Written by Igor Kabardin; Originally appeared at TopWar, translated by Mona Lita exclusively for SouthFront
The testing of North Korea’s hydrogen bomb once again sharply raises the question of a possible war on the peninsula. On January 13th, the President of South Korea Park Geun-hye introduced full-scale sanctions against North Korea on the part of the international community. If the UN Security Council supports her initiative, then Pyongyang will face the prospect of an economic disaster for which he will be forced to answer, and possibly including with military means.
Contrary to popular belief, the potential for a conflict in the Far East is much higher than a similar option in the Middle East. While discussing a recent confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, political observers were too bold to talk about a possible war, ignoring the fact that Iran’s military industry remains very behind, and the Saudis don’t have one at all, and accordingly, the whole conflict played itself out in the beginning.
The situation in East Asia is different, while the controversy is just as irreconcilable and mutual complaints even more ingrained. Here, even the middle government is wisely seeking maximal allocation of military production on domestic facilities. Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia and even Myanmar are actively developing the construction of military ships and other promising areas. So this region is more suitable than any other for creating and maintaining a major conflict. The Korean Peninsula and its nearby neighbors are saturated with a variety of military presence.
In an escalated confrontation, the position of all sides of the conflict is reminiscent of a frozen portrait of athletes who are at the start line. Only in 6 months the situation will change since design offices, factories and shipyards will put out even more production that can affect the conflict’s outcome. Here, the advantage is for those who have a strong economy, more resources and those who use time more rationally, which in every war is more precious than gold.
South Korea is one of few countries that are even possibly interested in the escalation. Judging by Seoul’s actions, the country’s political leaders are confident that in a worse case scenario if the enemy erases two or three South Korean cities from the face of the earth in a nuclear fire (which is by the way very unlikely), the final victors will be American-Korean forces. There is a reason for this kind of confidence. South Korea today can fully claim to be a regional superpower. In comparison to Japan, where a limitation on army size and quality of weapons still exists, South Korean leaders are limiting their personal military ambitions only with their budget and their fantasies. The economic power of the South exceeds tenfold, and by some marks hundredfold that which the North can scrape up, and a well-developed transport infrastructure allows them to mobilize in a short amount of time. There is a lot written and in many details about Korea’s land forces and its equipment, and in our case its enough to remember that it is a large army of 495,000 soldiers and officers who have thousands of combat vehicles and hundreds of (not counting those that remain in the Air Force and Naval Aviation) helicopter units.
Seoul also places a great emphasis on its amphibious fleet. Besides 4 large tank-landing ships of “Goh Joon Bong” class (4,300 tons) built in 1990s, and AAS “Docto” (18,000 t.), an ambitious program of building four assault tanks “Chon Vang Bong” weighing 7,140 tons is being realized. On top of that, lets not forget about South Korea’s large merchant navy that can be activated. The general plan is clear. In addition to breaks on the ground through border forts, large landings will be planted away from the main theater. The number of South Korean marines consists of 29,000 people according to 2014 data. In comparison, Russian Federation marines have 20,000 people according to some data, and 8,000 according to others.
Besides that, South Korea has a group of unsinkable aircraft carriers that are hanging over the enemy’s coast. The islands of Penyongdo, Tehchondo, and Enphëndo are strategic locations that are a threat to all of North Korea’s west coast.
Overall, if a big war breaks out tomorrow, then Seoul is ready for it and the level of its readiness grows from year to year. Obsolete weapons are written off and are replaced by new ones. The one single sphere in which South Koreans have not yet reached success in is the sphere of ballistic missile defense. Besides ballistic missiles, North Korea’s lagging but large submarine fleet presents a threat – almost all of South Korea’s international trade is conducted by sea.
The acknowledgment of having fallen behind South Korea in conventional weapons is what made North Korea develop its personal nuclear program a necessity. All those tremendous efforts that were put into creating nuclear weapons can turn to dust. Also, applying such indiscriminate weapons will not save the North Korean regime, but will only delay its fall.
There is not much that is known about the North Korean army. It is knows that it is one of the larger ones in size, but spends most of its time working for the good of the national economy and not on military trainings. The equipping of this army with weapons comes from 1950-1970s, despite the fact that in modern warfare even a difference in one generation can be critical in some cases.
Of course, the Korean national army also has some relatively modern weapons, but in critically small amounts. For example, there is a domestic battle tank M-2002 (the same “Songun-915”), armed with a 125 mm gun, 14.5 mm machine gun and anti-tank guided missile Bulsae-3 or (according to network sources) a number of Russian BTR -80A, which were bought by the Russian Federation two decades ago.
