North Korea’s developing strategic situational awareness (SA) capabilities incorporate technologies that could introduce new risks in a conflict or crisis on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea possesses multifaceted command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems that support a range of provocative asymmetric operations, including but not limited to GPS jamming, communications spoofing, cyberespionage, and cyberattacks.1 While North Korea has rapidly developed its domestic telecommunications infrastructure and advanced computing capability in recent years, its systems continue to face technical and operational limitations that may constrain North Korea’s SA in engagements across the spectrum of conflict.

This report synthesizes publicly available information on North Korea’s C4ISR systems and capabilities in order to consider how technology could affect escalatory dynamics or crisis stability during conflict in East Asia. The author prioritized primary sources from North Korean institutions or companies, official reports from governments, technical reports from specialist research firms, and articles from English-, Korean-, and Chinese-language media.2 Wherever possible, the author also attempted to corroborate information across multiple sources in different languages. Because the public domain contains little information on North Korea’s C4ISR equipment, readers are advised that the findings in this report likely provide an incomplete view of North Korea’s strategic SA capabilities, which therefore limits the scope of conclusions that readers should draw about the effect that these technologies may have in conflict.3 Nonetheless, this report represents a broad review of literature on North Korea’s approach to emerging technologies and should be of interest to policymakers and informed observers who wish to consider the relationship between technology and strategic stability on the Korean Peninsula.

  1. CSIS Project on Nuclear Issues defines “strategic situational awareness” as “the ability to observe the operating environment, detect attacks, and discern actual attacks from false alarms across the spectrum of conflict.” 

  2. The author would like to thank Jennifer Jun, Lauren Sung, and Jason Bartlett for their invaluable Korean-language research support. 

  3. In their report “North Korea’s Cyber Operations: Strategy and Responses” (2015), the authors Jenny Jun, Scott LaFoy, and Ethan Sohn detailed four key challenges in researching North Korea’s capabilities from sparse materials in the open source: the prevalence of disinformation, an echo chamber of unverified statements cited repeatedly across sources, incentives for different stakeholders to either overestimate and underestimate North Korean capabilities, and limited synthesis of information on this subject across technical disciplines and languages. See Jenny Jun, Scott LaFoy and Ethan Sohn, North Korea’s Cyber Operations: Strategy and Responses. (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), 

Download full North Korea SA