In the early morning of August 21, a critical incident precipitated a state of emergency in the South Korean Air Force. A piercing siren resounded throughout the command center, a sure sign that a North Korean military plane was trespassing on established airspace limits.
In a swift and coordinated response, the standby pilots quickly boarded their respective fighters, beginning a demanding takeoff. Many air forces, drawn from air corps stationed throughout the country, deployed sequentially. Approximately ten combat aircraft, incorporating fifth-generation F-35A, F-15K, KF-16 and FA-50, participated in this strategic operation in a long-range assault that successfully neutralized the enemy air presence.
Amid important activity were the operational officers of the Air Defense Command Battalion and the Anti-Missile Defense Battalion. These officers found themselves in a double bind when an enemy aircraft and a cruise missile appeared simultaneously on their radar. The radar team focused on the trajectory of the cruise missile, diligently following its trajectory. At the same time, the air defense agents, using Shingoong and Cheongung, successfully pursued and intercepted the enemy aircraft.
The UFS exercise
The start of the Ulji Freedom Shield [UFS] joint exercise, which kicked off at precisely 00:00 on August 21, marked the start of the Defense Supply Exercise. This particular exercise is a strategic response to the advanced raid capabilities of adversary air forces.
On August 23, for 20 minutes from 2:00 p.m., the resounding sound of a training siren echoed throughout the territory. This siren, indicative of a hypothetical air raid warning, signified the start of an extensive civil defense training exercise. This exercise, except in the city of Seoul, was carried out in most of the country. It was a notable event as it was the first time such a drill had been held in six years since 2017.
The training program, which lasted just 20 minutes, included a meticulously planned sequence of activities. It began with issuing an air raid warning that lasted approximately 15 minutes. This was followed by a 5-minute segment dedicated to issuing a subsequent advisory and deactivating the initial alert. Throughout this process, citizens demonstrated commendable responsiveness as they quickly moved to designated civil defense shelters.
the hour h
In the hypothetical context of an all-out conflict with North Korea, an operational plan known as “OPLAN 5027” stipulates a global response strategy. According to this scenario, from the 21st to the 31st, South Korea will start joint nationwide military training exercises, preparing for the imminent war. This exercise outlines a strategic plan focused primarily on defense. However, one may wonder about the implications if North Korea actually instigated provocative actions.
If North Korea’s actions escalate to a level that can be classified as a full-scale provocation, the commander of the US-North Korea Combined Forces Command. The US will have the authority to assume operational command. This critical juncture is abruptly declared “H-hour,” symbolizing the beginning of the war.
Simultaneously, the situation goes from a state of peace to one of imminent war. In just 10 minutes, the Air Force component command, under the joint jurisdiction of the Korean and US forces, issues what is known as an “F-hour” order. This term designates the time it takes for an aircraft’s munitions to reach its target. The main objective of this rapid response is twofold: firstly, to reduce the number of casualties and protect the allied forces from possible harm, and secondly, to achieve a rapid cessation of hostilities, thus shortening the duration of the war.
In the event of an escalation of the crisis, the action plan provides for a preemptive attack against the North Korean military command, as well as against key units. This strategy is designed to be the precursor to all-out war. However, The question that arises is whether such a response can be effectively executed under the pressure of an emergency.
the white paper
As pointed out in the White Paper, there is a great disparity in the military capacity of both nations regarding their standing forces. The North Korean military, with 2.56 times the number of standing troops that its South Korean counterpart, exhibits significant variation in their respective military capabilities.
If we consider the scale, it would appear that North Korea has a numerical advantage. However, given the relentless influx of state-of-the-art weaponry into the Republic of Korea [ROK] army’s arsenal, a significant number of analysts agree that the South possesses a formidable advantage in terms of technological sophistication.
North Korea’s standing army, with an estimated strength of about 1.28 million soldiers, has shown stability in recent years, as corroborated by white papers released in 2018 and 2020. This consistency is in stark contrast to the decline in military personnel. South Korea which has seen a significant reduction of about 155,000 troops in two years, bringing its current total to about 500,000 from the previous count of 655,000,655,000.
Assessed by counties, the military power of the North and the South is quantitatively different. The 365,000-strong North’s army is dwarfed by the South’s formidable force of 1.1 million. The naval strength of the two regions presents a less dramatic discrepancy, with the North’s navy, including marines, numbering 70,000, compared to 60,000 in the South. As for the air force, the North has 65,000 troops, while the South has 110,000. In addition, the North Korean army has a strategic force of approximately 10,000 individuals, experts in handling ballistic missiles.
When examining the military arsenal of South and North Korea, it is noted that South Korea possesses approximately 2,200 tanks, which is approximately half the number of tanks in North Korea, estimated at around 4,300. Also, if you consider the number of Yapo, the South Korean count is about 5,600, in contrast to North Korea’s staggering 8,800 Yapo.
Other disparities become apparent when the spotlight shifts to multiple pitchers. In South Korea, the number of such weapons is estimated at about 310, a number that pales in comparison to North Korea’s extensive arsenal of 5,500 multiple launchers. The stark contrast in these figures highlights the region’s military imbalance and underscores the potential threats and challenges posed by this disparity.
South Korea operates approximately 60 surface-to-surface guided weapons launchers, while North Korea operates nearly twice as many, with about 100 launchers. In terms of ground weapons, the number of armored vehicles slightly exceeds that of launchers: South Korea has about 3,100 and North Korea a slightly smaller force, about 2,600. This subtle difference in armored vehicle crews demonstrates a nuanced balance of power between the two nations.
