South Korean military planners are trying to figure out if two decades of food shortages and growing corruption in the north would have an impact on the fighting abilities of North Korean soldiers. The years of food shortages resulted in noticeably shorter recruits for the North Korean Army, and there are growing reports of falling morale among troops because of the more frequent, and severe, food shortages. But at the same time South Korean officers are well aware of how North Korean children are indoctrinated, from a young age, to hate the United States and South Korea and to admire North Koreans who fight to the death against these enemies. This kind of indoctrination has created a lot of Islamic terrorists willing to be suicide bombers or simply make suicidal military type attacks. Could it be having a similar impact on young North Korean men. The thousands of North Korea refugees who have reached South Korea seem depressed by all that indoctrination and often fatalistic. They report that there are many North Koreans who believe the propaganda and tell each other that they would fight to the death for North Korea. What the South Koreans fear most is having their less rugged (physically and ideologically) young men encountering these starving suicide storm troopers. The South Koreans might still win but it would be an unnerving and depressing experience.
Meanwhile, North Korea is trying to deal with a decade of famine in the 1990s that killed about ten percent of the population and stunted a generation physically and mentally. For example, a decade ago the North Korean army stopped rejecting young men who were not at least 1.6 meters (five feet three inches) tall. Visitors to the north note that more and more of the young soldiers they see appear to be the size of children (under 1.5 meters/five feet tall.)
More worrisome to South Koreans, and something that is not discussed publicly, is the effect of malnutrition on IQ. It is known that those who suffer malnutrition when they are young do less well in school and have more discipline problems as well. Over a thousand North Korean children have made it to South Korea since the famine began, and a disproportionate number of them have had trouble in school. North Korean refugees who go to South Korean universities drop out at a much higher rate than South Koreans. Some of this poor academic performance can be attributed to the disruption to the education system up north by the famine. But the North Korean kids score lower on all sorts of tests.
The South Korean government won't release statistics, but observers estimate that the Northern children born since the famine began a decade ago are 80 mm (over three inches) shorter than their counterparts down south. Not all North Korean children are stunted. Aid workers estimate that while sixty percent of the children up north were severely malnourished (and stunted) at the height of the famine in the late 1990s, since then massive amounts of foreign food aid has reduced that to 40 percent. A major complaint of the foreign aid workers is that a lot of the food aid goes to the military or is sold overseas to provide money to buy weapons and luxuries for the communist party elite.
The military impact of the famine is harder to measure. Smaller, and less bright, soldiers will not be as effective on the battlefield. Most North Korean troops are infantry, trained to walk and run through the steep mountains and hills that form the border between the two Koreas. The North Korean soldiers have gotten smaller but their weapons have not. Perhaps the most significant military impact will be on morale. News of the outside world is beginning to reach the north, where for decades most of the population was literally cut off from the outside world. One can imagine what the North Korean soldier will think, and do, when he finds that the South Koreans are all well fed giants. But before that happens, the malnourished North Korean soldiers may decide to turn on those who starved a generation.
The situation is grim, especially if you are North Korean. The rest of the world is imposing more sanctions and trying harder to disrupt the arms smuggling that helps keep the police state government alive. Open opposition to the North Korean leadership is spreading, and the usual police state tactics are not stopping it. Food and fuel shortages have hurt morale in the armed forces. Being cold and hungry does little for fighting spirit. The North Korea armed forces have been in decline for the last two decades, as they received less money (for new equipment), less fuel (for training and heating), less food (for morale), and fewer physically and mentally capable recruits. The officers, most of them the children of the small ruling class, were much taller than their troops. This only made the differences in living standards more visible. This did not help morale. The planners in the North Korean general staff, drilled in Soviet methods of measuring combat power and the outcomes of battles, have watched the "correlation of forces" go increasingly against North Korea in the last decade. Nuclear weapons were supposed change that but North Korea really hasn't got an effective nuclear bomb design yet. It may be another decade before a militarily useful weapon is available. Meanwhile, the fraying of North Korea society and military power continues.