounter Iraqi forces around Baghdad. North Korea has been studying the war on Iraq and has taken some hope from the Iraqi strategy thus far ...


Japan will launch its first two indigenous spy satellites March 28, four and a half years after being taken by surprise when a North Korean Taepo Dong-I flew over Hokkaido in Pyongyang's first attempted satellite launch. Tokyo is stepping up its watchfulness of its neighbor over concerns that Pyongyang might take this opportunity to test another long-range ballistic missile.

And North Korea's leaders, who convened the sixth session of the 10th Supreme People's Assembly on March 26, might well be considering another missile launch soon, particularly as they watch the U.S. military action in Iraq. From Pyongyang's viewpoint, the fighting there offers new insights into U.S. readiness and war-fighting capability...

North Korea was slow to react to the onset of military action in Iraq, but when it did, it strongly condemned the action as a "grave encroachment upon sovereignty." A Foreign Ministry spokesman issued a statement cautioning that "this high-handed action of the U.S. against Iraq and the war preparations now being made by the U.S. and its followers in the Korean Peninsula compel the DPRK to do all it can to defend itself."

Pyongyang is carefully studying the war in Iraq, as it represents a test case of U.S. will and ability to disarm and "liberate" a member of Washington's so-called "axis of evil." But far from the expectations so widely touted in international media, the Iraqi people have not risen up against their government, the military has not deserted en masse and the regime has not collapsed. Instead, irregular forces have carried out harassment attacks against rear-area positions while regular forces have established a ring of defenses around Baghdad. And despite some limited signs of popular revolt, the military campaign seems if anything to be strengthening the resolve of the Iraqi people to resist -- or at least not directly support -- the U.S. campaign.

From Pyongyang's view, the lesson of Iraq thus far is that, although the United States has a technologically superior military, it is not suited to a war where the stated aim is disarmament and liberating the citizens of a nation from their own government. If North Korea launched an attack on South Korea, officials in Pyongyang know that the technological might of the U.S. military would triumph. However, if Washington decided to disarm North Korea pre-emptively, its own rules of engagement would hinder it from fully using its superior firepower and force projection -- leaving U.S. forces vulnerable to irregular and asymmetrical warfare from the North Koreans.

Pyongyang is taking hope from this assessment of U.S. military actions in Iraq. If North Korea refrains from striking first, the United States will be tied by a set of combat constraints that significantly narrows the technology gap between the U.S. and North Korean forces. And even if Washington eventually wins in Iraq, the message already will have been delivered: Unilateral attempts at disarmament and regime change are no cakewalk. Since Pyongyang has little interest in instigating a full-scale war with the United States, the regime now feels more confident in its ability to withstand a U.S. assault under the aegis of "liberating" the North Korean people from their own leadership or "disarming" a rogue nation.

That said, in order to gain maximum leverage against the United States, leaders in Pyongyang feel they must move now to take advantage of the military situation in Iraq. Thus, the North Korean regime has withdrawn from military liaison talks with the United States, warned that "no one can vouch that the U.S. will not spark the second Iraqi crisis on the Korean Peninsula," and moved vehicles around its nuclear and missile facilities -- in plain view of U.S. satellites. Pyongyang also has delayed talks with Seoul and threatened that the upcoming Japanese satellite launch will only ensure Japan's destruction.

Rhetoric will not be enough to press home the dire nature of the situation in North Korea to Washington, Pyongyang has seen, and North Korea may well be preparing two more concrete steps to up the ante: firing up the nuclear reprocessing facilities and launching another long-range ballistic missile. Both moves would trigger an outcry from South Korea and Japan, thus pressuring the United States to address the situation immediately. And in North Korea's calculations, Washington has only two choices in such circumstances: either launch a pre-emptive strike against North Korean facilities or accede to bilateral talks aimed at ending the nuclear standoff and formulating a non-aggression pact with the North.

The spring session of the Supreme People's Assembly is currently under way. With that complete, and with U.S. military forces nearing Baghdad, Pyongyang will see its window of opportunity to act opening over the next few weeks.

The regime continues to monitor the tactical situation in Iraq carefully, seeking to gauge the strengths and weaknesses of the U.S. military, and it is growing ever more confident that self-imposed combat restrictions on U.S. forces significantly degrade any advantage the U.S. military would have over North Korea. Bolstered by this new insight, Pyongyang is surer that the United States actually can be coerced into bilateral negotiations and -- should that assumption prove incorrect -- that the North Korean military does indeed have a fighting chance against a U.S. attack.