Author: Ilya Topchiy
Today, the Korean peninsula is one of the most militarized places on the entire planet. It is here where the interests of large powers like the US, China, and Russia intersect. The range of forces that could be deployed in a possible conflict (within a fairly limited space on a rough terrain) is truly impressive.
Yet, the prospects of a large military conflict are doubtful. Chances of an easy victory are too small for all potential parties. But if such a confrontation does take place, what would be the outcome of a second Korean war: a rapid blitzkrieg or a trench war massacre?
As If Before A Thunderstorm
In mid-February 2016, several western media announced the start of another planned military exercise on the Korean peninsula, which lasted from March 7 to April 30. The exercise involved 290,000 South Korean and about 15,000 American troops (the US deployedan additional marine brigade and air brigade, and also an aircraft carrier battle group led by the John C. Stennis aircraft carrier and theNorth Carolina nuclear submarine). The exercise’s code names were Key Resolve and Foal Eagle.
The purpose of the exercise was the traditional coordination training of South Korean and American troops in case of war with North Korea, drilling tactical moves, and using new equipment.
It should be noted that it was a scheduled exercise. That is, it has been held annually, since 2002 between February and April, and before that, in October-November. The Republic of Korea does not announce mobilization, and large reinforcements from the US are not redeployed in Korea (for instance, the “marine brigade” is mostly from the 2,100 marines of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit from Okinawa).
Immediately, Western media, followed by their Russian counterparts, began hysterically reporting “the largest exercise of its class,” “the first-ever aircraft carrier participation,” and the possibility of a second Korean war.
These statements were not true to reality. The largest Foal Eagle military exercise was held from October 25 until November 3 in 2000 (with the participation of 500,000 South Korean and 30,000 American troops). Aircraft carriers were deployed in 2005, 2006, 2008 and2011.
Officially, a war on the Korean peninsula has been going on since 1950. Only an armistice was signed on July 27, 1953 (the two Koreas never concluded a peace treaty, and legally, they are still at war).
Historically, such a situation is typical for begetting conflicts. These kinds of military exercises often are provocative (for instance, redeploying large naval forces in disputed waters or in North Korea’s territorial waters with paratroopers landing or firing exercises). In 2010, North Korea opened fire at the island of Yeonpyeongdo, after being provoked by firing in the so-called “Northern Limit Line,” which Pyongyang does not recognize.
The rhetoric is similar. Seoul and Washington claim that the military exercise is intended to repel a possible intervention from the North. North Korea, in turn, promises “a sea of flame” to the aggressors, a preventive nuclear strike, and rains insults on Park Geun-hye, South Korea’s President.
How likely, however, is a big “hot” war today? Especially since North Korea’s response, according to some sources, stems from the fact that no one wants to negotiate with Pyongyang. Missiles fired in the Sea of Japan are a result of the US’s intentions to deploy the THAAD system (an action actively lobbied for over the past year and a half) whichcould intercept ballistic missiles.
North and South
It should be noted that over the last 18 years, the number of troops on the peninsula has been decreasing. North Korea started the trend (back in 1998), and South Korea has followed its example only recently, in 2013.
North Korea was prompted to reduce its military primarily for economic reasons. The collapse of the USSR, the economic sanctions together with lost economic ties with China, which they did not manage to restore in time, led to a difficult domestic situation in the 1990s. These factors, coupled with North Korea’s weak manufacturing base, led to its falling behind in the technical military area as well.
The threat of foreign intervention (which was particularly apparent in 1994-1996 due to US President Bill Clinton’s policies) forced North Korea to build up its military potential and to increase defense spending. In 1997, the CIA-sponsored World Factbook counted 15 standing army corps (infantry, mechanized, tanks, and artillery corps consisting of 37 divisions, 104 non-division brigades, and also several corps-dedicated regiments and battalions) in the Korean People’s Army alone (not counting the air force, the navy, and border and special forces).
In 1998, a series of decommissionings began. On November 2, 1998, one army corps was disbanded, and in 2003-2006, the same fate befell five more land corps. In 2010, the special forces were reformed (as an independent branch of North Korea’s military) and assumed the form they have today.
These reforms led to the decommissioning of about 200,000 people. The real number of North Korean military today is about 600 – 650 thousand troops (mostly ground troops with a rather small air force, navy, special forces, forces of the interior and border forces).
The reason mass media harp on the myth of “North Korea’s millions of troops” is simple: it is propaganda. An enemy image is created by exaggerating the military threat. It is being done even in academic research through certain manipulations, for instance, with organizational and personnel structures. North Korea’s special forces is a typical example. One and the same American researcher writes first about a battalion of 450 soldiers, and then about 5 companies of 25 soldiers each (which, together with battalion-dedicated units, gives us no more than 150 troops per battalion); and it looks, putting it mildly, somewhat suspicious.
