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North Korea Has at Least One Thing Right About America's Plans for War

Kim Jong-un and his cohorts accuse the United States and South Korea of preparing a "beheading" of the North Korean regime. And in the event of war, that's exactly what they would do.
Photo via KCNA/Getty Images

Read and watch more about North Korea in "March Madness," a VICE News special section on the Hermit Kingdom.

Right now, 320,000 American and South Korean soldiers are holding their annual spring military exercises on the Korean Peninsula, just as they have for two decades. And just as it has for two decades, North Korea is not reacting well. This year, Kim Jong-un and company have made nuclear threats and launched long-range missiles. They have also bellowed that a ruthless "beheading" of the North Korean regime is being prepared by the US and the South.


And on that count, Pyongyang is actually right.

According to interviews with US military officers and government contractors who have directly participated in war planning, the past three years has seen the pursuit of Kim and other leaders in the north become the prime objective in America's war plan. Tracking and capturing "high value individuals" has been successfully practiced in previous military exercises using techniques borrowed from America's decade-and-a-half of experience in the Middle East. It is a military strategy that demands an unprecedented level of intelligence collection, and one that verges on pre-emption, heightening the prospects of war.

Every day at 0300 local time, US military and intelligence briefings start. The demilitarized zone is assessed, North Korean nuclear assets and missiles are fully accounted for, ground movements are logged, air and naval activity is tracked, special operations forces are located, and communications streams are measured and monitored — and the precise status and locations of individual civilian and military leaders are noted.

It is a meticulous review of 1,400 indicators of notable or unusual activity in North Korea, according to participants who spoke to VICE News.

From three in the morning throughout the day and into evening, watch operations migrate east against the clock from Seoul to Japan to Pearl Harbor, the location of Pacific Command headquarters. Then it's on to the hollowed-out mountain in Colorado Springs where the missile warning experts wait, followed by the Pentagon and the multitude of three-letter agencies situated on the US East Coast. There is really no beginning and no end, the watch officers always glued to computer screens and linked through Secret chat windows, a globe-spanning looking glass monitoring the vitals of one of the most dangerous and volatile nations on earth.


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Targeted killing became the centerpiece of the contingency plan because the true winning move on the Korean Peninsula is to never have to meet Pyongyang and its enormous numbers of military personnel on a battlefield. This means North Korea is indeed under unique threat, but its posturing about a prospective invasion is wildly off the mark — the war plan against the Hermit Kingdom revolves around a wholly modernized contest that resides in the air, space, and cyber domains, designed to take advantage of every machine vulnerability of a fossilized industrial foe.

When it comes to North Korea, unceasing readiness is the plan — a "fight tonight" attitude, as they say in the tightly knit US and South Korean command structure. In the absence of actual war, the most immediate of intelligence is called "indications and warning," or I&W. Against North Korea, a combination of satellites, aircraft, drones, ships, and submarines, together with cyber and land monitoring stations, toil on a synchronized and overlapping schedule to constantly check on the nation's status.

Whether it's activity at Kim's home or the amount of information moving through the military's electronic command channels, anything out of place is noted as a potential sign of aggression. The level of activity is measured against averages, against similar days, and even against dissimilar trend lines. Seven hundred locations — North Korean military bases, launch sites, airfields, and underground bunkers — are in the I&W target deck for daily scrutiny, while another 700 indicators of activity on and off fixed targets are constantly monitored. Seismic activity, the level of traffic on the roads, the number of aircraft in the air, ships out of port, and troops outside bases are closely measured.


The newest war plan, called CONPLAN 5015, focuses not on conventional war but on the digital tricks of targeted killing utilized against al Qaeda.

Anything out of the ordinary changes what's called the Threat Indicator Status. Analysts then scrutinize the indicators based upon what is going on. For instance, an unusually high level of North Korean military activity would be weighed against other factors — like whether there is a massive joint military exercise simultaneously going on in the south.

Where war planning has changed in the past few years is that there is conventional warning of North Korean attack, for instance, a missile being readied for launch that precipitates units to go on alert, aircraft to take off, fingers to move closer to triggers. The conventional war plan for the defense of South Korea, known as OPLAN 5027, prepares the responses and the best moves in the face of failure.

