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JUNE 2021

North Korea Vs. South Korea – Comparison Of Military Capabilities. What Would a New War in Korea Look Like?

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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.

North Korea Vs. South Korea – Comparison Of Military Capabilities. What Would a New War in Korea Look Like?

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.

Defense Strategy

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.

Ground Forces

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…


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Manuel Flores Escobar

Houston we have a problem!..the Shadow of Vietnam and the Iraqi post war are too long!..I wanna say that USA is ready for Surgical and fast attacks…but know that a war in Korea will be long and bloody…The question is..are US ready for that?…

Brad Isherwood

NK should talk about their Cruise missile jammers and point defence radar and bring up
Trump Tomahawks and Syria.
The US media can then panic as its possible NK has technology which suggests US pre emptive war BS will not succeed in first 72 hours,
And South Korea will eat 20,000 artillery pieces,missile attack,…have their power grid smashed,
While Fanatical NK 5th column run riot in the South with NK Submarines taking down SK and USN in the unfolding chaos.

US would spend 1 Trillion dollars and Kim would be around for another smiling selfie


Don’t forget if the USA attacks first China will aid NK, so might as well add Japan and Taiwan to list that will be taken out.

Brad Isherwood


It’s Kabuki theatre. ….follow the money.
A poster on a Duran article noted the US contract cost for the THAAD

And this standoff is no exception. it is bluster, and behind the US bluster; 
money. Lots of it. According to Wiki:” A THAAD battery consists of at 
least six[33] launcher vehicles, each equipped with eight missiles, with
two mobile tactical operations centers (TOCs) and the AN/TPY-2 
ground-based radar (GBR);[34] the U.S. Army plans to field at least six 
THAAD batteries,[31] at a purchase cost of $800 million per battery.” 
the math, 800 million x6 for the basic system plus 22 million a year to
run. Oh, and they will test their system so you can figure 800 million 
x2 or 3 each and every year. 
The US is trying to force SK to accept the 
full THAAD package and as much of the cost as they can shove down their 
throats. IMO what all this bluster is about.

Kim should say he will join NPT and sign/Full nuclear inspection,
If Israel will also : )


Interesting point, but the South Koreans don’t want THAAD as it can’t protect them from all the artillery.
This is something the US is pushing on them with this theater as you well called it.
It’s not there for North Korea.
Same as every other missile defense system they have placed all over the globe under false pretenses.

Brad Isherwood

The New South Korea leader discovered that US had delivered several THAAD units without Official consent….happened on Obamas watch with Trump to busy to notice.
The South Korean leader folded afterwards.
This recent hysterical reach of the US probably does create the tensions which give the
SK gov cover vs their people who want THAAD gone.

China is having these trade disputes and futures upsetting the Kingdom of Heaven.
No Dragons moving over THAAD deployment.
It’s similar to Putin do nothing over past 8 years while Obama walked Missile extortion right up to the Russian border.

Russia probably isn’t interested in the official image side and do a counter move like
Cuba missile crisis.
Russia and China probably live with the humiliation and be about making money.

US is tantrauming that it’s getting locked out of Eurasia /Silk Roads.
This is Russia/China revenge.
Europe now has to choke on US LNG exports at 4 times the cost vs Russian Nat/Gas.
Or choke on Ukrainian perogies : )


choke on Ukrainian perogies??


Solomon Krupacek

this is bullshit. america does not sell thaad.

Brad Isherwood

Don’t be surprised if THAAD shows up in US occupied Kurdistan.
V 22 Ospreys will fly Afghan/Kurd Opium around while Burger King sets
Up in Raqqa.

Solomon Krupacek

rverywhere the thaas has american staff

Solomon Krupacek

the real life is quiete other then playstation games ;)

Joseph Scott

Hardy. RoK has more than sufficient forces to obliterate DPRK’s military on it’s own. They would sustain civilian casualties from DPRK artillery bombardment of urban areas, but the actual fighting would be a one-sided massacre. DPRK are miserably trained and RoK are quite well trained. Even DPRK’s SoF units are rather comical. The whole way society and the military are set up there makes it functionally impossible for them to field effective troops. What the US does or spends is of literal real relevance.

RoK keep the US around because of China, not their backward northern cousins.

Brad Isherwood

Everybody thought Merkava and IDF were vaunted……2006 Lebanon proved this high tech
C4I Military could be stalled and bested by less than 5000 soldiers.
IDF forces fainted in the field,…..quite literally as units ran out of water.

Saudi Military are shit with similar level technology to Israel.
The problem is not resolved with Pakistani mercs fighting for the Saudi in Yemen.

