Search Asia Times

Advanced Search


N Korea's military edge over S Korea
By David Scofield

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.

These 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.

The 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.

South Korea's 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.

Inter-Korean 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 songs.

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.

Many South 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, irreversibly, changed.

David Scofield, 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 for information on our sales and syndication policies.)

Sep 10, 2004

Death of a consort: Dynastic implications 
(Sep 2, '04)

South Korea's perilous revisionism
(Aug 3, '04)

N Korea chooses guns over butter (Jul 27, '04)

Seoul's confusing love-in with Pyongyang
(Jul 13, '04)


No material from Asia Times Online may be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 2003, Asia Times Online, 4305 Far East Finance Centre, 16 Harcourt Rd, Central, Hong Kong