May 24, 2024

From dictator to…wargamer? A glimpse of KJU’s wargame tables

RockyMountainNavy, 9 May 2024

In my quest for wargaming news I often times search on wargaming-adjacent terms like “operations research.” Recently, that search returned an interesting article from a place that, logically, should be conducting wargaming but nonetheless surprised me when I saw it.

“Respected and Beloved Comrade Jim Jong Un Gave On-the-Spot Guidance at Kim Jong Il University of Military and Politics, the Highest Seat of Military Education in Our Country” is the eye-catching (or it that eye-rolling?) headline delivered by North Korean state media on April 10, 2024 to memorialize the august occasion of a visit to a military university by dictator “Rocket Man” Kim Jong Un (KJU).

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Courtesy imgflip.com

 

Like many military universities worldwide, the professional military education mission is the same even if located in Pyongyang: “Respected and beloved Comrade Kim Jong Un watched the students’ class on operations and tactics at the military lecture room and looked around the rooms for teaching methods research and training to acquaint himself in detail with the actual state of education.”

The exciting (not) report goes on to talk on how the university, “improved the educational program…by reflecting…the ever-changing aspects of modern warfare…and applied superior and novel forms and methods of teaching…by introducing and using various equipment and means.”

In particular, KJU visited the “operations research office” where he reportedly, “looked around the enemies’ major operational plans, the status of research on the enemy forces, and the military and corps operations plans drafted by the teachers and students….”

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Courtesy KCNA/KCNA Watch
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Courtesy KCNA/KCNA Watch

 

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Courtesy KCNA/KCNA Watch

 

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Courtesy KCNA/KCNA Watch

 

It is a bit hard to tell for sure, but this room is maybe the same used in 2013 when KJU was shown reviewing a nuclear attack plan against the United States. If so, the “operations research office” has seen some remodeling.

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Same ashtray? (Courtesy KCNA/Reuters)

 

By comparison, KJU’s wargame tables appear behind the capabilities of some U.S. facilities. Take for example the Wargame Center at U.S. Special Operations Command as shown in a local news article from 2017.

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With 3-D capabilities like a hologram, Wargame Center viewers could get a view of actual terrain. (Courtesy Tampa Bay Times)

 

While some U.S. facilities may not be as fancy as KJU’s playroom, I am confident that there is much more teaching and real learning taking place on the floors and tables of the Naval War College (NWC) in Newport, Rhode Island, the Command & General Staff College (CGSC) at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, or the Brute Krulak Center in Quantico, Virginia.

 

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Courtesy NWC via X

 

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Courtesy CGSC via X

 

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Courtesy Krulak Center via X

 

Kim Jong Un called the university, “the pedigree establishment of training the best military talents.” I am confident, however, it cannot match the wargame design pedigree of American and allied wargame designers who also pay attention to the Korean peninsula. While KJU’s wargame tables may look like very fancy sand tables, I wonder if they are used just for orientation by teachers and staff or if any wargaming is actually conducted on them. The set up of KJU’s playroom looks very much like a reflection of a top-down command system where the staff sits around the senior leaders as they walk about the maps and give hand-wavy directions couched in politically sanctioned terminology. Case in point:

“Saying that the might of the revolutionary army depends on the military commanding officers’ art of command and the ideological traits and military qualifications of the military commanding members are determined by the level of education of military schools, Comrade Kim Jong Un said that the university should thoroughly arm students with the revolutionary idea of the WPK [Workers Party of Korea] and the chuch’e-oriented military strategic line in conformity with the missions and characteristics of training high-ranking commanding officers of the party’s revolutionary army, set up a goal of completely integrating all processes and aspects of the educational work with modern warfare and scientifically innovate the educational structure and content, and efficiently raise more competent military cadres who have highly integrated operations capabilities and ability to command actual warfare.” (Written by the “Headquarters Political Reporting Team” which obviously never met a comma they did not love.)