South Korean superiority at sea
When it comes to displaying its naval might, North Korea appears to outnumber its South counterpart. In the field of battleships, the disparity is staggering: North Korea has 420 ships, compared to 90 for the South. This difference is further accentuated in the context of amphibious ships, where North Korea has an impressive fleet of 250, which dwarfs South Korea’s 10.
The same trend extends to mine countermeasure ships, where the North Korean fleet of 20 is twice that of the South Korean fleet of 10. Furthermore, South Korean auxiliary ships outnumber South Korean ones. In addition, the auxiliary naval forces of the South, made up of 20 ships, are doubled by the 40 of the North. The submarine field is no exception to this rule, since the North Korean submarine fleet, 70, far exceeds the South Korean one, 10.
From a quality standpoint, the South Korean military’s performance does not appear stellar. North Korean Army ships are primarily designed for coastal operations. However, many of these vessels have exceeded their hull life expectancy, resulting in a relentless decommissioning cycle.
Over a considerable span of nearly half a century, North Korea’s naval prowess was significantly enhanced by including the Soviet Union’s 1950s design Romeo-class submarines (1,800 tons). These formidable marine weapons, which saw service from 1973 to 1995, constituted an important component of the nation’s surface power. Currently, North Korea is immersed in the development of a new submarine variant. This innovative submarine is designed to host a Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile [SLBM], a formidable addition to the nation’s military arsenal, which is still under rigorous development.
Although air power may be finite in its capacity, it is imperative to note that North Korea’s air power is drastically below the requirements of contemporary military engagements. Their lack of adequate air capabilities significantly hampers their ability to establish and maintain air superiority.
Despite its formidable capabilities, the South Korean Air Force faces a daunting task. North Korea’s combat missions are immense, roughly double those of the South. However, the effectiveness of the North is significantly hampered by outdated equipment and severe fuel shortages, leading to inadequate training.
Unquestionably, the South Korean Air Force has an impressive arsenal of weaponry. It includes the highly advanced F-35A fifth-generation stealth fighters, the powerful F-15K and KF-16 fighters, the strategic E-737 air controllers, and the versatile KC-330 multirole aerial refueling transport aircraft. Such a formidable team lineup allows them to potentially launch preemptive strikes against adversaries, a scenario even North Korea has openly acknowledged. Hence, the deliberation on granting the right to initiate such attacks remains a matter of international importance.
The power of South Korea
As the intricate metrics of modern conventional power bear out, North Korea is now in a difficult position to compete with South Korea. This claim is corroborated by the authoritative “Global Military Power Index 2023”, a comprehensive report released in early June of this year by the esteemed US military power assessment institution “Global Firepower [GFP].”
South Korea, an eminent player on the world stage, occupies the sixth position in the global military ranking. This classification places it above great powers such as Germany, in position 25, and Canada, in 27, within the Group of Seven [G7]. If the de facto nuclear powers were excluded, i.e., the United States, which ranks first; Russia, which ranks second; China, which ranks third; India, which ranks fourth, and Britain, which ranks fifth, South Korea would be the most powerful military force on the planet.
By contrast, North Korea’s conventional military might have experienced a major decline. The cause of this weakening is twofold: firstly, its defense budget has been reduced due to the economic difficulties the nation is going through. Second, their concentration has veered into a rather reckless pursuit of nuclear development. In this year’s Global Firepower [GFP] ranking, North Korea has slipped to 34th from a respectable 25th the year before, a sharp drop of nine places.
Meticulously calculated from a wide range of 60 parameters, the ranking covers aspects as diverse as the country’s military power and size, financial strength, and geopolitical influence. From the analysis, it appears that North Korea is aware of the qualitative superiority of South Korea in this area.
For this very reason, the entity in question strives to make up for its perceived deficiency in the field of conventional weapons and economic power. Its strategy involves upgrading its nuclear arsenal and missile capabilities, which serve as asymmetric forces in the global arena of conflict.
Ratio 1 to 1.6
The Defense White Paper has revealed a worrying increase in North Korea’s plutonium reserves, which have grown by 20kg to a total of 70kg in the past two years. This significant increase implies a greater capacity to produce more nuclear warheads, which increases the potential nuclear threat.
Consequently, paying close attention to the ongoing development of new delivery systems for nuclear weapons is imperative. These systems include intercontinental ballistic missiles such as the Hwasong-17, submarine-launched ballistic missiles such as the Pukguksong-4 and Pukguksong-5, and hypersonic cruise and cone missiles. The constant evolution of these systems underscores the urgency of the situation.
Simultaneously, the White Paper stresses the growing importance of maintaining a strong combined defense posture with the United States to deter North Korea. This includes promoting combined operations capabilities, developing a combined exercise system that reflects global operational concepts, and the concentrated application of open maneuver combined exercises.
Applying the “Comprehensive Model for Measuring the Power Index of Korean Ships [Hansoon Model],” based on “Comprehensive National Power: Basic Data for National Strategic Planning,” published by the Korean Foundation for the Advancement of the Korean Peninsula, the ratio of conventional weapons in South Korea to North Korea, excluding nuclear weapons, is found to be 100:97.
However, if North Korea were to employ a “surprise attack and short-term war” strategy, the military power ratio between South and North Korea would become 1:1.6. Hansoon’s model is based on the hypothesis that nuclear weapons serve more as threats than as tools of actual use. This scenario is a key factor why military experts believe North Korea is unlikely to move toward denuclearization.