Let’s be brutally honest here and answer the above question(s) as simply as possible without overwhelming details. It is after all the job of this blog’s slant on geo-politics and the state of things to cut short the chase and offer vulgarisation in these domains. So without further ado,
here is the lowdown.
Since North Korea threatens first their Southern cousins and second the USA, although at present time the order might be reversed, let us compare the arsenals at hand.
To put matters in perspective, one should know the numbers involved. North Korea is the World’s leader in military expenditures as a percentage of their Gross Domestic Product. Numbers run from 33 down to 25 % of total wealth spent for the Armed Forces. South Korea goes in at less than 3% or about a tenth of the previous? So upper hand to the North, right? Buzzzzz, wrong answer!
NK’s GDP is 40B and over 10 ( 25% ) are spent on the military. SK’S GDP around a trillion with 4% spent on the military or if you prefer : 25 Billion? More than twice as much? Ahhhh, numbers!
Now, of course, how much you spend is meaningless. What counts is what you spend it on. We have made in the past a comparison on fighter jet planes that showed a cheaper aircraft can do about as much as a more expansive one so that price is no indicator of value or bang for the bucks.
Could that be the case here? Not really since our comparison bore on two modern nations that design and produce up-to-date national war machines which is simply not the case here.
South Korea is, that is true, gaining over time abilities to develop its own “toys”. Not North Korea. Apart from nukes of course! Most of the North’s aviation, to keep on track with our reference point link, is old USSR/Russian materials! Such as the ones seen here :
The Mig-21 was introduced in the USSR in 1959. It is true that South Korea still uses for its part the Phantom or F-4 of the same era although highly modernized but it relies mostly on F-16s and F-15Ks or Falcons and Eagles by their pet names and both highly acclaimed weapon systems to the tune of 180 and 60 respectively. And it has local industries gearing for autonomous development
( FX projects ). Pyongyang relies for top guns on Mig-29s, capable Russian planes, all 35 of them?
On the ground, the North has a slew of battle tanks : 4 000 of these but mostly split in two sub-groups. 1 200 + “new” locally produced ones that bear elements of recent T-62/72/80/90 tanks and over 2000 T-55/59 derivatives. To give my readers an idea of what those are, let me say that A- the higher numbers after the T are more recent and B- the person writing to you served his country in the 1980s and we were already preparing to face all of the above types save the T-90s? Not up-to-date stuff, really.
And as far as naval means are concerned, the average North Korean boats have limited high seas endurance to say the least.
There are four areas where Kim Jong Un can claim some sort of importance for his fighting brigades though. Anti-aircraft defense, artillery, missiles and nukes. Artillery is useful of course for a ground offensive as it can destroy targets over the range of front line battles. Anti aircraft artillery is the same weapon but turned to defending the skies, interdiction of passage to the enemy’s Air forces. Both however are short to middle range weapon systems that are meant for active fighting in a restricted geographical area. In the context of a war contained to the Koreas’ peninsula, these could be very problematic. All the more because it is believed that North Korea has chemical and biological means. Practically speaking, it shows Pyongyang to be ready to maximize losses in both armed forces and civilian population to their half-brothers to the South if such an occurrence came to pass. That is of course despicable. The combination of the important numbers of artillery pieces and the fact that all or almost are thought to be able to deploy the chemical warheads is worrisome to South Koreans to say the least. So Anthrax, plague and all sorts of gases are potentially available to be unleashed. We will pick up that problem in our prospective war analysis before we conclude but first, how about the long range nuclear missiles?
In missiles, there are but 3 qualities to be found. One is range. Another is precision. The last is payload.
Range of the best missiles in Pyongyang’s arsenal is enough to reach Alaska or the northern coast of Australia. There was a test by North Korea that showed a possibility of going transoceanic to the mainland of America but it cannot be considered fully conclusive. Why? Because it is not enough to just throw your stuff around, it has to hit on the number? Pitching a football 100 yards while unable to make it stay within the gridiron does not make a quarterback?
Precision is a consequence of proper throwing for sure but in missiles, it also requires quality electronic devices to secure an effective fly path and land near the intended target? That calls for a GPS system or very detailed satellite maps. Without either or ideally both of these, the throwing power means darn little. The corollary of this is the payload or charge of the projectile. If you have an explosive power that can cover a 25 kilometers radius and are aiming at an individual’s known location, you only need to get within 20-23 klicks of him/her to succeed. If you can “only” destroy a 2 kilometers wide circle of ground and miss by ten or twenty or more, well … no gain? All likelihood is that Kim Jong’s rockets are not that good, i.e. not good enough.
And maybe more importantly, nuclear weapons are not magic. The only two such ever used for war purposes on this planet, admittedly by the US, were big things :
That comes to over 150 cms in radius. The best and furthest reaching North Korean missile, the Taepodong is 2M in diameter so it could possibly fit, right? But it so happens that Fat Man the Nuke bomb was over 10 000 lbs? And that the Taepodong’s maximum range payload is about 500kgs or 1 100 lbs? How do you spell OOPS! in Korean?
All in all, we have to fall back on conventional weapons.
In order to fight a war, strategy and more so tactics must be applied within a real framework of local terrain conditions . These are not all directly, purely and solely geographic. For instance, climate is an essential consideration. As we saw with Mali in passing, the French wanted most of the job done BEFORE the rain season. Heat is bad but being unable to move thanks to the mud is worse. In today’s subject, the same applies!
The April to June spring season is characterized by high humidity and low visibility, sometimes joined by Yellow Fog, the air being filled with sand in suspension coming from the Gobi desert. Worst cases mean barely over a mile in visibility?
So that, apart from the South Koreans which have precious little choice but to defend themselves, the question becomes how to fight Un’s minions? The answer to that is found by coming back to two previously mentioned facts. If you know the adversary to want a dirty violent fight on the ground and have the means to avoid that, wouldn’t you? It so happens that America has that choice. Arleigh Burke type ships and others can send a deluge of cruise missiles into North Korea without getting too near to it to begin with. Said Korea has submarines to hunt these ships but so do the Yanks and even some subs of their own that can also throw cruise missiles, mind you!
And if you do not want to risk a ship, the B-2 bombers that flew over South Korea last week to show the US’ resolve to respect its agreements to defend both South Korea and Japan can do the same. In fact, the use of high altitude bombers negates the imposing anti-aircraft smorgasbord we acknowledged earlier for North K!!! Which explains the ensuing reaction by our charming Un?
There you go, my friends! Just as the chihuahua, Kim Jong is unhappy and doing all he can to show it. Just as the chihuahua, his bark is much worse than his bite. In fact, the only potent weapon in his possession is China’s friendship. If it was not for that, I most likely would have found writing this post superfluous entirely.
But I didn’t; and you read it; and now we can enjoy the week-end ( extended one for our Christian brothers and sisters ). If there are dire consequences to the basketball aficionado in Pyongyang’s nervous crisis, they’ll mostly be felt by him. The only exception to that are the costs his armed forces intend to bear on South Korea* but that would mean utter doom to his people too? One more reason to think it will not come to pass?
So in that relaxed state of mind, good day all, Tay.
* And a second would be to his countrymen, poor them, as the rest of the sentence acknowledges!