This is based on essentially gossip, or if you prefer, a rumor. I have been dining in Washington again and someone there who is in fact both well known and very well informed, but whom I shall not name, made a comment about the state of conventional weapons in DPRK and also said that this has not been publicly known. According to this person their condition is much worse than publicly believed. So out of date and out of condition are they that supposedly North Korea can no longer seriously threaten Seoul with a conventional attack (as has long been taken for granted as being possible and looming over the situation there).
The supposed implication of this, if indeed it is true (which it may not be, and this is simply not easily checked on), would be that the DPRK needs its nuclear weapons more than we have thought and will be even less willing to give them up than has been thought, not that many of us have taken too seriously the idea that they would be willing to give them up. Indeed, there have been recent rumblings out of Washington, denied by the administration, that Trump may be willing to return to the position of earlier administrations and cease trying to get DPRK to give up those weapons while trying to put some limits on the program instead. Needless to say, Trump has had nothing but ridicule for this position when it seemed to be that of Obama, but if he does it, well, this will sort of be like calling NAFTA the worst trade deal ever and then negotiation a new NAFTA that is only slightly different from it and proclaiming it to be the best trade deal ever.
I doubt the South Koreans would like to gamble in reliance on that rumor.
There is probably some truth to this rumor, but I deficiencies in materiel make much of a difference. I read the Daily NK website for North Korean news, and while I am sure the website has its biases, it has decent NK coverage. A recent article had the NK military running out of high oil soy bean seeds for planting and having to get seeds from local farmers. Another article had the government demanding “loyalty payments” of about $500 from its internal security agents, presumably bribe money. Other articles describe the recent crackdown on overseas calls birth defects in Bungang likely from radioactive contamination.
Overall, the NK economy has been under a lot of stress, and ever since the famine in the 1990s, a private sector has developed that is not completely under government control but that the government finds necessary. Even if we assume that this means problems with weapons procurement and maintenance, it doesn’t mean NK is toothless. If nothing else, even poorly equipped armies fight hard on their home turf.
In the last major war that North Korea fought against US and UN forces, they did not have more or better armaments. They had a forbidding terrain and the home defense advantage. They also thought nothing of using civilians as human shields. I knew soldiers who fought there, and their stories were deeply upsetting.
With regards to South Korea, it helps to look at a map. Seoul and the major developed population and industrial centers in South Korea cluster near the border with the north. Downtown Seoul is maybe 30 miles from the DMZ. North Korea reportedly has extensive conventional artillery targeting this region and a record of not distinguishing military and civilian targets.
How good is this artillery? How good does it have to be to seriously disrupt the South Korean economy and kill a lot of civilians? It is not as if South Korea could evacuate the area. This has been their deterrent since the 1950s. I don’t think the North Korean government is worried about an invasion. They have an effective non-nuclear deterrent. I just think they are trying to see what they can get.
I did not comment on the food situation in this post, but have done so in several recent ones. It is not good, bad harvests, but this fact has not been reported in the U’s MSM, not at all, not even a whisper of a mention. As it is, I have posted that internal political tensions over this food shortage (not at famine levels), is partly responsible for the disappearance of some important DPRK officials, including the leaders of the nuclear negotiation team, with rumors some have been either thrown in prison or even possibly m executed.