Rok would be motivated…..they are not going to fall to pieces like ARVN during Vietnam War.
UN forces did not respect the North Koreans resolve and endurance.
Yes the North made huge logistic errors and were decimated by UN airpower.
Airpower IMO was what kept UN from not getting run into the sea.
After Inchon landings. ..the UN forces going North to Yalu get their assess kicked,
Losing all the gains and withdraw….finally blowing several ports to deny the NK use
In the near afterwards.

South Korean Warship Cheonan was sunk in 2010 near disputed territorial waters by
A Torpedo.
NK was blamed for this after investigation.
Question remains if NK actual did fire the Torpedo,…or a US False Flag event occured.

NK has capable military technology to hammer South Korea and US from a standoff
What % of their missiles will be reliable and able to fly the intended target distance is quite another thing…..as NK missile Program testing provides evidence of continual build and operations prep failure.

In the next few years….NK will get the solid fuel program problems resolved.
This time….real successful SLBM launches along with a intermediate range arsenal they can mass produce.

Iran struggled with their programs…they pressed thru and now have capable strike systems…as witnessed in recent ballistic strike on ISUS in Deir Ezzor.

Joseph Scott

Actually, what everybody forgets is that the Merkava IV performed very well in 2006. Israeli casualties per tank penetrated were lower than they had ever been, and the Israelis lost only a handful of tanks, contrary to all the pro-Hezbollah propaganda people like to spread around here. Also, there IDF overall outperformed Hezbollah by more than 2 to 1 in casualties-inflicted-per-soldier, after accounting for equipment, terrain and force posture. What everyone also forgets is that Hezbollah is actually well-trained, better trained than any Arab nation state…or DPRK’s forces. The IDF still is one of the best. 2006 didn’t change that. Hezbollah’s high level of ability is irrelevant to Korea.

DPRK do not have any of the things that make Hezbollah good. DPRK officers and NCOs have zero room for initiative in decision-making. The military is plagued with a level of corruption that is hard to rival outside Africa and Central/South America. Training is mostly empty drill and parades. They just aren’t a capable fighting force, and a few missiles of any kind won’t fix that.

RoK’s troops, meanwhile, impress people who train with them. Every US soldier I have ever heard speak about them who also operated with them considered them superior to US troops in things like fieldcraft and discipline.

Brad Isherwood

Yes the Merkava’s with their modular armor did OK vs the ATGMs Hezbollah fielded back then.
IDF basically rolled up into pre set area denial where Hezbollah had layers of contact points preset to blunt anticipated IDF armor.
Hezbollah does not have large theatre operations experience vs something like IDF and
Prior contact was IEDs,mortar and ATGM strikes of Small scale.
The 1982 Israeli opps into Lebanon is not the same exp,as anyone on the Lebanese side
From back then is not on the Hezbollah battlefield in 2006.
IDF senior field command would have the numeric of experience of 82 going into 2006.

IDF history since then is beat the shit out of poor cripples in Gaza.
It’s like NFL Dallas Cowboys vs 14 year old bantam football first timers with helmets.

DPRK are not invading anyone,nor sending soldiers to foreign military conflicts for experience.
Israel and US do that. …

NK’s military is old Soviet junk with some capable systems which they may or may not be able to co ordinate.
Their Soldiers are however Fanatical. …that’s exactly what you need to win ,
As witnessed in Vietnam War.
Wiki excerpt:
The number of helicopters destroyed or damaged during the operation shocked the proponents of U.S. Army aviation and prompted a reevaluation of basic airmobile doctrine. The 101st Airborne Division alone, for example, had 84 of its aircraft destroyed and another 430 damaged. Combined U.S./ARVN helicopter losses totaled 168 destroyed and 618 damaged.[9] During Lam Son 719 American helicopters had flown more than 160,000 sorties and 19 U.S. Army aviators had been killed, 59 were wounded, and 11 were missing at its conclusion.[85] South Vietnamese helicopters had flown an additional 5,500 missions. U.S. Air Force tactical aircraft had flown more than 8,000 sorties during the incursion and had dropped 20,000 tons of bombs and napalm.[89] B-52 bombers had flown another 1,358 sorties and dropped 32,000 tons of ordnance. Seven U.S. fixed-wing aircraft were shot down over southern Laos: six from the Air Force (two dead/two missing) and one from the Navy (one aviator killed).[citation needed]

Vietnam and Korean War show that superior airpower primacy is not enough to win the
Conflict on the ground.
US will not be bribing Kim’s military commanders to run away like Iraq 2003

Joseph Scott

Fanaticism does very little good in modern combat. On the contrary, a fanatical and ill-trained opponent is a soldier’s best friend. Being a fanatic, they believe in their own superiority, but since they lack any actual skill, they set themselves up to be massacred in droves by behaving in a clumsy and overconfident manner. This, in turn, shatters the illusion of their superiority and they tend to either collapse completely as their worldview is crushed under the bodies of their comrades (Italian Blackshirts, for example) or they push the same bad tactics all the harder in desperation until they are all dead, or they freeze in place and wait to die. (Imperial Japanese Army and Naval Infantry in WWII).

