North Korea is flexing its military muscles again this week, but a closer look at images of the Hermit Kingdom's soldiers reveals that the fighting force may be better suited for propaganda than actual battle.
On Tuesday, the South Korean military reportedly confirmed that Pyongyang was conducting a massive live-fire artillery drill. A top North Korean official warned that a "brutal punishment" awaits the so-called "warmongers" in the U.S. and elsewhere. The bluster is not new, but this time, it is compounded by rising international tensions.
North Korea typically puts on its more headline-grabbing displays to mark some sort of anniversary, and Tuesday was no exception. The artillery drills come on the 85th anniversary of the founding of the nation's military. Less than two weeks ago, North Korea mounted both a failed ballistic missile test and a large military parade to mark the 105th birthday of the country's founder, Kim Il-sung.
North Korea put a variety of new missiles on display during the April 15 parade, and while at least one of them was reportedly a prototype, some experts thought they spotted actual “fakes.” A closer look at some of the soldiers in that parade suggests those missiles may not have been the only things that weren't quite battle ready.
“This was more about sending a message than being combat effective,” said Michael Pregent, a former Army Intelligence Officer with over 28 years of experience working conflicts around the world and now an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C.
Pregent took a look at several photos of North Korean soldiers from the April 15 parade and immediately began poking holes in them. Below are some of the takeaways he shared with Fox’s Investigative Unit.
Commandos or caricatures?
Some of the most memorable images to emerge from North Korea’s dramatic parade featured the special operations “commandos” who were carrying what appeared to be AK-47’s with grenade-launching capabilities. It turns out that what many people believed to be grenade launchers are actually what's known as "helical" magazines, a piece of equipment that organizes rounds in a spiral shape to maximize capacity and that is notorious for jamming, according to Pregent.
Pregent adds that not only do these types of magazines have a high-failure rate, there is still the question of whether any of these rifles are actually loaded, as ammunition manufacturing is considered a serious issue for the isolated regime.
It’s not just the weapons those commandos are holding that raise questions, Pregent claims, and it seems some of the equipment on display would make for a better fashion show than a foxhole.
Pregent claims that the type of sunglasses being worn by those same troops “looks like a flat-face frame, and that’s not ballistic. That would wraparound and would also protect your eyes.”
Even the fingerless gloves being sported by some of those soldiers are more for show, according to Pregent. “Some of our guys do have them, but most guys go all the way with full gloves based on the heat of the barrel from a round, not to mention they’re fire resistant if you need to pick up something.”
Some of the other eye-drawing items in the North Korean parade, items that may have zero combat application, are the seemingly oversized projectiles affixed to the end of some of those soldiers’ rifles. And while they apparently come in a variety of shapes and colors, Pregent calls them “laughable.”
“If you look, you can see the plastic is over the muzzle,” Pregent said. And while he admits that some of the North Korean RPG capabilities could be real, the projectiles themselves would have to be fake “because Kim Jong Un doesn’t want them to launch one at the viewing stand,” whether by accident or on purpose.
Also fake, Pregent believes, are what appear to be silver-plated rifles being held by some of the soldiers who seem more front-and-center than the others. “Saddam had gold plated handguns, and even he wouldn’t give them to his troops, so these are most likely painted,” Pregent said.
Despite the fakes, a reason to fear
There may be questions about North Korea’s capabilities when it comes to effectiveness on the ground, ballistic missiles and even nuclear capabilities, but experts agree that the artillery units being tested this week present a clear and present danger to our allies.
George Friedman, founder of Geopolitical Futures, told Tucker Carlson recently that given those heavily-fortified and strategically placed artillery units, "if they open fire on [Seoul,] there is going to be a holocaust."
He added that taking out all of those units is “not going to be an easy job. That's not going to be a one-day strike."
Pregent agrees, and raises an important point: “They have a legitimate military capability with their artillery – why pretend in other spaces?”