The North Korean army is rather powerful, despite the international isolation
South and North Koreas have been at war with each other for more than 50 years already. However, Seoul looks very peaceful at that. There has never been any peace between the capitalist South and the socialist North. The treaty of 1953 stipulated the cease-fire, although Koreas never managed to sign anything pertaining to the cessation of the state of war. That is why, South Korea has been living under the constant threat of a military incursion from the North for decades already. The world’s largest artillery group, thousands of soldiers and tanks are located tens of kilometers off Seoul. Relations between South and North have improved lately, so the issue of a military incursion is not as actual as it was ten years ago. Yet, the potential danger is still there.
North Korean military men have never made a secret of who they are going to wage war with. As it is known, the war started in June of 1950, but it ended up with no result. Virtually, there are no military actions nowadays, disregarding short skirmishes and raids at the border. However, it does not mean that the two Koreas get ready to wage war on each other.
North Korean Armed Forces were established at USSR’s active mediation. The USSR delivered defense technology, provided advisors, organized training for North Korean officers. N.Korea’s first military charters were simply translations of adequate instructions of the Soviet Union. N.Korean military units were organized like a copy of Soviet ones. Even first army plans were first written in Russian and then translated into Korean. It is worth mentioning that the Chinese influence was considerable as well. The command of the Korean National Army of 1940s-1950s consisted of ethnic Koreans of China. At first, they participated in the Chinese revolutionary movement, but then were sent to Korea to render the international assistance to the young Korean state. The situation started changing after 1960, when the relations between Pyongyang, Moscow and Beijing worsened a lot. That was caused with the growing conflict between the two communist superpowers, first and foremost. The N.Korean administration was not willing to participate in exacerbating relations between the USSR and China. Probably, that was a correct position for North Korea to take, although both the Soviet and the Chinese help decreased considerably. On the other hand, the N.Korean economy was rather fine back in those years, so the country managed to set up its own production of weapons – artillery systems, tanks, submarines and even tactic missiles.
To all appearances, North Korean military men planned to invade the South. Their prime goal was to unite the country. The Soviet leadership was very well aware of Pyongyang dreamers’ wishes, so the USSR feared, that such a military intrigue might lead to lamentable consequences both for N.Korea and for the whole world. That was one of the reasons why the Soviet Union did not hurry to arm North Korea at that period of time. Nevertheless, both Moscow and Beijing continued rendering military assistance to Pyongyang.
The situation changed a lot after the year 1990. The USSR stopped its existence, while China lost its interest in the former ally. As a result, North Korea experienced an incredible economic crisis. The Gross Domestic Product of the country dropped two or three times, the country was gripped with hunger, hundreds of thousands of people died as a result of that.
The North Korean government has always emphasized the armed forces role. The highest official position in North Korea is not the position of the president, but of the chairman of the defense council. The N.Korean army does not suffer from hunger, for a hungry army is dangerous. There are no doubts that North Korea still plans new strikes on Seoul nowadays too, although it is more of a mechanical matter now. Anyway, it is not excluded that the isolated North Korean regime might stake it all and launch the new war. This apprehension is probably groundless, although this is exactly what a lot of Western countries think.
As it is considered, in case if the new Korean war is launched, North Korea will deploy thousands of commandos on the southern territory of the Korean peninsula. They will perform explosions of roads, bridges, tunnels, power lines, airdromes and airbases and so on. They will also be ordered to destroy American military men, or those, who look like them. N.Korean generals believe that the up-to-date American society is very sensitive to human losses. They believe, if there are a lot of victims, Americans might agree for a truce on the conditions that will be good for Pyongyang. In addition to that, the activity of thousands of commandos will cause chaos in the rear it will and minimize South Korea’s military and technical predominance. Battle planes will be absolutely useless, if the majority of pilots are killed. Tanks will be useless too, if all bridges are blown up.
North Korea has been developing weapons of mass destruction since 1970s. At first they developed the cheap chemical weapon, and then they started dealing with the nuclear one. The information on that transpired in the world press at the end of the 1980s. In 1994 there was a document signed, pertaining to which the activity of N.Korean nuclear centers was put under the international control. The USA, South Korea and Japan agreed to build a nuclear power plant in North Korea and to deliver liquid fuel in return. However, there is no certainty nowadays that North Korea does not have its own nuclear weapons.
The production of missiles started in North Korea in the 1970s, on the base of Chinese and Soviet examples. N.Korea possessed 500 kilometers range missiles by the end of the 1980s. The country was able to hit targets on the entire territory of South Korea. Better missiles appeared in the beginning of the 1990s. To crown it all, in August of 1998, North Korea performed the first launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile. The launch was not really successful, but the world was very nervous about it. Anyway, that was the prime goal to achieve – to intimidate the world. Both nuclear weapons and missiles solve double problems. They are supposed to cause irreparable damage to the enemy and to make the USA withdraw its troops from Korea. That would be perfect for the N.Korean leadership. The availability of missiles and nuclear weapons without any war plays the role of “export goods.” When N.Korean diplomats conduct negotiations with the West, they agree to suspend the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, asking for a lot of money in return (as a compensation for their refusal to use nuclear power or for theeir refusal to make very profitable deals with Iran and Libya). Official treaties prove that the USA, Japan and South Korea are ready to pay off the nuclear menace.
However, the N.Korean army is basically a low-technology army. North Korea has undemanding soldiers that are ready to eat one cup of rice a day, to walk 40 kilometers a day, and to sleep on the ground. The North has a lot of such soldiers. There are one million two hundred thousand people in the N.Korean Army. One million and thirty thousand of them serve in the infantry. North Korean men serve for five or seven years. Needless to mention that such a huge army became an unbearable burden for the country against the background of a very serious economic crisis. The N.Korean government wants to make its army self-sufficient, using soldiers for agricultural and construction works. There are 176 divisions and brigade in the Korean National Army. The army is armed with almost four thousand tanks, 2300 armored vehicles. The N.Korean artillery counts 13.800 pieces of ordnance. The artillery group of North Korea is considered to be the most powerful group in the whole world. The Air Force of North Korea counts 1690 planes and choppers. However, the majority of all those machines are very old and out of date. No one doubts that the North Korean aviation will not create serious problems on the Korean peninsula in case of a war. South Korean and American forces will take a greater advantage at once. The same can be said about the North Korean navy too. North Korean submarines are rather primitive. Yet, they are capable of causing considerable damage to the South Korean shipping. S.Korea depends a lot on the sea trade, that is why North Korea paid so much attention to the navy. About two-third of the N.Korean army is concentrated close to the possible front line.
The geography of the Korean peninsula allows to guess the direction of S.Korean’s strikes. Mountains exclude any army movement on the border between the North and the South. A large-scale offensive is possible either on the eastern or on the western coastlines. The second direction is a lot more preferable, for Seoul is only 30-40 kilometers far from the front line. The North Korean Army is concentrated on that area.
Anyway, there is a hope that the plans of the North Korean General Headquarters will remain just plans. It seems that recent events give a reason to believe that, although one should not relax. The Korean peninsula is still one of the most dangerous areas of the planet.
Andrey Lankov Seoul Herald
Translated by Dmitry Sudakov