I agree that airpower is not decisive alone, and the US places far too much reliance on it. However, the majority of combat power that would face the DPRK is not the US and it’s airpower, but the ground forces of the RoK, which are very well-trained, extremely well-equipped, and unlike the ARVN which did the majority of fighting in Vietnam, a motivated, disciplined force. The South Vietnamese had little to fight for; their corrupt government merely exploited them for no gain on their part. South Koreans, on the other hand, live quite well, better than people in many other 1st World countries, are quite proud of what they’ve got, and utterly uninterested in trading that for what they have north of the DMZ. Consequently, when the horde of toy-soldiers from the North poured through the DMZ, the RoK’s troops would not just stand and fight, but counterattack. The degree of numerical superiority possessed by the DPRK is not sufficient to offset the vast casualty disparity that will result when DPRK and RoK units come into contact, all the more so because the DPRK will not be able to exercise effective coordination of their forces in combat, due to the total lack of initiative ingrained into their system. Their units will often be simply waiting for orders uselessly or carrying out an unnecessary but never rescinded order when they are destroyed by far more responsive, nimble and stealthy RoK troops, who will fight a far more of a coordinated team. They’d be in Pyongyang in weeks.

Solomon Krupacek

escobar, NK is piece of shit. has lass chance than snowball on copacabana in summer. and be sure, no nuclear attack can realise.

Manuel Flores Escobar

Do you remember the 11-S?..what happened?..Panic, Panic and Panic among US population!..then everybody realized that western population were NOT prepared for a war inside their countries as they only thought that wars happened away from their countries!..by this I mean that South Korea and Japan will stop the war( by the preassure of its population) at the time that a single Missile( with conventional warhead) hit their countries and Kill civilians!

Solomon Krupacek

this is nothing. there was no war. in usa are monthly terrorist attacks. be sure, america would win and NK ghas no chance to send single one bomb on american soil.

Manuel Flores Escobar

I dont talk about US population..I am talking about South Korea Population!..there were riots showing rejects about THAAD.so imagine about NK artillery and missile hitting Seoul!

Solomon Krupacek

you have no idea, how disciplined all the south koreans. this is not latin america

Manuel Flores Escobar

First of all..I am not from Latinoamerica…second South Korea population are not ready for a war and the possible destruction of the infraestructure beside problems for sailing with merchant ships in his coast!

Solomon Krupacek

boy, were you already in SK? i was. i make business with s.koreans. THEYS ARE PREPARED for total war. they do not live in peace.

Manuel Flores Escobar

Seoul has a population of 20 million and near border with NK…Rockets, artillery, missile..hitting Seoul and around…and everybody running to the airport and seaports to escape…Panic and Fear to a Nuclear attack!…


“America hasn’t won a war, not even in Afghanistan which BTW does not even begin to compare to what NK is militarily speaking. I will see you 10 trilliion USD and 6 years later with 10’s of thousands of “American” KIA at the very least, and that is without a NK surprise.

Solomon Krupacek

america except of vietnam won all wars. 2x in iraq, in libya killed gaddafi, grenada, panama. also in afghanistan killed the satan.
and won the cold war. ;)

Manuel Flores Escobar

In Irak was defeated after Invasion by sunni terrorist and Shia militia!..the same fate will have in Afganistan as taliban rule more than 50%!..in Somalia USA was defeated by sandals fighters!…

Solomon Krupacek

:DDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDD you are very interesting subject for neurophysiologists

Jan Tjarks

The lilliput will teach the goldfish from overseas a lesson, as the goldfish already forgot Vietnam and doesn’t understand that it is close to a Vietnam in Syria.

Terra Cotta Woolpuller

Extremely close in Syria and will see why they are declining in military supremacy and economic hegemony. Just love the people of Syria like Dr. Bouthania Shaaban who is a highly intelligent Political and Media Adviser to President Bashar Al Assad no wonder the US offered her millions and she turned them all down because like the People who support Assad they are true Syrian loyalists.


……. …… …… .
Does Mr Kalman exclusively for SouthFront think that a North Korea war will be fought between North and South Korea?

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