So-called “hybrid” security strategies, sometimes also referred to as “hybrid warfare”, have been the subject of much discussion among military and security experts in recent years. In Russia it is often mentioned that it uses such hybrid security strategies, but there are more countries that have used them successfully and in some cases for many decades. North Korea is one such example. If one defines a hybrid security strategy as the integrated use of various means and actors by states to influence or force other states in order to achieve strategic goals and at the same time avoid actual armed conflict, North Korea offers an interesting example of how successful such strategies are are can be longer term.
This article briefly analyzes the North Korean experience with hybrid security strategies. First, the goals of the North Korean strategy are discussed. It next describes the policy tools that evolve, as well as some specific features that are used. The article concludes with some general observations and lessons that might be drawn from the North Korean case.
Foreign policy and domestic policy goals
After the Korean War from 1950 to 1953, North Korea pursued a strategy of low, asymmetrical or hybrid security strategies in which it tried in vain to unite the two Koreas by military means. After the ceasefire (not an official peace agreement) that ended the war, North Korea had no choice but to acknowledge that given its alliance with the United States, it could not win a traditional military conflict against South Korea. The Pyongyang regime therefore decided to focus on a strategy of asymmetrical security policy in order to achieve important goals with South Korea and the United States and to avoid conflict to the full. The goals of North Korea’s hybrid security strategies in various formats that were applied between the 1950s and today fall into two categories: foreign policy objectives and domestic policy objectives.
At the foreign policy level, the main objective is deterrence. The Pyongyang regime genuinely fears regime change efforts from abroad; not only from South Korea and the USA, but above all from other neighboring powers such as China and Russia (Lankov 2013: 183-184). To deter such efforts, North Korea continually presents itself as a powerful military actor, an unpredictable and dangerous player. To achieve this goal, hybrid methods are used alongside more common deterrent measures such as massive investments in the armed forces, including the development of weapons of mass destruction. Both military and non-military provocations are intended to signal that North Korea is so powerful that any attempt to threaten it fails and ends in bloody reprisals (Roehrig 2006). In other words, provocation is seen as necessary to avoid an actual war.
In addition to the goal of deterrence, hybrid security measures are intended to weaken North Korea’s enemies. The strategy is that any action that harms the US or US-occupied South Korea means greater strength for North Korea. In the 1960s in particular, Pyongyang hoped that hybrid activities could destabilize South Korea and spark a communist revolution there, which in turn would lead to the unification of the two Koreas. However, that hope was lost quite early on when South Korea’s anti-communist sentiments turned out to be very strong (Lankov 2013: 27-32). Since the 1970s, attempts at destabilization have aimed to violate and weaken South Korean security in order to increase North Korea’s relative strength.
In addition, North Korea’s hybrid security strategy is intended to create leeway for the regime in its foreign policy. Its hybrid security activities signal that North Korea cannot enforce international rules and norms for state behavior and that other states must accept that the North Korean regime can act as it wishes. One example of this is the regime’s massive illegal trade to circumvent economic sanctions, which not only benefits the North Korean economy and the luxury life of the elite, but also signals that international sanctions cannot harm North Korea.
The domestic policy goals behind the hybrid security strategies are equally important. The North Korean regime is actively using the image of a dangerous enemy from abroad to maintain support from its people. The enduring message to the people is: support this regime because only these powerful leaders can prevent foreign invasions and oppression. The creation of sustained tensions with “enemies” abroad and the presentation of the regime’s military successes in combating these enemies are necessary propaganda instruments for this domestic goal (Byman & Lind 2010: 53-54). In the meantime, however, these tensions and military successes should not create an actual war that the regime recognizes would certainly lose.
An evolving set of policy tools
The North Korean “policy instruments” of its hybrid security strategy have evolved over the decades. Some tools are no longer used, others are rather new, and others seem to keep going. The main hybrid security tools North Korea used between the 1950s and today are discussed here.
Terrorist attacks were regularly carried out in North Korea in the past, but have not been carried out since the 1990s. This is likely due to changing international perceptions of terrorism that became widespread around the world in the 1970s and 1980s, but especially after the Lockerbie bombing in 1988 the tide turned and state sponsored terrorism was much quicker to condemn and close avenge. North Korea immediately recognized this changing environment and stopped this type of activity. Some examples of North Korean terrorist attacks to injure its enemies while at formal war are: the attack on the South Korean presidential residence in 1968; the 1974 attack on the President of South Korea that killed his wife; the 1983 bomb attack during a South Korean state visit to Burma, in which, among others, four South Korean ministers were killed; and the 1987 bombing of a South Korean airliner, killing all 115 people on board (Armstrong 2013: 235-239).
The many kidnappings of South Korean and Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s, often with small submarines, are a complicated topic in this context, as the goals of the kidnappings were different: some abductees had to train spies; others were kidnapped so that North Korean infiltrators could impersonate them; In some cases, film directors and actors have been kidnapped to give a boost to the North Korean film industry (Armstrong 2013: 237-238).
The murder of North Korean defectors and exiles abroad, for example Kim Jong Un’s half-brother Kim Jong Nam, who was killed with the extraordinary VX nerve gas in Malaysia in 2017, is intended to deter both former and current members of the North Korean elite from even thinking about the regime (Ellis-Petersen & Haas 2019).
