Not surprisingly, North Korea has responded harshly to those new U.N. sanctions, declaring them “an act of war.” U.S. envoy Christopher Hill, who leads the American delegation to the Six-Party talks on the DPRK’s nuclear program, described Pyongyang’s response as “not helpful.” That would be an understatement.

However, observers should avoid reading too much into the latest North Korean propaganda blast. Kim Jong-il’s regime uses that kind of language whenever it suits their purpose and it’s a long way from describing something as an “act of war” to actually taking up arms and invading South. While the DPRK is capable of launching a limited attack with virtually no warning, a full-scale invasion would require more time and preparation.

That’s why North Korea’s upcoming Winter Training Cycle (WTC) will be very interesting–and potentially important, at least from a military perspective. It should be noted upfront that there are currently no indications that Pyongyang is contemplating an invasion of the south, and it would take “provocations” (to use their term) well beyond sanctions to spur such a move. However, the WTC is significant because it’s the time of year when the DPRK military conducts most of its training, and North Korean units typically reach their highest levels of readiness. The WTC usually begins in late November or early December and runs through March. Using a building-block approach, North Korean units usually start off the training cycle with individual and small-unit training, then shifting to larger-scale exercises in January and February. North Korea’s WTC often culminates with a national-level exercise in the late winter. After that, much of the military shifts to agricultural projects, and training levels plummet.

Despite the importance assigned to the WTC, overall training levels have dropped dramatically over the past 20 years, due largely to North Korea’s failed economy and limited resources. While there have been occasional “spikes” in training, the general decline has been fairly consistent and measurable. In other words, today’s WTC in North Korea is a shadow of what was once observed, with a corresponding decrease in combat capabilities. While Pyongyang retains a powerful military, limitations in recent training would make it more difficult for the DPRK to achieve its strategic, operational and tactical objectives against South Korea and its allies.

With tensions on the peninsula at their highest levels in decades, this year’s WTC will take on added meaning, and provide a possible indicator of North Korean intentions. If Pyongyang plans to back up its “act of war” declaration, we could expect to see significant increases in military training, with emphasis in particular areas, including:

–Surface-to-Surface Missile Units (crew training, mobility exercises, warhead mating)
–Special Operations Forces (insertion training, paradrop exercises, assault drills)
–Long-Range Artillery (crew training, gunnery exercises)
–Mechanized Corps (live-fire exercises, long-distance road marches)
–Air Forces (ground attack training, ground-controlled intercept drills; SAM mobility/deployment exercises)
–Special Forces Insertion Platforms [AN-2 COLT] (movement to forward airfields; long-range navigation flights; paradrop training with SOF units

Readers will note an absence of potential naval indicators. Due to extreme weather conditions in the Yellow Sea and Sea of Japan during the WTC, the NK Navy usually trains at reduced levels. However, if Pyongyang was contemplating a move against the south, we would expect to see increased naval activity, particularly among platforms associated with agent infiltration and SOF insertion.

This will not be the first time NK has conducted a WTC during times of increased tensions. During previous times of crisis, Pyongyang has typically staged a training cycle that falls within normal parameters, while continuing its propaganda campaign and saber rattling efforts. If the past is any indicator, this year’s WTC will likely follow the same pattern, suggesting that Kim Jong-il isn’t quite ready to use the “ultimate” option against his adversaries. On the other hand, a dramatic spike in activity during the WTC–something we should see fairly early in the cycle–might indicate that North Korea is considering all potential contingencies.