In the last six months, tensions on the Korean peninsula have risen sharply, leaving many to speculate that it could be the ignition point for World War 3. After all, President Trump announced in a recent interview with Reuters that he thinks that a “major, major conflict” is in the cards when it comes to North Korea.
So if a major conflict were to occur, many people wonder exactly how the North Korean military stacks up to the South Korean military and correspondingly, to the United States forces that could be brought to bear quickly enough to make a difference.
When you examine the North Korean military, the first thing you’ll see is that there is an overwhelming numerical superiority on the side of the North Koreans. Current estimates have the North Korean army at an active strength of 1.19 million troops with another estimated 4 million more in reserve. North Korea also has in excess of 200,000 Special Forces available.
Comparatively, the South Korean army has an estimated strength of 655,000 active duty troops with approximately 2.9 million reserve troops. As part of the Mutual Defense Treaty that the United States signed with South Korea in 1953, the United States maintains 28,500 troops in South Korea. Of course, the United States also has another 39,000 troops stationed just across the Sea of Japan on the Japanese mainland. This number includes over 13,000 United States Marines stationed at Okinawa and Yokota Air Base. Additional troops would be able to be flown in within three to five days from the United States and other forward positions such as Guam and Australia.
Tanks and Mechanized Infantry
The United States also maintains a prepositioned stock (APS-4) in Japan and Korea in the event of hostilities. The material kept here includes 2 armor battalions and one mechanized infantry battalion. Each battalion has 58 main battle tanks, and the mechanized infantry battalion will have enough infantry fighting vehicles (IFV) to move troops around the battlefield as needed. Additional tanks would be shipped in from other APS nearby, such as Diego Garcia and Saipan; if necessary, tanks will be shipped in from the United States as well. The current estimated number of tanks in the U.S. is roughly 9,000 tanks, with about half in current service.
South Korea has over 2,600 main battle tanks as well, but again, North Korea has the immediate advantage in numbers, with over 5,000 available to be pressed into service immediately.
The United States main battle tank is the M1 Abrams, which fields a 120mm smoothbore main gun and has been battle tested in multiple theaters. South Korea fields a mix of older K1A1 tanks and the newer 3rd generation K2 Black Panther tanks. The Black Panthers use 120mm L/55 smoothbore guns that can fire up to 10 rounds per minute.
The North Korean main battle tank is the Pokpung-ho, which is suspected of having a 125mm smoothbore main gun. The tank is much lighter than either the M1 or the K2, but has a distinct advantage on speed and acceleration, using those to quickly engage enemy targets.
Where North Korea has immediately crushing numbers is in field artillery. They have an estimated 10,000 artillery pieces, including multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) and both self-propelled and towed artillery. This is the largest artillery force in the world and one of the most immediate threats from North Korea. With the current positioning of North Korean artillery, it is estimated that they could put over half-million artillery shells into Seoul in under an hour. A single volley from North Korean artillery would drop 350 metric tons of explosives into Seoul, with an estimated 100,000 casualties in the first few days.
The North Korean Navy may seem exceptionally small and outgunned compared to the United States, but the Korean People’s Navy (as North Korea calls it) is not a blue-water navy. That is, it is not meant to operate outside of the territorial limits of North Korea and would only be used to engage South Korea or targets nearby.
The North Korean Navy is very heavily slanted toward submarines. They operate over 70 submarines, including 20 older Russian-made Romeo class submarines, and over 50 smaller vessels meant to ferry commandoes to South Korea and harass shipping. Surface ships only include about three frigates, multiple torpedo, missile, and mine removal boats.
In contrast, South Korea has a much more even distribution of ships in line with a blue-water navy. The Republic of Korea Navy currently has 12 destroyers, 13 frigates, and 15 submarines as their front line of defense against North Korean aggression. This force is supplemented with nearly 100 patrol boats and 10 minelayers which would be able to seed shipping lanes from North Korea with deadly anti-ship mines.
The United States Navy currently maintains a carrier strike group in the area with the USS Carl Vinson as the flagship. While the United States does enjoy an overwhelming technological superiority over the North Korean navy, Kim Jong-un and his navy do have numbers on their side. Coordinated suicide attacks by North Korean submarines could eventually penetrate the anti-submarine net around the carrier and do significant damage, forcing her to retreat to Japan or even Hawaii before a replacement strike group could be called in.
While things are being brought to a head because of Kim Jong-un’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, the North Korean military is not without other weapons of mass destruction. North Korea is known to have over 5,000 metric tons of chemical agents, including sarin, VX nerve agents, and other deadly substances. In the event that North Korea does invade South Korea, it is almost a certainty that the initial artillery attacks against the southern side of the DMZ and Seoul would include these chemicals.
It’s known that North Korea already has nuclear weapons. Nobody but Kim Jong-un knows for sure how many, but experts estimate the number at between 10 and 16. It’s also unknown if North Korea has the ability to retaliate with a nuclear weapon if they were hit first preemptively.
The ballistic missiles in North Korea are definitely able to hit Japan and South Korea, which is why the United States is hurrying to get the THAAD anti-ballistic missile system in South Korea up and running.
In the end, it is highly unlikely that North Korea would win a renewed war with South Korea and the United States. What is likely is that Kim Jong-un and Pyongyang would go down swinging and inflict a lot of collateral damage as they were taken down. How far the damage would extend depends on how far along North Korea’s ballistic missile program was.
This collateral damage is the reason that Chinese President Xi Jinping and other world leaders are calling for restraint when dealing with North Korea. Nobody, including President Trump, thinks that defusing the North Korea situation will be easy; what’s left is for world leaders to figure out how to avoid blowing up the rest of the world while they do so.
[Featured Image by Ahn Young-joon/AP Images]