By Nader Elhefnawy
Once again, talk of military confrontation on the Korean peninsula is much in the news, following what has been taken for a nuclear weapons test in North Korea on May 25 (its first since 2006, and likely another fizzle), and a succession of missile tests (which have included but not consisted wholly of the test of long-range ballistic missiles, an important distinction the media tends to miss), as well as saber-rattling gestures like the renunciation of the armistice that marked the end of the Korean War (1950-1953) and threats of attacks on the South. A repeat of the basic facts anyone who has followed the issue for any length of time has in all likelihood repeatedly encountered seems to be in order.
The North Korean and South Korean Militaries: A Comparison
While much is made of the military capabilities of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), there is virtually no comparison between the two countries in the conventional indices of international power. The Republic of Korea (ROK) has roughly twice the population of the North (49 to 24 million) and a Gross Domestic Product at least thirty times as large (some $850 billion to $26 billion at market rates, almost $1.3 trillion to $40 billion when Purchasing Power Parity is counted in) according to the current edition of the CIA's World Factbook.
This gives the ROK a First World per capita GDP of $26,000 in 2008 - compared to a figure of $1,700 in the DPRK (which puts it among the world's poorest countries, at the rank of 192 out of some 230 states surveyed). Additionally, where South Korea has a world-class high-tech sector and nearly unfettered access to the world market, the DPRK's industrial capital stock "is nearly beyond repair as a result of years of underinvestment and shortages of spare parts," and the country's so short on food and energy that as many as 2 million are thought to have died as a result since the mid-1990s (equal to almost 10 percent of the population), with only large-scale international assistance preventing worse.
Inevitably, this is reflected in the military establishments they have been able to raise, the DPRK straining to spend perhaps a quarter of what South Korea easily does on its own armed forces. While the DPRK has a "million man army," South Korea too fields one of the world's largest militaries (some 700,000 strong, with over 1 million more in the reserves), with a long qualitative edge in virtually every relevant area.
Even the "tank-counting" toward which the hastier journalism tends demonstrates this. While North Korea possesses the larger "tank park" (perhaps 3,500-4,000 tanks to the ROK's 2,300 or so), the vast majority of its tanks are T-55 and T-62 variants (and even the reports of the few hundred more advanced tanks - domestically built models incorporating later Soviet technology -are sketchy). By comparison, the ROK fields well over 1,000 K-1 tanks, roughly equivalent to the American Abrams (including several hundred of the later K-1A1s, comparable to the A2 version), while the still-more advanced K-2 is entering service, with implications obvious enough for a land battle.
In the aerial and naval realms, the disparity between the two is wider, generally in the ROK's favor. While the DPRK's air force may have a larger total number of combat aircraft (perhaps 50 percent more of them), their operability is questionable in most cases, and the types are generally obsolete. Even when this is overlooked, all told North Korea has only 40 "fourth-generation" fighters (MiG-29s), with trainer versions included in the figure, whereas the ROK has well over 200 (F-15s and F-16s) - a 5 to 1 advantage in favor of the South in this important area. The remainder of South Korea's force consists of F-4s and F-5s, while North Korea depends on Chinese-built versions of the MiG-17, MiG-19 and MiG-21, according to the 2003-4 edition of the International Institute for Strategic Studies' Military Balance, widening the ROK's margin of advantage yet again. (Not to be overlooked, the same survey estimated that North Korean pilots get a wholly inadequate 20 hours or less in the air annually, which may leave what aircraft the North does have virtually useless in a serious confrontation.)
The North Korean navy is vastly larger when the total numbers of vessels are counted - roughly 300 combat-capable surface vessels to 120 or so by my count from the listings at Globalsecurity.org - but virtually the entire North Korean fleet consists of small coastal craft, half of which are patrol vessels unequipped with missiles or torpedoes (and many of them suitable only for inshore work). South Korea, however, has ten destroyers to the North's zero, nine frigates to the DPRK's three, and twenty-eight corvettes to its six (making for another 5 to 1 advantage, this one in "major surface combatants"). And again, technological quality, operability and training all favor the ROK's navy by a significant margin - disadvantages which may also reduce to nearly nothing such value as North Korea can get from its large force of submarines, the core of which is twenty-two 1950s era Romeo-class vessels. (And of course, it is worth noting that the South has its own, superior submarine force, smaller in total numbers but using more capable German Type 209s, currently being supplemented by the later Type 214 - the export version of the Type 212 which is currently setting the standard for conventionally powered subs.)
