The commander of U.S. military forces in Korea is leading a high-level military strategy meeting this week examining how U.S. forces would respond to North Korea’s new mobile long-range missiles and the use of other weapons and capabilities, according to defense officials.
Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, will direct what the command is calling the Korean Strategy Seminar (KSS) at the U.S. Special Operations Command Wargame Center in Tampa.
A spokesman for U.S. Forces Korea declined to provide details of the seminar but told the Washington Free Beacon that the strategy session will focus on preparing to deal with North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction.
"The KSS brings together key leaders from across the U.S. government to consider how we can proactively support enhancing stability on the Korean peninsula," said spokesman Andre Kok.
"This includes consideration of the challenge presented by North Korean weapons of mass destruction, as well as how we may potentially enhance our support to the Republic of Korea's role in maintaining regional stability."
The current seminar is the second of its type and "is an important step to ensuring interagency coordination and engagement," he said.
The seminar is being held amid new tensions with North Korea over its role in hacking Sony Pictures Entertainment last November. Intelligence officials have said that the hack was carried out by North Korean government agents.
Defense officials said several North Korean conflict scenarios will be played out in the Tampa session, including efforts to counter North Korea’s new road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile, the KN-08, as well as discussion of how to counter Pyongyang’s cyber warfare capabilities.
The KN-08 is a 6,000-mile range road-mobile ICBM that has been observed in North Korea on Chinese-made transporter erector launchers. Engine tests of the missile were carried out last year but a flight test has not been observed.
Additionally, the seminar will examine the use of U.S. special operations forces that in the past have planned and practiced operations to sabotage North Korean weapons of mass destruction facilities and stockpiles inside the country, one of the most regimented totalitarian police and military states in the world.
The war games are also expected to include discussion of how to counteract North Korea’s expected infiltration of large numbers of elite special operations commandos into South Korea during a conflict, considered a key asymmetric military threat.
North Korea is believed to have several nuclear warheads fueled with plutonium. The regime has conducted three underground nuclear tests and the Pyongyang government has made repeated threats to use nuclear missile strikes against the United States in recent years.
Defense officials said the seminar also could be preparation for U.S. retaliation against North Korea for the cyber attacks that damaged Sony’s computer networks, involved the theft of large amounts of proprietary information, and prompted the movie company to delay release of the comedy The Interview, involving a fictional CIA plot to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
President Obama last month threatened to take unspecified retaliatory action against North Korea for the Sony hacking.
"They caused a lot of damage, and we will respond," Obama said Dec. 19. "We will respond proportionally, and we’ll respond in a place and time and manner that we choose."
Military spokesman declined to provide specifics on the war games.
Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Jeffrey Pool said the seminar will include senior officials of the Office of Secretary of Defense who will take part in portions of the classified strategy seminar.
"The reason for hosting the seminar in Florida is the facility is able to accommodate discussions from a large number of participants at a high level of security classification," he said.
U.S. military officials in recent months have expressed growing worries over the KN-08, a missile with enough range to hit parts of the United States with a nuclear warhead.
North Korea unveiled six KN-08s during a military parade in April 2012.
An additional worry is recent intelligence indicating North Korea is developing a submarine-launched ballistic missile. Satellite photographs revealed the work on a submarine launcher and the disclosure that the North has a submarine capable of firing missiles. The Free Beacon first disclosed the SLBM work in August.
North Korea’s military is large, with 1.02 million troops, 4,200 tanks, 2,200 armored vehicles, and 8,600 artillery pieces.
Scaparrotti is said by defense officials to be very worried about North Korea’s growing military capabilities and the danger of a North Korean military provocation triggering a second Korean War.
The four-star Army general in October told reporters he believes North Korea has the capability of miniaturizing a small warhead and mating it to one of the KN-08 missile.
"I don't know that they have that capability," he said Oct. 24 at the Pentagon. "I'm just saying as a commander, I've got to assume they have the capabilities to put it together. We've not seen it tested at this point. And as you know, for something that’s that complex, without it being tested, the probability of it being effective is pretty darn low."
Scaparrotti also said North Korea’s cyber attack capabilities are not as formidable as others around the world, but that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un "is focused on developing cyber capabilities."
"We've seen where he has had impact, obviously, in South Korea and their business and commercial entities. It's things like disruption of service, et cetera," he said.
The Obama administration imposed sanctions on several North Korean entities in response to the Sony hack.
Defense officials said that because North Korea is not heavily reliant on information systems, a U.S. cyber counterattack against the communist state is only one option among many being considered by commanders.
