North Korea’s Military
Once again, tensions are at an all-time high on the Korean Peninsula. The war rumors are spreading like wildfire. North Korea routinely conducts nuclear and ballistic missile tests, snubbing the international community.
There haven’t been many times in the history of the two Koreas when south and North Korea have been friendly neighborhoods. Both sides have been preparing for their armies to fight again for over sixty years.
Throughout South Korea, there are pre-dug fighting locations with laminated and posted sector maps so that any soldier can drop in and be ready to fight. Obstacles that could obstruct any north-south road are ready to be installed, and predetermined artillery locations are marked to the meter, awaiting the arrival of the guns.
So, what would American and South Korean forces observe approaching the horizon as they hold defensive positions?
What obstacles will they face as they travel north? North Korea has historically been one of the most difficult locations to obtain information about. Internet-based estimates of the overall number of pieces of military equipment might therefore differ from one expert to the next.
Yet, they are generally in agreement with the types of available equipment. With whom, then, would North Korean forces wage war? And what are the specific benefits and drawbacks of this equipment set?
North Korea has between 3,500 and 5,000 main battle tanks depending on the source, making it one of the world’s largest armored armies.
The number of 5,000 would place North Korea in fourth place globally, just after Russia, China, and the United States. Regardless of where the real number falls within this range, North Korea’s armored forces appear powerful until one digs deeper.
When you look closely at the types of main battle tanks North Korea has, its army starts to look less Unimpressive. North Korea’s army is mostly made up of Soviet-era T-55 and T-62 tanks, with some more modern T-80s and homemade Chonma-ho and Pokpung-ho tanks mixed in. Most of these tanks are at least as old as the ones the United States and its coalition partners faced and destroyed in 1991’s Operation Desert Storm.
North Korean tanks are inferior to the US M1 Abrams and the South Korean K2 Black Panther. Both the T-55s and T-62s have been in service for well over half a century.
While the Chonma-ho and Pokpung-ho tanks are certainly an upgrade over the antiquated T-55s and T-62s, they are nonetheless mostly based on the T-62 and T-72 tank designs, which were decisively outclassed by the M1 in combat.
On the other hand, the Pokpung-ho has been speculated to have some features with the T-90, the Russian main combat tank. If so, it would have near-peer capabilities against US forces, but North Korea doesn’t have many of those.
The last time an air attack killed American troops in action was during the Korean War. If there is a war with North Korea right now, this is a trend that is likely to keep going. At first glance, North Korea’s air force numbers look strong, just like the numbers for its armored forces, but the truth is more complicated. Most estimates say that North Korea’s air force has about 1,300 planes.
Nonetheless, the MiG-15, MiG-17, and MiG-19 all saw service in the first Korean War over sixty years ago, while the MiG-21 was the primary fighter aircraft deployed by North Vietnam in the 1960s.
However, North Korea does have a small number of more advanced aircraft, including around 35 MiG-29 Fulcrums, 56 MiG-23 Floggers, and 34 Su-25 Frogfoots. Ground forces with inadequate air defenses may have trouble dealing with the Su-25, a close air support aircraft. Compared to the F/A-18 and F-16, the MiG-29 is the only fighter in this group to be called a near-peer contender in combat.
However, two disadvantages are the limited number of aircraft North Korea can field and the poor pilot training, which consists of as few as twenty hours of flight time per pilot per year.
There are a limited number of helicopters in North Korea’s arsenal, including about twenty Mi-24 HIND assault helicopters produced in Russia and a few more that can be converted to transport or attack duties.
Astonishingly, some eighty Hughes 500Es, which are also employed by American special operations troops and might be adapted for a function as a gunship, are among these. These join the Mi-17 HIP and Mi-2 HOPLITE.
North Korea, like other countries following the Soviet model, places a premium on air defense despite its air assets not being up to par with those of its prospective enemies.