Though such matters are more speculative, it has also been noted that the North Korean army is "simply too big to be kept happy and well fed," its discipline and morale (and even the physical health of its soldiers) under pressures which do not have an analog south of the DMZ, and that these factors may already be taking their toll.
In short, even without the U.S. commitment to South Korea's defense, the DPRK is badly outmatched; and in the scenario of an attack on the ROK, would have the disadvantage of being on the offensive, especially problematic in the peninsula's mountainous terrain, channeling the assault into obvious routes where it would be extremely vulnerable to the defenders' firepower.
Considering the Asymmetries
Of course, certain details complicate the picture. These include:
* The concentration of the DPRK's army along the Demilitarized Zone (perhaps two-thirds of the army or more), exemplified by North Korea's massive artillery collection. Consisting of over 10,000 guns and multiple rocket launchers (MRLs), it has a 2 to 1 advantage over the ROK in this area (further bolstered by 7,500 mortars). These have also been concentrated along the border, along with perhaps a million tons of ammunition, enabling it to launch a massive strike with little warning, with some guesses about the sheer weight of shell it can drop going as high as 300,000 rounds per hour.
* The DPRK's massive investment of effort in tunneling and fortification, and the extensive nature of such facilities, which is expected to diminish the value of South Korean and U.S. technological superiority, something which in particular extends to the survivability of the artillery in the border area.
* The proximity of Seoul (not just the political capital of the country, but its economic and cultural center, with over a fifth of the nation's population in the city and half in the metro area) to the border (just 25 miles south of it, and so parts of the city are within range of at least some North Korean artillery from the outset) is a significant vulnerability, both in terms of South Korea's capacity to continue its practical functioning, and the effect on the morale of the civilian population.
* North Korea's exceptionally large special forces establishment (some estimates of which put its manning as high as 180,000, though estimates of 80-100,000 are more common) expected to infiltrate the ROK and wreak massive havoc behind the lines (with the aid of such assets as a large fleet of midget submarines, and perhaps, underground tunnels leading beneath the DMZ into South Korean territory).
* Efforts by the DPRK to modernize its military at the informational level, particularly with regard to computerizing its command and control, and networking its air defenses.
* The difficulty of any northward march for ROK-U.S. forces undertaking a counteroffensive, the peninsula's rough terrain then working in favor of North Korea, especially given its vast reserve military (5 million-plus) which might plausibly wage a guerrilla war against advancing forces, also saddled with the very large challenge of administering captured territory under those circumstances.
* At least equally important, there is the widespread expectation that China would simply not allow North Korea to collapse, or accept the presence of a large U.S. or allied army near its border (and while less often mentioned, and neither willing or able to offer the support to North Korea it did in the past, Russia may be similarly-minded).
* Finally, the DPRK has a considerable arsenal of weapons of mass destruction-chemical, biological, and now apparently nuclear as well, in addition to a large stock of crude but not useless ballistic missiles (perhaps 800 of them, with about 600 Scuds and 200 NoDongs).
Yet, the value of these assets should not be exaggerated, none of them as simple or clear-cut an advantage as it is made to look when, as all too often happens in the kind of superficial discussion we get, just one side of the balance sheet is examined.
* Just as North Korean forces are concentrated along the DMZ, so are the ROK and U.S. forces which would oppose them, in defensible and well-prepared positions of their own (which include the politically problematic minefields running along the southern end of the DeMilitarized Zone). Additionally, while North Korea's larger number of artillery pieces is not to be taken lightly, it will still face a very substantial collection of artillery on the south side of the line (South Korea has nearly 5,000 guns and rocket launchers, and 6,000 mortars), which are also likely to be more effective in the counter-battery role due to better-trained crews and better intelligence resources (as well as being quantitatively and qualitatively supplemented by U.S. forces). The North Korean systems will also be immediately subject to heavy air attack, a danger to which U.S. and South Korean forces are far less exposed.
* It is possible to exaggerate Seoul's vulnerability. To say that the city is within range of North Korean artillery is not the same as saying that the entire capital (let alone the whole metropolitan area associated with it) would immediately fall under all of the North's guns, rockets and mortars; any attack on the capital at the conflict's outset would be much more limited than that (if still likely to take a heavy toll in lives, property and disruption). Additionally, such vulnerability can be balanced against the reality that R.O.K.-U.S. forces will almost from the start have air and sea dominance over and around the peninsula. This means the entirety of North Korea's territory will be much more thoroughly open to attack for the duration - extending not just to a portion of the 2-3,000 daily sorties likely to be flown, but Tomahawk cruise missiles and naval gunfire. Finally, claims for North Korea using its artillery collection in some "shock and awe" demonstration grossly exaggerate the effectiveness of such strategies. Far from breaking the will of the citizenry of the country targeted, they have tended to rally a population to its government. (This applies as much to the prospect of an operation consisting wholly of a short but deliberate attack as well as to its use as an opening act in a larger war.)
