Now let us talk about the real potential of the forces of North and South, in case an armed conflict does start. On this issue, there are also plenty of myths, actively promoted by “fans” of both sides.
Of course, considering the South Korean Army without mentioning the United States would make no sense. Earlier, during its weak stage in the times of Syngman Rhee, it was directly under U.S. command. Subsequently southerners regained the right to command in peacetime, but in case of military conflict, command will be transferred to the U.S. even today. In addition, the treaty of 1954 is still in force, according to which, if the Republic of Korea is attacked from the North, then the USA is obliged to come to its aid. No one is going to revise these conditions.
Therefore, it is important for us to understand, to what extent the North Korean generals have had the opportunity to explore the strategies of their enemy and prepare for new methods of fighting, different from those that were used during the Korean War. Some work on this is certainly being done in this direction. Hence, for example, the apparent division of units into Special Forces and the rest of the army, which is more reminiscent of “armed construction battalions”. Hence, MUCH attention was also paid to underground facilities – destroying a massive quantity of these shelters, and other hidden and protected infrastructure units, built for the army and for the key sections of the population, would be extremely difficult with precision weapons.
Nevertheless, the KPA faces some serious challenges. First, this is technological backwardness, which is superimposed on the crisis caused by the shortage of fuel and spare parts. As mentioned by one military expert, familiar to the author, the “DPRK would probably have enough tanks to capture Seoul, but I’m not sure that they would have enough fuel to get there”. DPRK has fuel for 30 days, and food for 60 days of war. If we use the American methodology of TASCFORM calculations, the entire North Korean Air Force will be equal to two squadrons of F-16s, and the total firepower of ground forces is equal to five modern “heavy divisions”.
The other side of technical backwardness of the DPRK may be associated with an underestimation of one factor, which can be used against it. Relatively speaking, North Koreans can generally understand how the weapons and tactics of the enemy may look, but they cannot imagine the full size of this gap, and what really are the most advanced military technologies, including remote-piloted vehicles and precision-guided weapons.
Although undoubtedly the latest modernization of the DPRK air defense systems are reasonable, their old technology may not be able to bring down modern means of air attack without radar modernization, new computer-based signal processing and electronic equipment. A massive supply of handheld MANPADS works against aircraft attacks, but not against bombing or missiles.
Second, come the consequences of narrow-mindedness. We talked about this matter in the second part of the analysis, and here just want to note that these problems concern the understanding of strategy and tactics. North Korean military leadership seems to be more experienced than the Southern leaders, they have previous experience of war, but this is only the experience of the past. Such generals are often prepared for a war, which has already been and which will no longer be, and that means certain problems with innovations and innovative decisions.
The third problem concerns the military training and martial spirit. Of course, the percentage of those who are willing to die for the Juche Idea is significantly higher in the army of the North, than in the South, but this is exactly what is meant – “than in the South”. If the North Koreans start massively dying without visible success under blows of napalm and cluster munitions, the high martial spirit at the beginning of a conflict can quickly start dissipating.
It seems, however, that North Korean officers are more resistant to bribery and other methods of persuasion, which have been used to neutralized part of the armies in Libya and Iraq. This is due to the fact that while Iraqi and Libyan officers and generals could create colorful plans for their lives after the betrayal, the National Security Act continues to operate in South Korea, according to which, they will be held accountable as members of illegal armed groups, which are not subject to the rules of war. In the RK, government organs were formed to control the North long time ago, and there is no room for “traitors” in them. Therefore – in fact, there are no good prospects for those potential renegades in the North Korean leadership, who are willing to commit betrayal in the hope of a better fate.
The fourth problem is related to the potential revaluation of what seemed as “trump cards”. I already mentioned the false sense of security and safety dilemma, but we can mention here also the “thousands of gun-barrels, which are ready to turn Seoul into a sea of fire”, as well as the abovementioned special forces.
The large number of artillery pieces aimed at Seoul and northern regions of the RK, are often mentioned, but it is not clear how many of these gun-barrels are intact and provided with shells, how much the North Korean artillery is ready for modern counter-battery battle – it is easy to detect and destroy stationary firing points. In the North, they can bet on quantity rather than quality – even if half of that should be destroyed, the second half will be enough to inflict unacceptable damage, but the shooting that will take place at long distances, on a grid network, without adjustments, demonstrating its positions to anti-artillery radar, will be less effective. Not to mention the fact that a significant portion of these artillery guns cover only the northern suburbs of Seoul, and not the entire city.
