DPRK Briefing Book: Hanging in the Balance: North-South Korean Military Capabilities
Peter Hayes, The Nautilus Institute, 1994.
Military analysts have long recognized that simple force ratios provide little insight into either the qualitative factors or the strategic capabilities that would determine the outcome of a war in a conflict such as Korea. Two recent American assessments cast make it feasible to grasp the dynamic aspects of potential conflicts between North (DPRK) and South (ROK) Korea.
A September 1993 nett assessment by the Joint Intelligence Center at Pacific Command (JICPAC) in Hawaii states that although the military balance in Korea still favors the North, situational elements “would make any North Korean attack on South Korea a very difficult operation.” (Source: JICPAC (ONK), “Republic of Korea/North Korea, Military Capabilities,” September 27, 1993; released by CINCPAC under a US Freedom of Information Act request to the author.)
These factors include — the strength of ROK defensive positions; — the size and potential of the ROK economy; — the sheer size advantage of the ROK population (20 versus 40 million).
Although the DPRK has only a quarter of the ROK’s gross national product, it devotes as much as 20-25 percent of its GNP to the military to keep an estimated 1 million plus men under arms.
In contrast, the ROK spends only 5 percent of its GNP on the military, but still dwarfs North Korea’s military expenditure. The ROK has opted to build a strong defensive position dependent upon technology and US treaty commitments (which entail a US military expenditure in and around the Korean Peninsula of about $6 billion per year) rather than numbers per se, to deter the North. JICPAC notes that ROK demographics and economic base could support a significant expansion of armed force if the military situation so dictated.
North Korea’s ground forces are well equipped and trained and most are forward deployed. The DPRK Army has a well known numerical advantage in artillery and SAMs (see Table 1). JICPAC states that the North has the capability “to insert by air or sea about 2,500 men in a single lift to operate in ROK rear areas to impede mobilization and other vital defense efforts.”
JICPAC also notes that the DPRK’s larger airforce is offset by the ROK airforce’s qualitative advantages, whereas its sheer numbers of naval forces still outweigh the ROK’s naval forces despite its recent production of frigates and corvettes.
Overall, JICPAC concludes that: — The North has significant logistics stockpiles which are “somewhat offset by the ROK’s superior transportation infrastructure and modern production facilities;” — Both countries have considerable industrial potential to support their military forces. “Pyongyang,” says JICPAC, “has utilized much of its capacity for production of military items for some time and will likely continue to do so.”
“The ROK,” it adds, “can support increased defense production should it be deemed necessary.”
Static balances based on simple force ratios can be very misleading in the case of the two Koreas where geography and qualitative differences would greatly affect how any war would unfold. A better way to evaluate the military balance is with dynamic, scenario- driven analyses.Strategic analysis provided by Rand to annual wargames conducted at the US Naval War College provides just such a review. Rand lists the ROK’s basic defensive situation as consisting of: — Terrain north of Seoul dominated by rice paddies offering limited off-road mobility; — Terrain west of Seoul is a wide coastal plan with main invasion routes to Seoul; — Extensive tunnelling under the DMZ by the DPRK; — Mountainous central DMZ area offers prime DPRK infiltration route; — Narrow eastern coastal plain is lightly settled and less heavily defended; — 40 percent of ROK population resides within 40 miles of Seoul; — Mountains make movement of forces to and from the east coast difficult.
The DPRK’s defensive situation is described as being characterized by: — Central mountains containing key industry; — Narrow eastern coastal plain with several key urban areas; — Mountainous terrain along the eastern DMZ which renders operations difficult; — Small hills and very channelized terrain North of Kaesong.
The DPRK’s military objectives in a conventional attack on the ROK are fairly obvious and include a main offensive north of Seoul, a pinning attack down the eastern coastal plain, the mining of ROK ports, the restriction of sea lanes of communication, and the reduction of ROK and US air sortie generation over the DPRK.
The most interesting scenario for the analysis of a dynamic balance in Korea is a variant of the US-ROK Combined Forces Command basic warplan, Oplan 5027 under consideration at CINCPAC which relates to the possibility that the ROK is able to blunt a DPRK offensive, stabilize the defensive line in FEBA Bravo (20-30 miles below the DMZ), and that the US-ROK Combined Forces Command would proceed to execute a retaliatory offensive once US reinforcements arrive.
In this variant, a US marine expeditionary force (about a division) and air assault division along with ROK divisions would assemble on the east coast to launch an overland offensive north toward Wonsan. A little later, a combined US-ROK force would land amphibiously near Wonsan and advance to Pyongyang. Finally, a combined US-ROK force would execute a major counteroffensive in the area north of Seoul aimed at reaching Pyongyang, either linking up with the force interposed at Wonsan, or meeting it in Pyongyang.
In this scenario, lots of mechanized ROK forces would be available for these offensives, but would have to punch through hardened DPRK forces. Thus, a major aerial campaign to attrite these northern forces would be required before a counteroffensive could begin.
A crucial external variable that would affect the success of such a US-ROK counteroffensive against the DPRK is whether US or ROK marine or army forces are committed elsewhere. Also, US aircraft carriers may be unavailable and US strategic lift may be insufficient to provide the requisite additional support.
Overall, these factors could make a counteroffensive impossible, or seriously delay it. Rand believes, however, that the balance would swing in favor of the South so long as two other conditions hold.
First, the ROK forces must be able to withstand DPRK forces over the first 5-15 days. Second, they must hold the line while US and ROK forces are mustered for the counteroffensive for another 15-20 days. Such a campaign also entails CFC air forces controlling the air and neutralizing DPRK attacks against southern airbases, as well as successful aerial interdiction of DPRK ground force movements.
To pull off this strategy, ROK and US forces would need to improve their perimeter control against DPRK special forces, have effective anti-ballistic missile systems in place, and be able to “sterilize” areas by destroying mobile threats such as Stinger- like missiles, etc. Rand told the wargamers that implementing this strategy also requires CFC forces to obtain better means to identify fortified defensive positions north of the DMZ without having to directly assault them, including a rock-penetrating munition to kill opposing forces in underground facilities. Finally, CFC forces must find ways to overcome the likely destruction of north Korean roads if they are to advance quickly on Pyongyang.
To these strictly military considerations must be added the “balance of morale.” North Korea’s military is largely composed of uniformed civilians dragooned into garantuan corvee labor projects. Thus, it is grossly bloated for reasons related to internal political control and its very size and flat C3I structure may undermine its fighting capabilities.
Also, the declining standard of living in North Korea cannot be hidden from its people who endure daily privations. The ROK government today is at least as legitimate and probably less politically fragile than its northern counterpart. In wartime, it is likely that the southern population will unite behind the ROK government whereas civil war could erupt in the North and rapidly degrade its military machine. In short, the psychological balance would likely favor the South.