The situation in the aviation industry is just as bleak. The Air Force can only boast of thirty relatively new MiG-29 fighters, and about the same quantity of Su-25 jet aircrafts, the rest of the aviation park are MiG-21, Su-7, Il-28 and similar rarities. The situation with helicopters is not much better. The challenge of this kind of “aviation” seems to be to die heroically on the ground or during take off in the first days of battle, diverting South Korean Air Force attention, after which North Korean soldiers will again, like in last war, have to dig systems of underground tunnels in order to save themselves from enemy air attacks.
Basically, the central government’s hopes in Pyongyang can be focused only on the fact that in case of a war the population and the army will show enough resistance and will not scatter in the first weeks when enemy’s superiority on all fronts will become apparent. By the same reason, North Korea does not find it beneficial for border conflicts to turn into a full-scale war, although it cannot fully refuse being the provoker, and receives a substantial amount of resources from the outside by blackmailing. Even an internal political situation demands maintenance of a certain tone. In case of a war, the only chance for North Korea to withstand would be in the northern most frontier of the country’s mountainous region.
For Japan, the conflict is desirable and undesirable at the same time. Tokyo accrued a good profit from the first Korean war, becoming the U.S. army’s largest foreign contractor, indirectly being as one of the reasons for Japan’s economic miracle. Yes, right now a similar infusion would not hinder the Japanese economy, if not for the obvious costs.
And those aren’t small costs – involvement in war. Even if Kim Chen Un won’t be as inadequate as launching ballistic rockets to Japan’s cities, his submarines can temporarily paralyze all maritime trade in the region.
It is not interesting for Tokyo to participate in ground campaigning on the Korean Peninsula for three reasons. First, technically it will be extremely difficult. Japan does not have the Marines and only three landing crafts of class type “Osumi”. The rest was turned to scraps along time ago. Second, South Korea is the U.S.’ ally and a new Korean war will become a struggle for promoting Washington’s interests in Asia. Tokyo specifically does not have any interests there, and to send Defense Forces to die for Americans – its own people simply wont understand that and for any Prime Minister it would be the end to their political career.
Thirdly, the ruling circles and the North Korean public are completely against any sort of Japanese military interference. This topic is often raised in Korean political debates, despite the fact that Tokyo themselves do not wish to interfere.
In the beginning of 2016, Japan is planning to begin the production of combat vehicles called Maneuver Combat Vehicle, and is also to purchase the first batch of American Assault Amphibious Vehicles AAVP-7A1 for Ground Defense Forces. This year the Navy intends to test a Cruise Missile XASM-3, and in 2017 it will test Standard Missile SM-3 2A (speed 4.5 km/sec, distance 1500 km) and complete the design of a new Destroyer 27DD. The Japanese military budget has also laid purchases on 6 jet fighters F-35A Lighting II, 4 tiltrotors V-22 Osprey, 17 helicopters Mitsubishi SH-60K. Also, there are 3 and more drones RQ-4 Global Hawk and also some air refueling-tankers KC-46A that are waiting to be purchased. And this is only a part of what Tokyo is planning to purchase.
Right now all these programs remain in the process of completion. Tokyo will try not to get involved in the conflict – this is a minimum of two years.
The Republic of China is another country that is absolutely not interested in a large-scale war on the peninsula. Peking currently has its own problems: an economic downturn, an ambitious anti-corruption campaign, a large-scale military reform, elections and the strengthening of separatism in Taiwan. Of course Peking would agree to a small victorious war, but everyone understands that a war in Korea will not be small or victorious. Besides that, China has her own “South Korea” near by – we are talking about the Taiwan island of Kinmen, which is located only 7 (!!!) km from continental China and is a lot more suitable to bring about victorious wars.
Considering Peking’s very cautious policies and its overall cool relations with North Korea, all Pyongyang can count on is the supply of Chinese weapons and a limited participation of Tianxia military experts. No one in China will begin a global war with an unknown outcome just because of North Korea – a strategy to avoid conflict until 2020 will further continue to work. Also, the border between China and North Korea is currently practically (!) open for free movement of citizens on both sides, which can easily be closed by the PLA forces on China’s side if the situation begins to turn unpleasant.
Russia is another country that does not benefit from escalation or especially war on its very borders. Having a barely frozen conflict in Ukraine and an oversees front in Syria, where even Pacific Navy’s flagship cruiser “Varyag” was immediately thrown, so to try to wedge itself into yet a third conflict would be insanity. In an unfolding of any developments, Russia will not be defending North Korea, since N. Korean regime is not considered to be her client or an ally. At the same time lets not forget that Seoul has never turned down claiming the Noktundo region, which once was a part of the Chosun power, but is currently a part of a Seaside region of the Russian Federation.