According to a recent analysis of the condition of North Korean security, “North Korea maintains a dense, overlapping air defense system of SA-2, SA-3, and SA-5 sites, mobile SA-13 SAMs, mobile and stationary AAA, and numerous man-portable air-defense systems like the SA-7.”
The report said North Korea would continue developing its air defense capability as its air force ages. A system similar to the Russian S-300, which can track targets at up to 300 kilometers and has a missile range of up to 150 kilometers, was reportedly seen at a military parade a few years ago and may still be in North Korea’s arsenal today.
When it comes to earlier integrated air defense systems like the SA-2, SA-3, and SA-5, American forces have shown they could hold their own during Operation Desert Storm and the first weeks of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The concern, however, is twofold. First, how effective is the S-300, and how close to replication is the system identified in the military parade?
Does it have the same capabilities as the S-300? If so, it will cause a lot of heartache for any air force attempting to bypass it. The second concern stems from the proliferation of man-portable (MANPAD) systems like the SA-7.
These systems are lightweight and easily concealable, making them nearly impossible to remove from the battlefield. North Korea has several thousand of these MANPADs distributed throughout its ground forces.
While advanced fighter aircraft should not have much of a problem against these systems, they could pose a significant risk to larger, slower cargo aircraft and helicopters.
In the mountainous terrain that is most of North Korea, low-flying helicopters are most at risk to North Korean soldiers operating in the mountains, taking a side or overhead shot as the helicopter flies by, leaving the crew with little to no warning.
The most potent capability in North Korea’s arsenal comes from its indirect fire assets. With systems consisting of 170-millimeter self-propelled guns and several different sizes of multiple launch rocket systems—including 122-millimeter, 240-millimeter, and 300-millimeter—North Korea could, according to the information analysis group Stratfor, reasonably be able to deliver over 350 metric tons of explosives on Seoul in a single volley.
However, their ability to sustain this would slowly diminish for three reasons. First, North Korean artillery and rocket forces have historically had about a 25 percent dud rate with their munitions, which will cause a significant reduction in effective fires.
Second, North Korean artillery teams have been notoriously poor performers during exercises and skirmishes with South Korea.
And third, those systems become vulnerable to counter-fire once the first volley is fired. Unless North Korean forces target South Korean and US indirect fire positions early and effectively, they can expect to be targeted quickly in response.
North Korea’s navy is easily in the worst shape of all their armed forces. They have no blue water force to speak of, with most of their surface ships consisting of small patrol craft.
These patrol crafts do have the potential to pack a punch, as many are equipped with anti-ship cruise missiles and torpedoes. They do not, however, have the ability to conduct operations in the open ocean, leaving them vulnerable to standoff fires from larger vessels.
As with other North Korean military capabilities examined here, their submarine fleet looks good on paper, with over seventy submarines total, but looking deeper reveals a different story.
Their fleet is comprised mostly of vessels built in the 1950s, like the Russian Romeo-class diesel-electric submarine, the largest in their fleet.
While these Romeo subs have the ability to launch multiple torpedoes and diesel subs have been known to be very quiet when running on battery power only, they are still easily detected by US and South Korean sub-hunters.
North Korea has prioritized special operations forces above all else in terms of training and equipping for future combat operations.
North Korean SOF are well taken care of and motivated. These forces have trained for multiple missions, including limited raids against targets in the South with an emphasis on surprise attacks.
These quick-strike missions would focus on soft, high-value targets. SOF is North Korea’s only truly joint force. Both the air force’s helicopters and the navy’s landing craft provide support to SOF missions.
Since its first nuclear test in 2006, North Korea has considered itself a nuclear power, according to the 2015 Military and Security Developments Involving the Democratic People.
The Republic of Korea Report to Congress, North Korea has created a domestic law stating, “the nuclear weapons of the DPRK can only be used by a final order of the Supreme Commander of the Korean’s People’s Army to repel invasion or attack from hostile nuclear weapons state and make retaliatory strikes.”
However, North Korea has not successfully demonstrated the ability to employ a nuclear warhead on an effective delivery system.