Compare the North Korean approach to military education against even commercial, hobby wargaming instantiations from the U.S. as seen in both Crisis in Korea by designer Sebastian Bae coming soon from Catastrophe Games or the attitude found in a Designer Note from the forthcoming Littoral Commander: The Baltic also by Sebastian Bae published by The Dietz Foundation:

“**DESIGNER NOTE: Player selection of JCCs [Joint Capabilities Cards] can prove fatal or the key to victory – with small margins for error at times. For non-military professionals, this feature in the game may seem brutal and unfair, especially for first time players. However, LC [Littoral Commander] is an educational game designed to allow players to explore hard problems – not to provide specific answers. Similarly, players may want a list of recommended JCCs for each SCENARIO to help ease the learning curve. This was specifically excluded to avoid bias in JCC selection. Suggestions from the designers inherently imply a specific paradigm to look at a SCENARIO or implies there is a singular solution set. This goes against the very spirit of this game and its educational purpose. Moreover, we wanted to encourage players to find and explore different tactics and approaches – even ones we never thought of. Players should attempt various combinations of JCCs and tactics in the pursuit of victory. At times, it will work brilliantly; other times, you will lose spectacularly. This process of learning capabilities, forming theories of victory, and adapting previous approaches is part of the learning process – a campaign of learning. Embrace it!” (From “Rules Text LC1_19APR2024 Baltic Clean_v4” courtesy of designer.)

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Photo by RMN

 

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Via X

 

More to the point, I wonder if the Kim Jong Il University of Military and Politics is really serious about “the wargame before the war” in much the same way U.S. institutions like Marine Corps University (MCU) are. Take for example a MCU wargame described in the War on the Rocks article “The Wargame Before the War: Russia Attacks Ukraine” published less than a month after the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. This key passage stands out:

“One must be very careful when using a wargame for predictive purposes. But, on the other hand, no one involved in this wargame has been much surprised by anything unfolding on the ground. Almost all of it took place within the game or was discussed at length among the players. This is in contrast with nearly every expert and pundit on the airwaves, who are expressing astonishment at how this conflict is unfolding. If this wargame had been played at the Pentagon or the White House in the weeks leading up to the war, no strategist or policymaker would be shocked by any event so far seen in the war.”

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Figure 3: Wargame Situation — End of Game Day 3 — Eastern Front (courtesy WotR)

 

I find myself asking what type of wargame one might see in Pyongyang. I snidely wonder if the preferred game mechanism is solo “worker placement” given the political and economic system of “The Hermit Kingdom.” I also wonder just how dramatic a North Korean wargame could be? Judging from some of the videos released by state media there is maybe some potential…

 

 


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3 thoughts on “From dictator to…wargamer? A glimpse of KJU’s wargame tables

  1. This entry has done two things: 1) make me realise that I missed the KS campaign for Sebastian Bae’s game (insert headdesking here); and 2) make me wonder, since my knowledge is limited, if and/or how often do military universities in general include civillians in their wargames, and how they approach it. I remember that back on the site ruined by Musk, I followed some broad spectrum of the wargaming community, including some people related to diplomacy and foreign policy from multiple backgrounds who were involved also in the academic and practical approaches to wargames, and I find interesting the idea that military education may use non-military people in wargames to “stress test” or “red-team” ideas so they obtain alternative points of view, always within the structured frame of reference of the game.

    1. For Sebastian’s latest game you can still get in on the pre-order at https://catastrophegames.net/crisis-in-korea/.

      For military universities, the wargame programs are pretty much run by government civilians. They often do bring in outside experts to play Red or Green teams. Personally, when I ran a major “wargame” (more of a seminar game than any other type) I brought in an outside academic as the keynote to get that non-DoD perspective in front of the senior leaders.

    2. “make me realise that I missed the KS campaign for Sebastian Bae’s game (insert headdesking here)”

      This is why you should ALWAYS read #TuesdayNewsday! We include the new launches every week 🤠

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