N Korea's military edge over S
Korea By David
Despite lacking the resources necessary
to feed and care for its own people, North Korea has
found the funds necessary to develop its conventional
military capabilities beyond those of South Korea. That
North Korea's leadership is willing to allow starvation
and pestilence while it fuels the military is well
known, but last week's report by the Korea Institute for
Defense Analyses indicating an edge to DPRK forces
caught many by surprise.
It is known that South
Korea maintains 690,000 troops, backed by around 37,000
United States forces, while North Korea boasts a 1.1
million-strong military. The latest reckoning, however,
says South Korea's air force was 103% of North Korea's,
while its army and naval strengths were 80% and 90%
respectively of those of the North, according to the
state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analysis. That
doesn't count North Korea's nuclear weapons program and
it doesn't count Pyongyang's 100,000 special forces.
While it is difficult to compare the two sides
qualitatively, in terms of numbers, the North appears to
have the edge.
Of course, there are
methodological questions surrounding the report. Is it
appropriate, for example, to compare generations-old
technology in the North with the far newer equipment in
use in the South? Comparing air force, army and naval
vessels ton for ton, rather then focusing on the
technology in use is not a precise measure of these
nations' military projection capabilities. Indeed, some
analysts quickly concluded that the South Korean report
was probably designed to squeeze funds out of a
reluctant administration, more interested in
transforming a rice paddy into a new national capital
than planning for the nation's defense, independent of
US ground troops that will be relocated.
sorts of quantitative match-ups have proven meaningless
in the past. Remember Gulf War I? At that time analysts
warned that Saddam Hussein's standing army, battle
hardened from years of conflict with Iran, would prove a
formidable adversary to the more technologically
advanced US coalition troops. Quite the opposite proved
true. Saddam's regular army collapsed in the first days
of battle against an opponent that could lay waste from
afar, denying the Iraq army the chance to fire a shot
before its armor was decimated - large numbers being no
match for superior technology.
Again in 2003,
Iraq's military hardware, weakened by years of US-driven
United Nations sanctions, quickly caved. It is not armor
and men in uniforms that is inflicting casualties on the
US forces today, it is their opponents' utilization of
asymmetric strategies that is proving hard to counter -
and this is North Korea's strength as well.
75 or so more advanced MiG-29s and Su-25S the North
possesses won't be involved in dog fights with their
South Korean and US counterparts. The North is not
planning for, nor does it have the resources to fuel, a
wide, protracted battle. Rather, the North Koreans will
likely use a blitzkrieg approach, making heavy use of
its special forces.
North tops in special
forces, 100,000 According to Joseph Bermudez's
book The Armed Forces of North Korea, a
definitive guide to North Korean military capabilities,
the North has more than 100,000 such troops, the largest
group of its kind in the world. In a conflict, they
would be used to capture and destroy vital South Korean
infrastructure and installations, while confusing the
responding defense forces. It is widely speculated that
these forces wearing South Korean uniforms will
infiltrate the South in order to exacerbate the chaos.
The number of North Korean special operatives now in the
South is unknown, but is thought to be substantial.
US airmen working on the US Air Force's Osan Air
Base 30 miles south of Seoul, for example, are housed
largely off-base, making them easy targets for North
Korean operatives in the run-up to a surprise attack.
Further, North Korea has been tunneling under the
Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) since open hostilities ceased
in 1953. So far four tunnels have been unearthed, the
latest in 1989, but others are believed to still exist.
South Korea is a small country of only 98,000
square kilometers. North Korean jets can reach the
capital in six minutes from their forward bases. North
Korea's 12,000 artillery tubes and 2,300 MLR
(multiple-launch rockets/ medium-long range) hidden in
caves and underground are all within striking distance
Seoul, while its medium range Nodong ballistic missiles
can reach US assets throughout the South and in Japan.
In the mid 80's North Korea managed to import 87
American-made Hughes MD500 helicopters, the same type
South Korea uses as gun ships. The area between Seoul
and the DMZ is heavily wooded and mountainous, perfect
for guerrilla warfare.
Of course this has always
been the problem; the frontier terrain has not changed
since the last Korean conflict and the North Korean
strategy to utilize its special forces troops to
destroy, control and confuse is well known, but today
there's an additional obstacle to defending South Korea
- perception in the South.
engagement policies, begun in earnest in the weeks
following the June 15, 2000, summit between president
Kim Dae-jung and Pyongyang's leader Kim Jong-il, marked
the beginning of a government policy to change the way
North Korea is depicted, essentially whitewashing the
threat perception of the South's erstwhile nemesis.
Textbooks were altered and government literature and
policy was changed in a kinder, gentler approach to the
misunderstood Northern brethren.
activities are strongly encouraged and have proven very
effective in changing the way South Korea's younger
generation views the North. Major examples are the 2002
Asian Games in Busan in which over 350 North Korean
athletes and "cheerleaders" attended, followed by the
2003 World University Games in Daegu where 520 North
Koreans, including over 300 cheering propagandists,
joined hands with South Koreans to sing unification
Kinder, gentler approach of South to
North State-run media has softened its rhetoric, no
longer reporting the jingoistic tendencies of the
northern reclusive state with dramatic effect. In the
closing days of the World Cup competition in 2002, a
North Korean naval vessel attacked and sank a South
Korean navy ship inside South Korean territorial waters.
Two years later, not one politician from either the
ruling or opposition camps attended the memorial for the
six South Korean sailors who perished, and most of the
nation's media outlets relegated the story to the back
pages, if they covered it at all.
Koreans, whether civilians or in uniform, no longer
consider the North to be a threat - rapprochement
policies have been a success, at least in South Korea.
Unfortunately the North has not moderated its belief in
unification by force, making the South vulnerable. As
North Korea's military hardware is deployed in close
proximity to Seoul, rapid reaction is the key to
defense. But political engagement policies, designed to
reduce South Korean's fear of North Korea, have reduced
the nation's mental preparedness. After the naval
skirmish in 2002, one young South Korean sailor
confessed that he "didn't think the North would attack
us". North Korea is no doubt well aware of this
perceptual change, and no amount of military hardware is
going to change the way the North is perceived. Timing
is everything, a few minutes of confusion is all that is
needed to carry out a crippling assault on South's
infrastructure, military and otherwise.
Solutions are difficult. South Korea will not go
back to its Cold War readiness: finger on the trigger,
warily watching every move of its Northern adversary.
The solution lies not in going back but in moving the
North ahead, altering the perceptions within the North
vis a vis the rest of the world. The North's constant
war-footing, the nation's military-first philosophy,
which defines the political structure of the country, is
incongruent with perceptual change. North Korea's
leaders need the imminent "threat" of attack to justify
the system and its privations. The perception will
moderate only when the North's political lens, through
which outside reality is passed, is fundamentally,
former lecturer at the Graduate Institute of Peace
Studies, Kyung Hee University, is currently conducting
post-graduate research at the School of East Asian
Studies, University of Sheffield, United Kingdom.
(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. All
rights reserved. Please contact [email protected] for
information on our sales and syndication policies.)