This does not mean that during a conflict, they could not find an unconventional method of delivery in order to achieve a quick tactical victory by targeting conventional forces or create chaos in the South by targeting a population center.
Chemical and Biological Weapons
While North Korea’s chemical and biological weapons are less talked about than its nuclear program, they do likely possess the capabilities.
Little is known about these programs, but the 2015 report to Congress states they have the capability to “produce nerve, blister, blood, and choking agents and likely possess a [chemical weapons] stockpile.”
Even less is known about their biological weapons, but it is believed that they can also employ those types of weapons.
North Korean soldiers are trained to operate in these types of environments, making it possible for them to fight through contamination.
North Korea has been implicated in many of the more notable recent cyber-attacks, including the attack on Sony Pictures in retaliation for the studio’s release of the movie “The Interview.”
The “WannaCry” cyber-attack in May that targeted approximately 150 countries has also been linked to North Korea. These attacks have shown that North Korea has focused on this capability and may be able to conduct crippling cyber-attacks against South Korean infrastructure and military networks.
The biggest question regarding the war on the Korean Peninsula is what China will do. As one of North Korea’s few allies, will they provide military support as they did during the Korean War, or will they sit on the sidelines and allow North Korea to fall? China’s involvement in the first Korean War was a game-changer.
The injection of Chinese military forces halted the United Nations forces’ momentum, resulting in the ultimate stalemate that still holds today.
Intervention by China this time could have a similar effect. At a minimum, China’s involvement would draw out the conflict, which would, in turn, put a heavier toll on both US forces and the South Korean population.
Sun Tzu says, “if you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt; if you know Heaven and know Earth, you may make your victory complete.”To Sun Tzu, knowing the terrain (“the Earth”) is key to a successful combat operation.
This is nowhere truer than on the Korean Peninsula. Unlike the wide-open, mounted maneuver paradise of the Middle East or the open fields of central Europe, the Korean Peninsula is very canalized.
There is a reason many of the famous battles of the Korean War were fights for hills and similar terrain features (Pork Chop Hill, Heartbreak Ridge, Old Baldy, Hill Eerie, and Bloody Ridge, to name a few).
The entire peninsula is carved up by hills and rivers, which reduces maneuver space and shrinks standoff distances of heavy weapons systems—both of which take away advantages that US ground forces have enjoyed for decades.
As with the South, above the 38th parallel, North Korea has the home-field advantage. It is safe to assume that the North Koreans have done just as much work preparing their country for combat operations as the South.
Most vital locations can be expected to have been hardened, and many key facilities have likely been taken underground. It is also likely that North Korean forces have adapted their maneuver tactics to exploit the advantages and mitigate the disadvantages created by the local terrain.
Unlike US forces, which have to maintain systems and capabilities suited to many different terrains and climates, North Korea only has to be able to fight effectively in one.
While superior warfighting capabilities can still win the day, as US forces found in Afghanistan, it is far from a foregone conclusion. Home field advantage, properly leveraged, can, in many cases, swing the fight in favor of a smaller and less modernly equipped force.
Tallying the Balance Sheet
From a raw numbers perspective, North Korea’s military looks like a powerful adversary. It’s not until you dig a little deeper that you can see its true colors.
Most of North Korea’s key weapons systems are pushing fifty years old. Many of those key systems have been proven inferior to those of Western forces during combat operations against countries with similar equipment.
The systemic problem of poor training also plagues the bulk of North Korea’s conventional forces, significantly reducing the effectiveness of the few sophisticated weapons systems in their arsenal.
And yet, North Korea is not entirely without effective capabilities it can bring to bear and advantages it can exploit. Special operations forces, cyber capabilities, indirect fire assets, terrain characteristics for which it is uniquely prepared, and the potential to move a nuclear weapon undetected across the peninsula are among the few advantages that North Korea can hope to leverage in a conflict against the US and South Korea.
US and South Korean forces still have the preponderance of advantage in their favor, but North Korea has at least enough to ensure that the fight will be ugly.