Should North Korea decide to launch some sort of military strike on both South Korean and United States forces on the peninsula, just how long could the totalitarian country maintain high operational tempo?
One thing we can be sure of is that Kim Jong Un is not insane. The man was educated at western universities and spent a great deal of time outside the hermetic country living his young life. He is in touch with reality more than is generally assumed, evidenced by appreciation for international sport and a knack for internal politics. And regime continuity aside, his own neck would be on the line if the country collapses if his current adventurism mistakenly leads to launching a premature attack on the South. The latest movements are more directly in line with previous sabre-rattling of his father than an example of a change in tactics.
The tension on the Korea peninsula is something of a cyclic occurrence. In this case, South Korea’s new president has been in office for little over two months. North Korea has in the past tested new South Korean president’s mettle with violent rhetoric and stirring up the water. So what the North is doing is in many ways simply par for the course.
However, as Foreign Policy points out, the new South Korean president Park Geun-hye might not be as amiable as her predecessors. Already a rigid and fiery declaration from Seoul has been sent into the media outlining a right to self-defence against any provocation. This declaration changes the game. If the North decides to push their luck and launch any attack, the South might not turn the other cheek as they have done in the past.
The South Korean military is extremely well trained and equipped. Only the Japanese and United States field better militaries than South Korea. Add the explicit and demonstrable assistance from the United States and the collapse of South Korea as a state due to North Korean attack is all but impossible. In light of this, a quick look at North Korean military capabilities would go some way in gauging the extent of damage of such an attack.
Initially, the most crucial aspect to address would be North Korea’s short and medium range artillery and Scud missiles. The majority of these weapons are concentrated along the demilitarised zone (DMZ). The DMZ itself is the most heavily fortified border on the planet and a great deal of any fighting would occur along this line. U.S. forces in Korea predict some of these weapons could strike the South Korean capital of Seoul, although just how much ordnance would fall on the city is unknown but likely to be high.
U.S. military estimates suggest around 500,000 rounds of artillery shells could be fired at Seoul in the first hour of combat. Of course, the first hour would see significant air-to-ground counter-strikes and anti-battery airstrikes from U.S. and South Korean aircraft and also from ground forces on known and suspected North Korean artillery and missile positions. This would limit the amount of ordnance coming out of the North, but not before significant damage could be inflicted on Seoul and the surrounding cities and countryside.
If the North Korean regime were to send tanks into South Korea they would take one of three main routes.
Every few years the U.S. military revisit their war-plan for the defence of South Korea. What they have discovered is a few constraints based on geography which limit North Korean invasion routes severely. The first is down the road along east coast of the peninsula, but the distance between the mountains and the sea narrows to only about the size of a large warehouse. No tank army will be successful moving down the east coast from the North. The U.S. 6th fleet and South Korean navy are more than capable of interdicting armour on this route.
On the other side of the peninsula, the second route is called the Kaesong-Munsan corridor. This is actually the floodplain of the Han and the Imjin rivers, and was the North Korean’s invasion route in 1950. Coming down through here requires traversing river water, so military engineers will need to bring some bridging equipment. But armour can move fairly well without much obstruction.
However, about 20 kilometres south of the DMZ, in that western part of Korea, the allies have created the largest tank-trap in the world. Its existence is not classified; it is clearly marked on every map. And in order to keep it somewhat hidden from the North Koreans, it is not officially called the “largest tank-trap in the world”, instead it is called Seoul. A city of 14 million people will stop any group of armour moving south just as well as if it were a swamp. It is safe to assume the North Koreans will not take this route into the south either.
The third route relies on a valley in the middle of the country called the Ch'orwon. The valley starts in the north and ends in the south, emptying out just south of the Seoul megalopolis. That route could handle armour and artillery moving through the valley and is the most likely avenue for invasion. However, the Ch'orwon is wide in the north, where Kim Jong Un’s tanks would enter, but very narrow in the south. Depending on how far the North Koreans wish to travel down this valley, they would very quickly find themselves bottlenecked and begin to die in their tanks. Simply put, a ground invasion into South Korea from the north is a very difficult task regardless of which route is taken.
