The South Koreans Want Kim Jong Un to Live in Fear of "Decapitation"

South Korea, as well as the US, hope North Korea will be to scared to function, but its a high risk proposition.

ROK Ministry of National Defense

South Korea, as well as its American allies, appear to be actively preparing to attack North Korean premier Kim Jong Un and his top associates in a “decapitation strike," or at least they want the reclusive regime to think that’s what they’re doing. This strategy of trying to hobble the government in Pyongyang by making its members fear for their lives is one that may or not pay off and will play into the propaganda coming out of North Korea that routinely accuses its enemies of planning a preemptive attack.

On Sept. 4, 2017, South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo suggested the country’s military might create a new special operations element specifically for the task of hunting down North Korean regime members in the event of a crisis. The unit would reportedly work closely with American counterparts training for the same mission, as part of the secretive Operations Plan 5015. Earlier in 2017, the Pentagon denied a report that the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, better known as SEAL Team Six, was in the country training for these potential targeted raids.

“We are in the process of conceptualizing the plan,” Song explained in response to a question from lawmakers about how the South Korean could figuratively decapitate the Kim government, according to The Korea Herald. “I believe we can create the unit by Dec. 1 and have it become operational.”

A separate report by The New York Times said that a brigade-sized unit, known as The Spartan 3000, would form the bulk of this force. The 2,000 to 4,000 member strong force would be able to quickly infiltrate into North Korea in the dead of night using a variety of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft, not unlike the North Korean military's own plans to launch massive commando raids using its fleet of aging An-2 biplanes. 

ROK Ministry of National Defense

South Korean Army Special Forces rappel from a helicopter during a training exercise.

The South Korean Marine Corps had previously formed a rapid-reaction organization with this name in March 2016, but it was unclear how the two were related to each other. This element had the ability to reach anywhere on the Peninsula within 24 hours, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported at the time. Their main mission would be destroying key targets in North Korea during an actual conflict, but would also be on standby in case of other contingencies, including natural disasters.

"In the past, the battalion-level unit took 24 hours to be deployed across the Korean Peninsula, while the regimental-level unit took 48 hours," an anonymous South Korean official explained, according to Yonhap. "However, the new unit will be able to operate within 24 hours even at the regimental level."

ROK Ministry of National Defense

South Korean Marines during a training exercise.

The specialized Marine unit had also come into existence near the end of the tenure of South Korean President Park Geun-hye, a conservative hardliner known for her tough stance against North Korea. After North Korea’s fifth nuclear weapons test in September 2016, she oversaw the establishment of a three level response plan for future provocations from the regime in Pyongyang.

The first operational concept was a preemptive attack on missile- and nuclear-related sites called “Kill Chain,” primarily involving air, ship, shore-launched missiles, such as the domestically produced Hyunmoo-2 ground-launched ballistic missile and the German-Swedish built Taurus KEPD 350 air-launched cruise missile. South Korea would put this plan into action if satellites and other intelligence systems detected an imminent threat. 

The South Korean government plans to launch five spy satellites between 2021 and 2023 and could rent commercial-grade space-based assets in the meantime. In addition, the country's military is in the process of buying a number of long-range, high altitude RQ-4 Global Hawk surveillance drones. To help make up for any gaps in the meantime, South Korea could no doubt make use of information sharing arrangements with the United states, which heavily monitors North Korea.

The second component was the establishment of an air and missile defense shield, known as Korean Air and Missile Defense (KAMD), focused on defeating any incoming North Korean ballistic missile barrage. Lastly, there was a plan for a massive retaliatory strike, dubbed Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation (KMPR), mainly targeting Pyongyang in the event of a nuclear strike.

ROK Ministry of Defense

South Korean F-15K multi-role combat jets.

It would seem that the special operations brigade would be a complement to the Kill Chain preemptive strike, striking at senior leadership before or as they attempted to launch an attack. However, The New York Times says South Korean expects to integrate it with the KMPR operation.

In December 2016, South Korea’s National Assembly impeached Park over abuses of power. Moon Jae-in, head of the country’s more liberal Democratic Party, won the subsequent election and observers initially posited he might seek a rapprochement with North Korea. After months of missile tests and a sixth nuclear weapons experiment, likely involving a hydrogen bomb, Moon has continued the military buildup in support of the three operational plans.

On Sept. 5, 2017, just a day after Defense Minister Song revealed the decapitation force plans, U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted that he would push for the sale of “a substantially increased amount of highly sophisticated military equipment from the United States” to both South Korea and Japan. He did not specify what might be in any future arms deals, but it seems likely that the government in Seoul would be interested in purchasing systems to support its three-tier response plans, possibly including ballistic missile defense systems such as the Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) and Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense missiles, as well as more F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.