The newest war plan, called CONPLAN 5015, focuses not on conventional war but on the newest of the new, the digital tricks of targeted killing utilized against al Qaeda. (A CONPLAN is commonly called a "contingency plan," but it actually means an operations plan that exists in "concept" form only.) Intelligence analysts assigned to the Korean watch floor now speak of "actionable intelligence" and tracking "pattern of life" data and "full-spectrum" operations in fighting the North, terms that they borrow from the fight against terrorism.


CONPLAN 5015 was first tested in the 2013 series of US-South Korea exercises. It first came to public light last year as South Korean legislators sought more information to confirm whether it was or wasn't a pre-emption and "decapitation" plan as had been reported. But the true reason for the emergence of CONPLAN 5015 is that a decade ago, the stakes fundamentally changed.

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In 2006, North Korea tested its first nuclear weapon and long-range missile. In a world of a deliverable North Korean nuclear weapon, US war planners concluded that the conventional responses of the past weren't enough. Enter the "non-kinetic" dimensions of war: closing off the communications links between leadership commands and operators at their bases; shutting down the electrical grid; even landing special operations commandos at North Korean facilities to take them over or destroy them.

This year's military exercises again focus on pre-emption and decapitation. US Forces Korea (USFK) adheres to a formulaic reassurance that it told North Korea the exercises were "non-provocative." From the American military standpoint, it is facing a nuclear armed rogue, but as they say, nothing would ever happen unless the North made the first move.

Thus the central role of intelligence to detect the slightest indicator, a capability that has also increased with the revolution in global communications and computing, a revolution that has even reached North Korea. The role (and capabilities) of special operations has also increased as those forces became dominant in the war against terrorism. Today the largest Joint Special Operations Task Force in the world, more than 8,000 American and South Korean commandos, plays an unprecedented role. And going after decision-makers and individuals — what cold warriors used to call decapitation — has gained solid footing thanks to drones and President Barack Obama's embrace of targeted killing.


In 2009, US intelligence prepared a mock National Intelligence Estimate entitled "Regime Change in North Korea" to assess the vulnerability and hierarchy of North Korea decision-making and leadership. That same year, the intelligence community worked out a methodology to identify human vulnerabilities within foreign militaries' command, control, communications, and computer systems, primarily focusing on North Korea. A Korea Cyber Center was activated.

The USFK Special Technical Operations Cell, working with the NSA and CIA, special operations, and psychological warfare planners began to develop "methods of approach to capture and contain high value leaders and politicians," according to classified documents obtained by VICE News. A North Korea "leadership/regime targeting methodology rebuild" also took place. Some 250 new targets and critical elements were scrutinized and leadership target folders were created that would "deny decision makers access to safe havens and communications," according to participants in the process.

During the 2013 exercise series to test the concepts behind the draft CONPLAN 5015, a team of non-lethal planners in South Korea achieved a first-ever in a high intensity war game, according to the documents: They combined imagery and signals intelligence, cyber and electronic warfare, as well as elite special operations forces to find and "capture" a mock "high value individual" — in other words, a North Korean leader. The tailored North Korean techniques contained in CONPLAN 5015 were signed off by Obama soon thereafter, according to military officers involved.


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Since 2005, according to an intelligence source who spoke on background, the number of indication and warning reports on North Korea has increased from 60 a day to 600. "There isn't a mouse that scurries in the DMZ without note," the analyst claims. The end product, US military insiders think, is 100 percent alert capability in the event of a North Korean attack — a somewhat confusing concept considering an alert would demand action before an attack.

As irrational as the North is portrayed in the West, its actions aren't totally without reason. Its military statement in response to this year's exercises accused the US and the South of rehearsing a "decapitation operation" that would produce the "collapse of the [North Korean] system." Pyongyang warns that North Korea will strike out if the regime detects the "slightest" effort to target what it called "the supreme nerve center." And yet that targeting is already going on, the insane tyranny of sensible but self-defeating actions on both sides to preserve the peace. The South is threatened, the North is threatened, and the two sides, convinced they are right, ratchet up preparedness to a point where conflict becomes more and more likely.

Follow William M. Arkin on Twitter: @warkin

Read and watch more about North Korea in "March Madness," a VICE News special section on the Hermit Kingdom.