And due to the sanctions and self-imposed isolation from the world, the regime is dangerously low on supplies, both military and economically. The North Korean military are first among equals and get the lion’s share of all goods and energy services. But even if Pyongyang could muster up enough political will to launch an attack, it is doubtful the regime could supply enough fuel or ammunition for its army to conduct a sustained campaign.
For instance, North Korean interceptor aircraft have been recently spotted flying near the DMZ, in patterns suggesting more than simple exercise. The air force mostly comprises older MiG aircraft (of the MiG-15/17/19/21 types), but includes small numbers of more modern MiG-23, MiG-29 and Su-25 aircraft. These aircraft, mainly deployed around the DMZ, are typically fuelled at 25-35 percent capacity during exercises to avoid pilots defecting to China. Although, just whether such low fuelling indicates fear of defection or true lack of jet fuel is unclear. It is certain that due to shortages of spare parts, fuel, and poor maintenance, some weaponry will not be functional.
Given the obsolescence of most of North Korea’s military, about half of their equipment was designed in the 1960s while the other half is even older, the regime’s military would struggle immediately to fight any modern army. “It is estimated that North Korea’s heavy armoured forces, possessing enough combat hardware to equip perhaps ten U.S. divisions, have an actual capability equivalent to about 2.5 U.S. armoured divisions. With infantry equipment added, North Korean ground forces possess an overall firepower equivalent to nearly five modern U.S. heavy divisions”, according to research from the IISS. By comparison, Iraq was assessed as having six modern division equivalents in 1990 before the first Gulf War.
North Korean airpower, the equivalent to six U.S. wing equivalents in size, corresponds to only two F-16 wing equivalents in estimated net capability.
Nonetheless, despite shortages of spare parts, fuel and training time, North Korea’s conventional capabilities can threaten South Korea’s population. It would also be unwise to discount the threat of chemical and biological, or even crude nuclear, attacks on South Korea. These are compounded with the successful testing of a new generation of an indigenous ballistic missile capable of housing different payloads. The employment of similar missiles in any hot war is already causing alarm in western media. However, such Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) probably do not exist in the North Korean arsenal as anything but satellite lift rockets.
As an example of media panic, the North Korean state media released over the weekend a staged photograph of their leader Kim Jong Un supposedly signing orders putting his Strategic Missile Forces of high alert. A display board in the background of one of the shots shows a missile trajectory path with termination in the continental United States and various American Pacific military bases such as Guam and Hawaii. A quick look reveals the map is either entirely the work of incompetent ballistics experts or meant strictly for theatre. The latter is more likely given the relative success of the North Korean satellite launch. Clearly North Korean ballistics experts can calculate for the curvature of the earth much more accurately than the ridiculously straight lines on the “plans” suggest they can. Otherwise their satellite rocket would have never made it into orbit.
IHS Jane's Defense Weekly editor James Hardy agreed that "there is little to no chance that [North Korea] could successfully land a missile on Guam, Hawaii or anywhere else outside the Korean Peninsula that U.S. forces may be stationed." While Japan and South Korea are certainly well within range of North Korea’s operational missile capacity, none of these rockets can reach India, let alone the United States.
The United States is largely out of range for even North Korea’s longest-range missile, the Taepodong-2 type. This rocket boasts an operational range of around 6,700 kilometres, taking it at most as far as Alaska where little strategic targets exist.
More worryingly than striking sparsely populated Alaska is what many of the North’s missiles could do to South Korea and Japan. Tokyo is probably the most concerned about the recent tensions, aside from South Korea’s obvious anxiety. The Japanese have been the target of rhetoric from Pyongyang in the past and in the event of a conflagration on the peninsula, many of the North’s missiles are within potentially successful strike range of the Japanese islands.
If North Korea really wanted to detonate a nuclear weapon inside the United States it would have more luck by strapping it to a container and sending a ship into an American harbour, than by strapping it to an unreliable and obvious missile. Ultimately it is the South Koreans which will bear the brunt of any hot war. Thankfully, given the above analysis, due to a distinct lack of good equipment any conflict on the peninsula would be crippling for the North Koreans and only painful for the South.