However, its not necessary to exaggerate the threat – the only things encroaching a Russian territory, as a last resort, will be stray shells from an adjacent territory. As a whole, a conflict of any size on the Korean peninsula can be seen by Russia as deeply peripheral and not presenting a threat. These threats can appear years later, but not during or immediately after war.
Why Won’t they Start?
To start a war, even when having a strong desire to do so, is not an easy matter. Even if it is a winning deal for the Korean Republic, the economy will take a deep dive – investors don’t like wars – and Asian competitors will throw it out of the markets. The level of support that Washington is willing to give is also not understood. President Obama’s administration has already proven that it is ready to gladly ignite conflicts, but refuses to be a part of them. This new adoption in America’s foreign policy, which first appeared during a war against Libya, unpleasantly surprised American allies across the world. Of course if Seoul wants to, it can handle this on its own, but it will be markedly harder to do this without the Americans. Lets say if President Bush Jr. unhesitatingly gave the necessary order, easily receiving the Congress’ approval on the use of military, but things aren’t as easy with the current president.
Today, 28,500 American military servicemen are deployed to Korea, but if necessary, this contingent can be significantly strengthened in case reinforcement from Japan and Guam becomes necessary. Armies of both countries the U.S. and South Korea are maximally integrated and are given a single standard. There is a separate organization that peaks curiosity called KATUSA (Korean Augmentation To the United States Army), which in fact represents the American foreign legion in Korea. These are Korea’s military men that wear an American uniform and know better English, American regulations and equipment. There is not a single publication about this program on RuNet, although it has been in existence since 1950 and has achieved certain successes.
Results and Prospects
War is unavoidable, and this is an evident fact. Another thing is that it probably will not begin in 2016. Although no one can give a guarantee with certainty that it will not begin any day now. Both sides have demonstrated uncompromising behavior in the past, but now leaders in both countries are burdened by memories of their glorious ancestors. A personal factor is not the only one. Park Geun-hye is the current president of South Korea and a daughter of the legendary Park Chung-hee, from whom a Korean economic miracle began. There is also much to be remembered about North Korea’s current leader’s father and grandfather. So personal motives do not play the only role here.
Looking into history, it can be said with confidence that in the 1950s North Korea stayed on the political map exclusively due to mass Soviet-Chinese military intervention. Pyongyang cannot rely on a similar “brotherly aid” today.
But let us repeat, in general we should be skeptical about the prospects of war in 2016 specifically. But the probability of war rises as a distant prospect. It is necessary to understand the period of 3-5 years, maximum – 10 years under the “distant perspective”, meaning at the moment of final destabilization of an existing world order that somehow astonishingly coincided with times of many rearmament programs of South Korea’s armed forces.
This arterial idea of the two Koreas uniting has not disappeared from Seoul’s political agenda or from a general awareness. Besides that, a significant part of the peninsula’s natural resources are specifically concentrated in the North. Besides that, the unification of countries under the South’s command will be a beginning of a new economic breakthrough for an already united country that is compared to the U.S.S.R.’s Stalinist five-year plan, an economic take off of post-war Germany and Japan, and also a first “Korean miracle”. The North’s population is experiencing commodity shortages, but the infrastructure has to be built from ground zero. So this is a battle for one of the very last unoccupied markets on earth.
1. Seoul’s naval ace trump card – destroyers of URO class “King Sejong the Great” – are real monsters on the number of arms that are secondary only to Russian nuclear cruisers of the 1144 project “Eagle”. In addition to the 8 anti-ship cruise missiles SSM-700K Haeseong and 32 cruise missiles Hyunmoo-3 for ground target attacks, the destroyers of this class have anti-aircraft missiles SM-2 Block IIIB/IV in their arsenal.
2. Japan officially did not participate in the Korean War for a reason that until 1952 its main territory was under American occupation. But individual volunteers for the country of the rising sun, mostly of Korean origin, stood out in fighting.
3. 90% of the above-water part Russian Federation’s Pacific Fleet consists of war ships from the 1980s (maybe beginning of 1990s) construction. All these ships were very formidable for the 1980s, and today they are not discounted only because there is no replacement for them.
4. For reference: the Russian-North Korean border is only 39 km in length. A single railroad bridge of Friendship connects both countries. There are no other passages.
5. The closest Russian point to the potential combat zone – Hassan railroad station and “Sandy” border outpost.