Once again tensions on the Korean Peninsula are extremely high. Rumors of war are spreading like wild fire. North Korea has been conducting nuclear and ballistic missile tests on a regular basis, thumbing its nose at the world. President Donald Trump said there was a risk of “major, major conflict” with North Korea during meetings with Chinese leaders in April. Very few times in the history of the two Koreas have sabers been rattled as hard.
For over sixty years both sides have prepared for the day when their two armies would clash once again. Throughout South Korea you can see pre-dug fighting positions with sector sketches laminated and posted so that any soldier could fall in on the position and be ready to fight. Obstacles which could block any north/south road are just waiting to be emplaced, and preplanned artillery positions are marked down to the meter just waiting for guns to arrive.
So what will American or South Korean soldiers see coming over the horizon as they stand ready in their defensive positions? What will they encounter as they move north? Historically, North Korea is one of the hardest places to get information about. Because of that, numbers of total pieces of military equipment can vary from one expert’s estimate to another’s across the internet. But they all generally agree on what type of equipment is out there. So what exactly would North Korean forces go to war with? And what are the particular advantages and disadvantages of this equipment set?
From a purely numbers perspective North Korea has a one of the largest armored forces in the world, anywhere from approximately 3,500 to just over 5,000 main battle tanks depending on the source. The 5,000 figure would rank North Korea at number 4 in the world, just behind Russia, China, and the United States. Regardless of where in this range the actual number falls, North Korea’s armored forces appear formidable—until you dig a little deeper.
By taking a good look at the types of main battle tanks fielded by North Korea, the impressiveness of its force begins to fade. Comprised mostly of Soviet-era T-55 and T-62 tanks, along with some more modern T-80s and homemade Chonma-ho and Pokpung-ho tanks sprinkled in, North Korea’s force shows its age quickly. Most of these tanks are comparable in age or even older than the tanks United States and coalition forces went up against and completely decimated during Operation Desert Storm in 1991.
Compared to the M1 Abrams or the South Korean K2 Black Panther, North Korea’s tanks fall short. The T-55s and T-62s are over fifty years old. The Chonma-ho and Pokpung-ho tanks are improvements over the decrepit T-55s and T-62s, but are still generally based on the T-62 and T-72 tank designs that were shown to be greatly inferior to the M1 in combat. There is some speculation, however, that the Pokpung-ho may have some performance characteristics similar to the T-90 Russian main battle tank. If so, this would give it near-peer capabilities against US forces, but there are few in the North Korean inventory.
Aircraft and Air Defense
Not since the last Korean War has a US soldier been killed by an attack from the air. In a conflict with North Korea today this streak will likely hold. Similar to North Korea’s armor forces, its air force numbers look strong, although when you look deeper at what those numbers consist of, the picture is more mixed. Most sources agree that North Korea’s air force consists of approximately 1,300 aircraft.
But many of those planes—the MiG-15, MiG-17, and MiG-19—were designed for combat during the first Korean War over sixty years ago, and the MiG-21 was the main fighter aircraft used by North Vietnam in the 1960s. North Korea does, however, have a small number of more modern aircraft including approximately thirty-five MiG-29 Fulcrums, fifty-six MiG-23 Floggers and thirty-four Su-25 Frogfoots. The Su-25 is a close air support aircraft that might be an issue for ground forces that are organically equipped with little to no air defense capabilities. The MiG-29 is the only fighter in this group that can be considered a near-peer competitor in combat, with capabilities similar to and in some cases superior to the F/A-18 or F-16. Two drawbacks, however, are the limited numbers North Korea can field and poor pilot training, which consists of as few as twenty hours of flying time for each pilot per year.
North Korea does possess a small number of helicopters, including approximately twenty Russian-made Mi-24 HIND attack helicopters, as well as several others that can be fitted for either transport or attack roles. These include the Mi-17 HIP, Mi-2 HOPLITE, and surprisingly, approximately eighty Hughes 500Es, which are also used by US special operations forces and could be fitted for a role as a gunship.
Knowing that their air assets do not match up against their likely adversaries’ air forces, North Korea has, like other countries following the Russian model, put a strong emphasis on air defense. A recent report to Congress on North Korea’s security developments stated: “North Korea possesses a dense, overlapping air defense system of SA-2, SA-3, and SA-5 sites, mobile SA-13 SAMs, mobile and fixed AAA, and numerous man-portable air-defense systems like the SA-7.” The report went on to predict that North Korea will continue to build its air defense capability as its air force ages. The report also indicated that a system similar to the Russian S-300, which is capable of tracking targets out to 300 kilometers and has a missile range of up to 150 kilometers, was spotted at a military parade a few years ago and may be in the North Korean inventory today.
US forces have proven they are capable of dealing with older integrated air defense systems like the SA-2, SA-3, and SA-5 during Operation Desert Storm and in the opening weeks of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The concern, however, is twofold. First, how effective is the S-300 and how close of a 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 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.
Their ability to sustain this, however, 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, once the first volley is fired those systems become vulnerable to counter-fire. 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 craft 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 again, looking deeper reveals a different story. Their fleet is comprised mostly with vessels that were 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 are 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’s 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.” North Korea, however, has not demonstrated the ability to successfully 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, it is likely they do 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 have the ability to employ those types of weapons as well. North Korea soldiers are trained to operate in these types of environments, making it possible for them to fight through a 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 put a lot of focus on this capability and may be able to conduct crippling cyber-attacks against South Korean infrastructure and military networks.
The biggest question regarding a war on the Korean Peninsula is what China will do. As one of North Korea’s few allies, will they provide military support like 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 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 tells us that “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.
Just 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 in preparing their country for combat operations as the South has. 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 types of terrains and climates, North Korea only has to be able to fight effectively in one. While superior warfighting capabilities can still win the day, it is far from a foregone conclusion, as US forces found in Afghanistan. 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 to be 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 at its disposal to ensure that the fight will be ugly.
Image credit: Stefan Krasowski