Military options could include covert sabotage or intelligence operations targeting high-value North Korean military or political entities.
David S. Maxwell, a North Korea expert at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies, said the Korea Strategy Seminar could include an array of scenarios, such as how to deal with North Korean military provocations aimed at gaining political and economic concessions, a catastrophic collapse of the Kim family regime, or a North Korean military strike aimed at reunifying the Korean peninsula under Pyongyang’s control.
Other contingencies that could be explored may include an examination of the North’s global illicit activities, such as currency counterfeiting and illicit drug trafficking, or how to deal with the North’s trafficking in weapons of mass destruction and missile technology.
"I do not know what the focus is on but given the complexity of the security situation, this range of challenges provides a variety of scenarios for an exercise and in particular an interagency exercise," Maxwell said in an email.
The use of Special Operations Command’s Wargame center also is significant, Maxwell said, as the command provides support for all major combatant commands during war or major military operations.
"What I think is important about this exercise is that it does illustrate the importance of the security situation on the Korean Peninsula and conducting it at USSOCOM allows Gen. Scaparrotti and his team to capitalize on not only a world class gaming and simulation center at the headquarters, but also the fact that USSOCOM is probably the most advanced command in bringing together the interagency [process] outside of Washington to look at U.S. strategic problems."
The special operations command has developed strong interagency ties that "have tremendous value in any strategic security scenario to include those on the Korean Peninsula," Maxwell said.
In September, Adm. Samuel Locklear, then-commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, also expressed worries over the new KN-08.
Locklear said North Korea is working to deploy the mobile ICBM and said "road-mobile systems" limit the "amount of time you have to deal with it, particularly if you want to deal with it before they launch it."
The four-star admiral said it was difficult to assess how close North Korea is to fielding the KN-08.
"So we watch it very, very carefully and it’s kind of just on an upward trajectory of the things that over time can give us concern," he told Bloomberg News.
Dealing with North Korea is one of the "most dangerous" security challenges, Locklear said, because Pyongyang has produced "pictures of mushroom clouds over New York City and Washington."
On the overall threat posed by Pyongyang, Scaparrotti said in October: "In recent years, North Korea has focused on development of asymmetric capabilities. These capabilities include several hundred ballistic missiles, one of the world's largest chemical weapons stockpiles, a biological weapons research program, and the world's largest special operations force, as well as an active cyber-warfare capability."
North Korea in 2013 conducted a third underground nuclear test and stepped up no-notice ballistic missile launches last year, he said.
"We are concerned that such events could start a cycle of action and counteraction, leading to an unintended, uncontrolled escalation," Scaparrotti said.
Amid concerns over the threat from North Korea, South Korea, Japan, and the United States concluded a new intelligence-sharing agreement.
The command’s Wargame Center, where the KSS is being held, conducts war games, rehearsal of concept drills, senior seminars, and other planning efforts, according to the Special Operations Command website.
The Pentagon’s annual report to Congress on the North Korean military described the KN-08, which the Pentagon calls the Hwasong-13.
"If successfully designed and developed, the Hwasong-13 likely would be capable of reaching much of the continental United States, assuming the missiles displayed are generally representative of missiles that will be fielded," the report said.
On North Korea’s military cyber warfare capabilities, the report said North Korea "probably has a military offensive cyber operations (OCO) capability."
"Given North Korea’s bleak economic outlook, [offensive computer operations] may be seen as a cost-effective way to develop asymmetric, deniable military options," the report said.
"Because of North Korea’s historical isolation from outside communications and influence, it is also likely to use Internet infrastructure from third-party nations. This increases the risk of destabilizing actions and escalation on and beyond the Korean Peninsula."
North Korea’s large special operations forces (SOF)—some 60,000 commandos—were described in the report as "among the most highly trained, well-equipped, best-fed, and highly motivated forces" in the North Korean military.
"As North Korea’s conventional capabilities decline relative to the ROK and United States, North Korea appears to increasingly regard SOF capabilities as vital for asymmetric coercion," the report said.
Maxwell, the Georgetown North Korea expert, said the last time he could recall an interagency exercise focusing on Korean security was after President Bill Clinton in 1997 signed Presidential Decision Directive-56 (PDD-56) on managing complex contingency operations.
That directive coincided with fears at the time that the regime in Pyongyang might collapse, creating a catastrophic situation in the region.
"It seems to me that this exercise being conducted by [U.S. Forces Korea] with the support of USSOCOM is the best opportunity for interagency planning since 1997," he said.