* The image of hundreds of thousands of North Korean commandos hitting the South all at once which might be taken away from the reports about its special forces establishment is grossly overblown. The Soviet Union, with its vastly greater resources, had fewer than 30,000 Spetsnaz in the late 1980s. The whole of the U.S. Special Operations Command today comes to fewer than 50,000, the vast support component included. Instead the high figure reflects a confusion about the classification of those units. The term "special forces" might be equated more simply with "shock troops" (as with the "commando" units of the Iraqi Republican Guard) since the units encompassed in the high figure include the army's light infantry, airborne and amphibious units, not normally considered special forces in that sense. The reconnaissance battalions, which might be considered closer to the usual Western usage of the term "special forces," contained 9,000 soldiers in 17 battalions as of 2002, a much more plausible figure for this type of unit (though the 21,000 troops assigned to "sniper battalions" may perform some similar functions).
* The discussion of a more computerized North Korean military command system is sketchy, and certainly where its air defenses are concerned, the effects are open to question, especially given that the basis of the system remains an arsenal of SA-2, SA-3 and SA-5 missile batteries that were old twenty years ago. Yugoslavia's air defenses in 1999, which were built around similar (in cases, more advanced) weaponry, were supposed to have been upgraded in the way some analysts believe North Korea's to have been, but were largely neutralized by massive defense suppression efforts and the restrictive rules-of-engagement observed in Allied Force (confining NATO pilots to 15,000 feet). Such caution may prove impracticable in the event of a North Korean attack on the ROK, but that is far from saying they can inflict sufficient losses to significantly interfere with ROK-U.S. aerial operations.
That leaves just three points: the difficulty of North Korea's terrain for an allied advance, the constraints Chinese political opposition may impose on an operation, and the role the WMDs might play. The first is not just irrelevant to the North's ability to conquer the South, but likely to be overrated when one considers the ability of the regime in the North to survive a failed invasion, given its sheer military weakness, and the likely reaction of Washington and Seoul; and the second and third may not be the factors they seem at first glance. After all, the idea that China would support an attack on the ROK is ludicrous, given its desire for stability in the area, and its valued trading relationships with South Korea and the U.S. - not necessarily the dominant considerations in the country's decisionmaking, but not to be discounted lightly either. (South Korea accounts for some $170 billion of annual business, while China also runs a $200 billion trade surplus against the U.S. - and does comparable business with Japan, which is also relevant here.) On the contrary, it seems that China's most likely role would be to restrain a North Korean action before it could get started.
Additionally, it is unclear what practical gain North Korea could extract from its WMDs inside of an actual conflict scenario, given not only the certainty of retaliation, but the reasonable speculation that North Korea would not use them inside the peninsula (biological and chemical weapons always being hard to control and notoriously problematic when the combatants, and their armies, are so close together). In the nuclear sphere, it may even be the case that what North Korea has is what Jonathan Pollack calls a political capability, rather than a fully operational one.
In short, while North Korean forces could present a greater challenge than did their Iraqi counterparts in 1991 and 2003, and a major conflict would cause vast damage on the peninsula (and beyond it), not only is a conquest of South Korea out of the question, but even the existence of a convincing North Korean "theory of victory" (to use the terminology preferred by Colin Gray) is extremely doubtful. Particularly where WMDs are concerned, this has left experts frequently speculating about irrational action.
Yet, there is little proof that it is actually insane - and as the case of Iraq proved, those arguing for the continuing salience of the "rational actor" model where deterrence is concerned (an argument Martin Van Creveld summed up nicely in his 1991 book The Future of Nuclear Proliferation) have generally had the evidence on their side, and there seems plenty of reason to wonder if obsessing over the much less likely alternatives does not do more harm than good. The exaggeration of the military threat North Korea poses only muddies the water and unnecessarily alarms, and may well make an already troubling situation more dangerous. The DPRK's collapse is the more plausible scenario, and while this turn of events is not necessarily exclusive of aggression, given the facts on the ground, the most destructive possibilities are, fortunately, not the most likely ones.