We must not place too much importance on “Special Forces” either. Parts of Special Forces are “light” versions of line infantry, and their preparation and complex weapons are designed to perform well-defined types of combat missions. If they are caught in a situation that regular infantry would cope with easily (for example – holding a defensive line from attacks of the enemy, which was supported by tanks and aircraft), such special forces often strike down the flag or suffer unreasonably high losses.
There also are more than enough problems in the RK Army. South Korean military leadership is convinced that their technological advantage will give them absolute supremacy and allow them to make a preemptive strike to destroy North Korean military objects, in such way, that the rest of them, which will survive the preventive attack, and may be able to carry out a counter-strike, will be easily intercepted and stopped.
BUT! The South Korean Army has not been at war for a long time, and suffers from a whole series of problems of an army that has not fought, problems that are also present in the Russian Army. I will not repeat again the data about the series of scandals, which could well illustrate the level of disorder and real unpreparedness, but will mention something else – and these facts are well recognized (especially since they have become known in the foreign media), though are only perceived as “minor episodes”, which do not change the picture of the South Korean defense capability.
In addition to having no real war experience, South Korean troops in Iraq are not engaged in any hostilities and are busy with the protection of their specialists. Clashes with the North occur mostly sporadically at sea near the disputed border. Most commanders, who remember the Korean War or even the Vietnam War, have left the service. There are no people in the South with normal military experience, or ones who can at least adequately conceive of actions in a real war.
Moreover, the RK Army does not have its own serious strategists and planners, as in case of war, the United States will take over the strategic command. Generally, this means that mostly bureaucrats, who can imitate violent preparations for war, are moved up, but not so much the strategically capable ones. That means, in particular, they are unable to track the enemy’s actions and consider proper countermeasures to take.
Now about the martial spirit of the South. A considerable part of the RK military leadership perceives war as an event happening in some virtual space, when you press the trigger here, and blood starts pouring out somewhere else. On top of that is imposed the notion that technological superiority alone will be enough to win in the short term. This brings two consequences – reduced willingness to bear hardships and greater sensitivity to human losses (particularly in a high informational transparency, “Hi, Mom, I’m send you a video from my burning tank…”) and significant unwillingness to “fight with deactivated electronics”, without air conditioning and hand cream.
Thus, both armies have enough weaknesses that could make a military conflict between them longer and less predictable than it seems to fans of either side. However, the DPRK has no forces or capabilities for a successful offensive war. The DPRK can count only on an active and sustained defense, with an emphasis on guerrilla warfare and use of underground facilities. Or, on the fact that, knowing the weakness of Western society, it can to try to inflict so much damage, that all the costs, including social and psychological costs, become so unacceptable to the enemy, that he will “change his mind” about continuing to fight.
Unfortunately, both of these strategies are quite risky. “Retreat into mountains” means giving into the hands of the enemy the strategic initiative and becoming like the Taliban or the Iraqi Army, which, of course, has continued to resist and fight to the end, but there are no chances to change the course of the war there. From a tactical point of view, guerrilla warfare is really effective only if a “great land” is primarily responsible for the supply. Taking into account the infrastructural investments into a “small war”, the northerners can resist for a long time, but they will never have a chance to move from guerrilla war to open war, especially given the fact that their opponents will also try to persuade the population to be loyal to them, or at least, try to deprive the guerrillas of their “food base”.
The variant of inflicting unacceptable damage is good, before the big war starts, but then it becomes more dangerous. Sensitive response to human losses does not always mean the fear of losses and the inability to bear them – a society can unite and harden as a response to an overly hard strike of the enemy, and conversely, can lose its will to compromise.
Moreover, in terms of technical advantages, the fear of human losses can conversely promote a preemptive strike strategy, in which it will be easier to destroy all enemy forces – “so that none of our soldiers will die”.
As for the South Korean strategy of destruction of the North, the most advantageous variant is to bet not so much on a blitzkrieg in 90 hours, but on a pre-emptive strike, whose goal would be to destroy the enemy’s key infrastructure facilities and ensure supremacy in the air. Then, advancement into the enemy’s territory will not be needed so much, but rather continuation of long-range strikes and a strategy of attrition. Time will work on the side of Seoul, both in terms of mobilization of its allies, and in terms of reducing the strength and resources of the enemy.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD Historical Sciences, Senior Research Scientist at the Center for Korean Studies at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Science, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.