More importantly, Trump also voiced a willingness to end American opposition to South Korea designing larger warheads for its ballistic missiles. At present, a U.S.-South Korean deal sets the maximum weight at approximately 1,100 pounds. There was no word on whether the new arrangement would expand the range restrictions in the existing pact, but South Korea is already developing a version on its Hyunmoo-2 missile that can reach anywhere inside North Korea. On top of that, authorities in Seoul have released video footage of these weapons, as well as KEPD 350 cruise missiles, penetrating mock underground bunkers, similar to those the Kim regime has built to defend itself.

For his part, the American president has repeatedly said that he feels talking with North Korea is not useful. Even after the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to hit the reclusive country with a new and even harsher round of sanctions on Sept. 12, 2017, Trump was dismissive. The new restrictions limited the amount of oil the country could import, banned it from exporting textiles, put new limitations on its citizens working abroad, and trimmed back allowable foreign investments, technology transfers, and other economic cooperation arrangements.

“We think it’s just another very small step – not a big deal,” Trump said during a shared press conference with the Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak on the same time. “I don’t know if it has any impact. … But those sanctions are nothing compared to what ultimately will have to happen.”

KCNA

North Korean premier Kim Jong Un.

So, whether or not anyone is laying any actual groundwork for a decapitation attack on North Korea, it seems clear that both South Korea and its American allies want it to appear this way. There is a clear belief that forcing Kim and his closest colleagues to constantly fear for their safety will limit their ability to conduct day-to-day activities related to weapons research or anything else.

“Kim is so engrossed with collecting information about the ‘decapitation operation’ through his intelligence agency,” South Korean Representative Lee Cheol-woo, a member of the opposition Liberty Party of Korea, told The Korea Herald after a briefing from a member of the country’s National Intelligence Service in June 2017. “The number of Kim Jong-un’s public activities was 51, a 32 percent decrease from last year,” Lee said the NIS official had explained.

Whether or not the threats have really prompted Kim to avoid a significant number of public engagements is unclear. There do appear to be increased sightings of possible body doubles though, including at least two individuals with similar haircuts and suits who joined the North Korean leader during the second test of the Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on July 28, 2017.

But even if it is working, there is danger the plan could ultimately backfire. North Korea’s propaganda has for years claimed that the United States and its South Korean allies are secretly preparing an invasion, a trend that started well before Kim Jong Un took power.

Fueling a debilitating paranoia seems to be the immediate goal, but it’s might not ultimately have the desired outcome, especially if Kim comes to believe that there is an immediate danger to his regime that requires some sort of direct action. The War Zone’s Tyler Rogoway recently summed up this volatile situation in a larger piece examining what options the U.S. government and its partners realistically had when responding to North Korea, writing:

The President [of the United States, Donald Trump,] learned the hard way that bellicose rhetoric does nothing but encourage North Korea to redouble their weapons development efforts and to lash out in an escalating manner. It also works to help validate their own propaganda and innate paranoia.

So where do we go from here? Kim Jong Un clearly has a plan as to what he aims to accomplish. Some say it is to create a grand bargaining chip, others say it is to establish a credible nuclear deterrent, while some even argue Kim has even darker goals in mind. Regardless of what his end game actually is, it primarily involves the survival of his regime.

In short, the South Korean plan, with obvious American backing seems to be to hobble the North Korean regime’s capacity to function, but while threatening that which it holds most dear, its very existence. This might have made sense when South Korea devised its three prong strategy in 2016.

Since then, its opponents to the north have demonstrated a workable ICBM and a very real looking hydrogen bomb to put on top of it, as well as a host of other increasingly capable ballistic missile types. The number of targets that South Korean troops and their American allies that would fall into a “must destroy” category during even a limited decapitation operation is only going up.

KCNA

Kim Jong Un inspects an apparent hydrogen bomb.

Kim has to know this and it’s undoubtedly driving, at least in part, his push to demonstrate increasingly advanced threats and build more of the ones he already has ready to go. If his goal is truly regime survival, then there’s no incentive not to use all of the weapons available in response to any perceived attempt to remove him from power.

“The best deterrence we can have, next to having our own nukes, is to make Kim Jong-un fear for his life,” Shin Won-sik, a retired general who served as the top operational strategist in South Korea’s military told The New York Times. “In the medieval system like North Korea, Kim Jong-un’s life is as valuable as hundreds of thousands of ordinary people whose lives would be threatened in a nuclear attack.”

For this to work, both South Korea and the United States will have to walk a very fine line, so as to keep Kim guessing what might happen to him, but not push him to launch his own preemptive strike. It’s a strategy that will require clear and consistent messaging, which we unfortunately have not seen a whole lot of lately.  

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com