Korea: August 14, 2003


 A new round of negotiations with North Korea (and the US, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia) are to begin on August 27th. The meeting will probably be held in China. The North Koreans still want a promise from America that the north will not be attacked, plus a lot of money, oil and food.

The major unknown in dealing with North Korea is whether all the name calling and chest beating from up north means that the north would seriously consider going to war. In 1950, the north did invade. During the 1960s, the north ran a very active war of commando raids into South Korea. Hundreds of Korean and American soldiers were killed during that period, but it was largely overshadowed by the Vietnam war. Since then, North Korea has continued to send dedicated and skilled commandos into South Korea. Occasionally some of these commandos are caught, and they usually fight to death.

Refugee and defectors from the north tell of near universal conscription for young men, often for six years. That is how North Korea, with a population of 24 million, maintains an army of about a million troops. The people from the north remember their military service being a time of strict discipline and constant training, except when the military was called out to help the farmers or deal with some natural disaster. There has been a lot of that in the last decades, as the north's economy and agriculture have slid into the toilet. In the last few years, there have been eyewitness reports of North Korean conscripts who were noticeably smaller and weaker than their older (by about a decade) NCOs and officers. The decade of starvation didn't just kill over a million North Koreans, it stunted a generation. The new troops are not only weaker, but their leaders are less fanatical. There is more corruption up north, with the widespread shortages and poverty even affecting the police and communist party hard core. 

That is what we know.

Historically, such a deteriorating situation means a less reliable army in wartime. Koreans are proud of their traditions of discipline and steadfastness in battle. But Korean armies have broken and disintegrated. In the early days of the Korean War, some South Korean units broke, and it wasn't until 1951 that discipline was restored throughout the entire army. The North Korean army also disintegrated after American marines landed behind them in late 1950. So the question is whether the morale and discipline of the 1.1 million North Korean army is up to the challenge of invading South Korea.

In addition to 1.1 million active duty soldiers and trained reserves of 7.4 million men, the north has 3,800 tanks and 12,000 artillery guns, mortars and rocket launchers.

Just across the DMS are 600,000 troops, all but 37,000 of them South Korean, along with 2,200 tanks, 4,850 artillery and three million reserve troops.

The north has ancient equipment, some of it dating back to World War II, compared to the south. While the northern troops do a lot of training, they don't do much of it with their equipment. The north cannot afford the fuel and spare parts. The north uses a style of warfare developed by the Russians; get the troops ready for one big push and hope that works. Because if it doesn't, and the enemy has anything left, you are going to lose.

With thousands of long range artillery and rocket launchers aimed at Seoul, South Korea's largest city, there is no doubt that a surprise attack by North Korea could kill hundreds of thousands of civilians, especially if the northerners use chemical weapons.

Even before the development of JDAM (GPS guided) bombs, there were plans to take apart the North Korean command and control and logistical system. For the last three decades, it's been assumed that if the north attacked, it would not have support from China or Russia. The North Koreans would have to win within a few months, and then work some kind of deal with a hostile United Nations to make peace "for the sake of starving South Korean civilians." Long term, the north could not win. And short term, with declining morale and military readiness, their ability to punch through South Korean troops defending the DMZ is less likely. Lack of money and access to arms markets has cut the flow of spare parts and new equipment. Growing fuel shortages mean less training.

North Korea attacking was a bet that never had very good odds of winning, and the odds are getting worse.


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