The reverse process is military rearmament, which applies first and foremost to tank and artillery units. Tank manufacturing in North Korea has supplied the military with new (by North Korean standards) weapons based on Soviet and Chinese tanks, such as Chonma-ho, Juche, and Songun class tanks (which together consist of up to a half of the 4,000 total tanks, some of which are battle-ready and some are in a caretaking status). Cooperation with weapons designers from China and Pakistan (some sources claim that systematic “maritime” firing exercises are not from using new tactical short-range missiles, but from using the analogous largest caliber MRLs) gave rise to the development of rocket systems: 300 mm (shown at the parade) and maybe 370 mm and 400 mm MRLs capable of hitting not only Seoul, but also the enemy bases in the hinterland.
The Republic of Korea’s Ministry of Defense was in no hurry to follow its rivals. Over 1998-2013, when the North conducted massive reforms, the South retained 670-680 thousand troops and massively increased its defense budget (South Korea’s military budget was 8-10 times greater than that of North Korea in the 1990s, and 33 times greater than North Korea’s in 2013).
In 2013, South Korea adopted a plan for decommissioning 190,000 military personnel by 2030. Pursuant to that plan, in 2014, the number of troops (according to the 2014 White Paper of the South Korean Ministry of Defense) was about 630,000 with about 2,800 tanks, 3,826 armored combat vehicles and over 4,000 artillery systems. It should be noted that these numbers might be too low: the document lists 33 deployed divisions and 14 divisions in reserve, and also 6 separate commands and army- and corps-dedicated units (all of which amounts to no fewer than 100,000 unaccounted land troopsonly).
Thus, on the Korean peninsula today, South Korea’s peace-time army has certain advantages in numbers and an overwhelming qualitative advantage over North Korea’s peace-time army, given that both the mobilization and technical potential of South Korea is much higher; their air forces and navies are simply incomparable both in size and in technical equipment, and South Korea’s population is twice as large.
Both sides lack modern mass combat experience. In November 2013, the specialized bloggers published information that 15 helicopter pilots and 11-15 artillery officers from North Korea were taking part in the Syrian war, but this information remains unconfirmed. The participation of the South Korean military is also limited to various small peacekeeping missions.
The US: this superpower’s participation is particularly apparent. It is determined by the so-called “Operations Plan 5015” adopted back in the 1990s during Clinton’s presidency. This document presupposes a 90-day deployment of 690,000 American troops, 160 military vessels, and 2,500 aircraft “to repel North Korean aggression,” and 90,000 officers and privates will be from the 3rd and 4th divisions of the Marine Corps (which is essentially half of the entire US Marine Corps).
The Russian Federation: the Russian Federation is the legal successor of the USSR. However, the old 1961 Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Aid between the USSR and the DPRK was terminated. The new treaty of February 9, 2000 does not provide missile and nuclear guarantees on Russia’s part.
In fact, current Russian-Korean military relations are not duly formed, and the Russian government’s response in case of a second Korean war is unclear. Currently, a series of agreements in terms of the military have been signed, yet the military cooperation agreement of December 10, 2014 remains merely a drafted project.
China: today, China is North Korea’s most certain ally. 4 Chinese armies (3 combined-arms armies and 1 tank army) totaling about 250,000 soldiers are deployed in the border region ready to come to North Korea’s aid. Beijing is not at all happy at the prospect of finding at its borders a powerful united Korea and THAAD systems capable of intercepting Chinese ballistic missiles.
The North Korean multiple rocket launchers demonstrated at the parade had been clearly modeled on Chinese weapons based on the Soviet BM-30 Smerch. At the same time, Beijing views Pyongyang with a certain degree of skepticism as it understands North Korea’s attempts to play an independent part in the region.
Japan, Australia, Taiwan: these countries side with the US in the potential conflict in the Far East, and they deploy their units on the basis of the corresponding international agreements as part of the United State Pacific Command (USPACOM). In particular, on June 1, 2014 Japan amended the “peaceful” Article 9 of its constitution, (which formerly prohibited self-defense forces abroad) instituting the right for “collective self-defense.”
Will There Be A War?
Despite their ostensible defensive interests, the US and South Korea currently have offensive military plans regarding North Korea. In April 2013, war games were leaked to the media where it took the US 56 days and 90,000 troops to occupy a country with a code name “North Brownland.” It somewhat contradicts the assessment of prospects from a similar operation Pentagon made in 1994; it then believed the first 90 days of invasion would cost 52,000 American and 490,000 South Korean soldiers in casualties.
The North Korean Army’s operational order is defensive. About 40% of all the military are concentrated in the border strip long the demilitarized zone, with other forces located in the second line in the hinterland as mobile reserves, or else covering the shoreline.
