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Indication And Warning (I&W), After The Cold War – The North Korea Challenge



Indication And Warning (I&W), After The Cold War –  The North Korea Challenge


Former Analyst & Practitioner

Terje B.

«Indications and Warning» (I&W) became a key issue in the intelligence world under the Cold War when it was realized that the Soviet Union was building an offensive military force structure across the board, aimed at a decisive surprise attack on the mainland of Europe if the war was ever to break out. The structure also included a simultaneous worldwide nuclear strike capability that would threaten the very existence of USA and its European allies. The purely defensive posture of NATO was continuously strengthened and modernized, and provisions were made to rapidly reinforce the US forces in Europe if indications of hostile intentions became clear. It was also realized that regardless of the efforts to counter the threat, the strength and mobility of the standing Soviet forces in Europe, and the nuclear threat, warranted additional warning time to give NATO a reasonable chance of success in trying to stop an onslaught.

The intelligence community took upon itself to define a set of threat criteria called Indications and Warning (I&W) that would trigger action on the NATO side whenever a subset of these criteria was met. Ideally, every step of an escalation of threat would be caught by the system and trigger a set of military and societal actions in time to counter whatever level of threat. The IW term was mainly used to describe an immediate threat, in other words a military threat, and whenever a heightened alert status was declared. The system was put to test at times during the cold war, notably during    – Czechoslovakia crisis in 1968, – Israeli/Arab war in 1973, – Invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, – and the Polish crisis in early 80’s. The surprise nature of some of the events confirmed the growing importance of an effective I&W reporting as a base for adequate NATO Counter action.

The North Korea Challenge

Another scene where the same kind of threat problem exists even today, is the Korean Peninsula. The day-to-day I&W monitoring in this area is even more critical, given the large North Korean forces practically on the border, combined with ideologically unpredictable leadership. That situation is in the order of magnitude different from any other scenario today, and has all the characteristics of the Cold War, except for the immediate Global threat.

The I&W subsets are undoubtedly monitored with great care to observe any change in the military or societal structures that may indicate that a political decision has been made to move for a certain option, including war. The indicators of concern and desperation in the society, primarily because of food shortage, have been seen from time to time during recent history, and may now, be growing again. It has been assest that the humiliation of the countrys leadership in the eyes of national starvation may force them to desperate action to save face, and thus unite the nation against an  “external threat”.

The window of opportunity may disappear when the effects of food shortage take a toll on the formidable military capability. If a nuclear option is in their hands, as is widely believed, the preconditions for a final desperate move may be in place, at one point forcing the leadership to make a choice between two evils, a total humiliation and inevitable breakdown of the ruling system, in other words a capitulation, or to use a still powerful military machine in a desperate campaign (for food),  with a reasonable chance of success, at least in the short term. The nuclear option would then become handy as a blackmail for peace negotiations, after a fait a complete. Such scenarios have even been described where the nuclear option is exercised as a tool of war.

Mirror Image thinking

Above all, one should not allow western moral values, or military tactical considerations, in a mirror image thinking, blur the possibility of an all out war. For the North Korean leaders, the final outcome of such a war, and whatever high number of casualties inflicted on its own population, may in their own eyes, not count at all, or even be turned to a heroic act. We are dealing with a small leadership with no accountability to the people, only guided by self-interest and self-centered ideology.

In the 1990’s about 1 million North Koreans died of sickness and starvation due to serious food shortage. Recent reports of a looming new food shortage in North Korea due to severe weather conditions over time,  and mismanagement of the agriculture sector over decades, is yet again the order of the day. The situation is a stern warning of what the world must address before the tension builds up, and potentially boils over into a human famine catastrophe  with dangerous, and unpredictable  political implications to follow.




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