Does North Korea really pose a military threat to anyone? A comparison of the military assets of the two Koreas. This article originally appeared at SouthFront in April 2017.
Written by Brian Kalman exclusively for SouthFront; Brian Kalman is a management professional in the marine transportation industry. He was an officer in the US Navy for eleven years. He currently resides and works in the Caribbean.
As the very real threat of a military confrontation breaking out on the Korean Peninsula once again becomes probable, it is important to reassess the current military capabilities of both the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (North Korea). An analysis of the respective militaries will give a clearer picture of the probability of a conflict, and how such a conflict might unfold. A realistic assessment of the balance of power on the peninsula, as well as the forces that can be brought to bear by likely allies, will also provide insight into the motivations of North Korea in developing a viable nuclear deterrent. Is the North Korean leadership as psychologically detached from reality as the western media and governments of the United States, Japan and South Korea would have us believe, or is the possession of nuclear weapons the best way for the DPRK to deter an attack by a much more powerful alliance of adversaries? Also, has the DPRK become a de-facto NBC testing ground for other nations, who use the status of the republic as an international pariah, to advance their own weapons of mass destruction programs clandestinely? Whose vital interests are served by maintaining the communist regime, one based on hereditary succession, in Pyongyang?
While the DPRK possesses the fourth largest army in the world, based on manpower, it is poorly equipped with weapons systems first fielded in the 1950s and 1960s. Furthermore, its conventional forces have not kept pace with the technological innovations that have influenced and shaped the development of weapons systems. South Korea has embraced these technological innovations and has developed a modern, capable military in the time that the forces of the DPRK have stagnated. This is also true for Japan and the United States. In order to compensate for its material inferiority, the DPRK has moved increasingly in the direction of developing asymmetrical assets and capabilities, as well as increasing its investment in nuclear weapons procurement and the development of a reliable delivery system for these weapons.
The DPRK has largely maintained the same military strategy on the peninsula since the end of the Korean War; however, this strategy has been modified numerous times to take into account the changing military balance of power which has increasingly turned to the advantage of the ROK. A majority of the ground forces of the DPRK are forward deployed, close to the demilitarized zone (DMZ). This minimizes logistics costs, in that units will not have to be repositioned in case the decision is made to invade or to conduct limited offensive operations over the border. The forward deployment also forces the ROK to always maintain a sizeable blocking force in a high state of readiness along the southern periphery of the DMZ. The constant threat of invasion from the north also magnifies the effect of any political saber rattling coming out of Pyongyang.
The viability of the DPRKs forward deployment of large numbers of ground forces, including a high concentration of high caliber artillery units, the majority of which are towed and not self-propelled, has come into question in recent years. Deploying a large portion of the DPRKs ground forces, many of them with limited mobility, as well as the heavy investment over the decades in a vast network of static defensive fortifications, opens up these forces to be rapidly flanked via amphibious and air assault operations. It might be assumed that the leadership of the DPRK would have learned this lesson in the Korean War, when they were outflanked by an amphibious operation at Inchon. This operation was pivotal in the North’s complete defeat, and they were only saved from complete annihilation by China’s entry into the war.
Although quite reliant on U.S. military power after the cessation of the Korean War and through most of the Cold War, South Korea has invested a great deal of its economic wealth into modernizing the ROK military and becoming increasingly less dependent on the armed forces of the United States. While the ROK wisely maintains close military ties with the United States, and increasingly with Japan since Shinzo Abe’s time as Prime Minister, it also utilizes many weapons systems that provide interoperability with both Allies’ radars, communications, and battle management systems. The ROK Navy uses the Aegis system and can work with both U.S. Navy and JMSDF guided missile destroyers in targeting and defeating cruise missiles and aircraft or other surface combatants. Although there are still almost 30,000 U.S. troops still stationed in South Korea, the ROK military has become increasingly self-reliant in providing for the defense of the nation. The indigenous arms industry has produced a number of modern and capable armored vehicles, weapons systems, and even aircraft. The shipbuilding industry in the south is a world leader in producing maritime tonnage, and has also produced a number of modern warships of various classes. While the north operates a stagnant communist economy, the south is an economic powerhouse, ranking as the 11th largest economy in the world per GDP.
The ROK Air Force maintains a significant qualitative edge over its northern counterpart. Most importantly, South Korean pilots log far more flight hours than their adversaries, and receive realistic combat flight training. It is estimated that North Korean pilots receive 20-25 hours of flight time a year, while South Korean pilots receive at least 130-150 flight hours annually. While Seoul has equipped its fighter and tactical air wings with modern, third and fourth generation aircraft, Pyongyang relies on fighters and attack planes largely developed in the 1960s. Although robust and reliable, a Mig-21 cannot compare to an F-15K or F-16C in aerial combat.
One area where the ROK has lagged behind in providing for its own defense is in the realm of Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD). The resent deployment of a THAAD battery from the United States is a clear sign that although the DPRK has been making progress in its quest to develop a smaller nuclear weapon, deliverable on a reliable ballistic missile, the ROK has done little to counter this growing threat. South Korea has done little to develop capable medium to long range surface-to-air missiles (SAM), as the DPRK Air Force presents less of a threat today than at any other time in the conflict. The ROK does operate eight batteries of MIM-104 Patriot of the PAC-II variation. It is planned to upgrade these systems to the PAC-III standard while hosting a larger number of THAAD batteries in the near future.
When comparing the strength of the ground forces of each nation, over-emphasis on total men and women in uniform does not allow for an accurate assessment of strength, quality or mobility. It is one thing to have 1 million troops, but how well are they trained, how rapidly can they move on the modern battlefield, what force multipliers are available to them, how effective is the command and control system that leads them, and how able and adaptive is the all-important logistics echelon that supports them? While the DPRK can field greater numbers of troops, how do they compare to their southern counterparts?
DPRK Korean Peoples’ Army
Total active personnel in the KPA is approximately 1.2 million, with a further 600,000 personnel in reserve status. In addition, including the Worker-Peasant Red Guards, there are approximately 6 million additional personnel organized in some type of quasi-military establishment. This means that roughly one quarter of the total population of the country has some form of military training and familiarization and can be mobilized for national defense emergencies. These units are most likely provisioned with older small arms, little in the way of ammunition and equipment, and there combat value is minimal. Without the direction of the regime leadership and the vertically-oriented military hierarchy, command and control of a large mass of “worker-peasant” troops would prove impossible for the Regime, and may actually lead to some percentage of such forces rebelling against the state in a time of war or national emergency, especially if the regime was targeted with a successful decapitating strike that eliminated the upper echelon of leadership in Pyongyang…