This mutual order is largely determined by the peninsula’s difficult terrain, which is not conducive to offensive operations. Thus, troop density and their concentration exceed all statutory norms. The terrain is extremely rough with a large number of mountains and rivers and offers only several narrow mountain passes, and the number of possible landing sites is limited due to the land’s harsh hydrographic characteristics. In case of a conflict, the battles will be, in essence, limited to fighting between the columns’ front lines. Other units will simply have no room for deployment: they will not be able to travel across the mountains, and they will be not able to climb over the heads of their comrades.
This order is also conditioned by the relative strength of the two sides. South Korea estimates North Korea’s mobilization potential at 600,000 trained reserve troops and 400,000 territorial militiamen (no more than 1,900,000 with Chinese reinforcements), while the US and South Korea (without their allies) can deploy no fewer than 2,500,000 soldiers (even outdated materials from the military exercises of the early 1990s show that South Korea could draft 1,240,000 people in 30 days.
Basic strategy offers two variants of a war with North Korea: either destroy it or wear it out.
War of destruction: entails a full set of mobilization steps with an invasion deep into the North Korean territory. Involves huge expenses (losses and resources) and does not have a clear chance of succeeding in fully crushing the enemy and conquering its territory. Strategically, it will mean breaking through the North Korean line of defense along the corridor leading to the Koksan hub station, then moving to Pyongyang, Wonsan or Kaesong, and also fighting its way along the narrow shoreline strip toward Wonsan (which means breaking through a region which is powerfully fortified with deeply layered defenses). The battles would entail grinding down North Korean and Chinese reinforcements as they approach the combat line. The US and South Korean navies will play a purely supportive role (shelling, subversive activities), and a large-scale landing behind the North Korean’s front lines is unlikely due to the small number of places where such a landing could take place and thus those places being fully covered by North Koreans. The duration of the operation would be between 2 and 6 months. Success is not guaranteed.
Here a more illustrative example comes in handy. A landing behind the front lines is unlikely since North Korea has just a handful of deep-water ports which are very difficult to navigate and very easy to turn into a minefield. And landing a large army is not an easy task; even when several tens of thousands of troops have landed and secured their position, they will face a front line of superior enemy numbers; the enemy will be able, additionally, to use artillery to scourge them from that small space. Delivering matériel over sea will be arduous, given the difficulties with landing. It will be a repeat of the 1915 Gallopoli operation, which involved enormous losses and brought zero results.
War of attrition: more preferable for the US-South Korean coalition. It will allow them to minimize expenses and cause the enemy the greatest economic damage (North Korea has a weak economic base, and its supplies of fuel, oil and lubricants are limited). This war will entail bombings and fighting the enemy air force and aircraft defense throughout the country: strikes against North Korean cities and industrial facilities, shelling and counterbattery fire along the demilitarized zone, special forces operations in remote areas, shelling and subversive activities by the navies. The drawback of this warfare is non-destruction of the enemy country (North Korea) and its nuclear program. The operation’s duration is undetermined.
Typical recent military conflicts in the mountains (on comparable terrain) are the ones in Libya (the western stretch), Kokang (in Myanmar), and the April war in Nagorno-Karabakh. There are no mass interventions, and no one pushes the large columns into narrow defiles where they can be trapped and gunned down. On the contrary: small units take high ground positions, and use portable anti-tank missile launchers and shoulder-fired SAMs to eliminate the enemy weapons and adjust artillery fire.
Thus, the USPACOM will face a choice in a possible second Korean war: a bloody battle with an unclear outcome and the intention of completely destroying North Korea as a state; or a border conflict with a subsequent armistice and the economic attrition of North Korea. Only big politics can determine the expediency of either approach, but one should remember that the nuclear potential of the peninsula is unclear and until recently, the US had tactical nuclear weapons stationed in the south of Korea (100 devices according to open sources at least before 1991).
The author believes that currently, a war is rather unlikely. The western coalition (the US, South Korea, and all the countries whose armies will report to the USPACOM) is hardly ready for huge losses and for expending large resources that would be required to crush North Korea in war.
Political dividends could be gained by waging a “wearing-out” war as well, but such warfare is more promising in several other places. Vitally important routes do not intersect on the Korean peninsula the way they do in the Strait of Malacca or in the Persian Gulf, and there is virtually no point in turning the peninsula into a hotbed of tension. One could put pressure on China (the true goal of such an aggression) by, for instance, dragging it into military hostilities in Myanmar, or at the mountainous border with Vietnam where American soldiers could take no part in the war at all.
On the other hand, an offensive is also unlikely for the eastern coalition (China and North Korea). North Korea has too small reserves of oil and lubricants and weak logistics (trucks and railways to transport the necessary supplies) to attack in-depth with a million-strong army. Modern conflict experience says that in narrow mountain defiles, such a army would stretch for hundreds of kilometers and since all the defiles are enforced with multiple defensive installations, and the enemy has advantages in every aspect (in addition to dominating the air space), such an invasion would peter out all by itself.