Surprise military attacks are also used regularly. Some of them are relatively large, such as the shelling of a South Korean island in 2010 and the torpedoing of a South Korean naval ship in the same year (Lankov 2013: 179). Other surprise attacks are smaller but no less shocking to the “enemy”, such as the ax killing of two US soldiers in 1976 or the 2015 incidents in which the North Korean military hid land mines along the South Korean border patrol trails. The deliberate explosion of the Liaison Office with South Korea in 2020 should also show how forceful and “dangerous” North Korea can be (Shin & Smith 2020).
There is a fine line between provocative attacks and mere bullying. North Korea has also turned provocative bullying into a hybrid security tool. Examples include opening dams on border rivers that lead to sudden floods killing people on the South Korean side of the border, but also regularly jamming GPS (Global Positioning System) signals that air and sea traffic in South Korea (Mizokami) affect 2016).
A fairly new tool is cyber warfare. Since the 2000s, North Korea has been accused of various cyber attacks against South Korean organizations, including banks and media organizations, which appear to destabilize South Korean society for only a brief moment. Cyber espionage and cyber theft of (security-relevant) information and funds are also used regularly and are directed not only against South Korea and the USA, but worldwide. One example is the digital bank robbery of 81 million US dollars by the central bank of Bangladesh in 2017. This type of financial cybercrime is intended to circumvent economic sanctions and thus also demonstrate the invulnerability of North Korea (Baezner 2018).
North Korea carefully conducts its hybrid activities within certain limits and cleverly calculates traditional South Korean reluctance to escalate any response to prevent actual war. South Korea realizes that it would win such a war at some point, but not after an enormous number of casualties and damage. Holding the millions of residents of Seoul (just 60 kilometers from the border) hostage with their massive artillery has proven to be a useful tool for North Korea, and has provided leeway since the 1950s. It also assures North Korea that South Korea will not only avert the escalation itself, but also actively work on behalf of its ally in the United States to prevent an escalation towards actual warfare (Barnett 2020).
An essential part of any hybrid security strategy is to divide other actors by raising doubts about the responsibility for the activities being carried out and thus to some extent constraining international responses. North Korea also combines its hybrid activities with the tactic of denial. Even if there is little doubt about the perpetrator, North Korea still denies any involvement. Even after an international investigation team concluded that a North Korean torpedo hit a South Korean naval ship in 2010, North Korea insisted it was innocent.
Finally, North Korea’s most notorious provocative instrument, its nuclear weapons program, is also being used in “hybrid” ways. While the use of nuclear weapons as a deterrent is neither new nor hybrid, the lack of secrecy on North Korea’s nuclear program is surprising. Long before its nuclear weapons were even usable, the regime was already using them as an instrument of provocation. North Korea’s persistent threat statements regarding the use of nuclear weapons before they were even usable are intended to frighten and deter perceived enemies, which in turn gives North Korea more room for maneuver in international relations (Van der Meer 2018).
The North Korean case offers various insights into hybrid security strategies in general. First, the phenomenon of hybrid security strategies is not new. North Korea has been using these strategies for many decades, despite the fact that they have been described as “asymmetrical” or “unconventional” in the past. Second, the North Korean case shows how effective these strategies are: for decades, North Korea has effectively used hybrid security measures to provoke, injure and harass its perceived enemies while preventing it from escalating to actual warfare levels. While most hybrid operations in North Korea have focused on the most direct “enemies”, some of them, such as illicit trafficking and cyber operations, are also used on a global scale.
An important feature of North Korea’s hybrid strategy is that it is constantly adapting to ever-changing circumstances and, as such, is not out of date. This also shows that combating such hybrid security strategies requires continuous flexibility. The multitude of available “hybrid” political instruments, combined with the often unpredictable nature of hybrid surprise attacks, clearly shows that it is difficult to use such a strategy to prepare for an effective handling of an opponent. Finally, the North Korean case shows that hybrid strategies are not only useful for great powers like Russia. Hybrid strategies can also be used effectively by smaller states facing larger enemies to deter and provoke them while preventing unwanted escalation into actual armed conflicts that cannot be won. North Korea could be recommended as a prime case study to find out how hybrid security strategies can be successful in the long term and how difficult it is to counteract them effectively.
Armstrong, C.K. 2013. Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World, 1950–1992, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Baezner, M. 2018. Cyber Disorder and Cybercrime: Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Zurich: Center for Security Studies ETH Zurich.
Barnett, D.S., et al. 2020. Conventional North Korean Artillery: A means of avenging, forcing, deterring or terrorizing populations, Santa Monica, California: RAND Corporation.
Byman, D. and J. Lind. 2010. “Pyongyang’s Survival Strategy: Instruments of Authoritarian Control in North Korea”, International securityVol. 35, No. 1, 44-74.
Ellis-Petersen, H. and Haas, B. 2019. “How North Korea got away with the murder of Kim Jong-Nam”, The guard.
Lankov, A. 2013. The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Mizokami, K. 2016. “North Korea interferes with GPS signals”, Popular mechanics.
Roehrig, T. 2006. “Restraint of the hegemon: North Korea, the USA and asymmetrical deterrence”, in: Tae-Hwan Kwak and Seung-Ho Joo (eds.), The United States and the Korean Peninsula in the 21st Century, Aldershot: Ashgate, pp. 163-184.
Van der Meer, S. 2018. “Why North Korea will never give up its nuclear weapons”, Clingersael spectators.
Shin, H. and J. Smith. 2020. “North Korea destroys inter-Korean liaison office in” Terrific Explosion “”, Reuters.
Further reading on e-international relations