Long gone are the days of the late 1950s and 1960s, when North Korea held an economic and technological edge over its neighbor to the south, an edge that was also reflected in the military balance between the two sides.1 Since then, economic mismanagement, the 1991 collapse of Pyongyang’s Soviet benefactor, and decades of accelerated South Korean economic growth have gradually closed and then reversed this gap. Today, the Republic of Korea (ROK) is far wealthier than the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), and this prosperity divide also has a number of military implications.2
Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that, since 2006, North Korea has developed nuclear warheads and increasingly sophisticated ballistic missiles. This has been a game changer in the South-North military balance. Indeed, one of the reasons why Pyongyang is accelerating its nuclear weapons program is because of the country’s very large but outdated conventional forces. North Korea is unlikely to reduce its conventional forces and will continue to upgrade and strengthen its weapons of mass destruction.
The North Korean military’s numerical advantage but quality shortfall vis-à-vis the South Korean military holds true for core elements of its ground, naval, and air forces.
The conventional military power of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) has stagnated since the 1990s, although North Korea still overwhelms South Korea in terms of the size of its armed forces. The KPA’s troops total nearly 1.3 million active duty personnel, or more than two times the 599,000 troops that the ROK Armed Forces field.3 Nevertheless, many of the KPA’s conventional armaments are decades old, having been manufactured between the 1950s and the 1970s or designed from Chinese and Russian equipment dating back to that era.4 While the ROK military has retained a limited number of vintage systems, most of its military equipment has been updated and modernized. Such qualitative considerations must be factored into any assessment of the military balance on the peninsula. The North Korean military’s numerical advantage but quality shortfall vis-à-vis the South Korean military holds true for core elements of its ground, naval, and air forces (see table 1).
Despite its technological shortcomings, North Korean conventional forces are still a subject worthy of analysis because these troops would be instrumental in any large-scale conflict on the Korean Peninsula. Given the limitations it faces, the KPA would be expected to conduct a campaign of surprise attacks with combined operations involving land, sea, and air power designed to end a war as swiftly as possible before off-peninsula U.S. reinforcements could arrive.5 The campaign would likely entail a barrage of North Korean long-range artillery and ballistic missile attacks on Seoul meant to deal both a kinetic and psychological blow. Meanwhile, North Korean special forces and cyber operatives would seek to sow discord and confusion to augment the operational effectiveness of these conventional forces.
Theater-level wargames conducted by the ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command shed light on key war scenarios, but their results are not public. What is fairly certain, however, is that unless the KPA won decisive battles early in a conflict, North Korean forces will almost assuredly be overwhelmed by ROK and U.S. forces due to the superiority of their capabilities. Despite its lightning warfare strategy, the KPA lacks war sustainment capabilities, which would make any advantage it would have early in a conflict short-lived. Even then, given the high costs that such a war would impose, it is prudent to assess what capabilities North Korea would field in a conflict and how it would likely deploy them.
North Korea’s Ground Forces
The North Korean military boasts an enormous ground force that would form the backbone of any invasion. The KPA Ground Force, which refers to the army branch of the military, numbers 1.1 million, which is more than two times the size of the ROK Army (approximately 464,000).6 North Korea’s ground forces fall under the authority of the Supreme Leader and the General Staff Operations Department, which directs operational planning and general management of the KPA Ground Force, Navy, Air Force, and reserves.7 They oversee a number of the KPA’s core corps, divisions, and independent brigades, including four forward-deployed ground corps, four infantry corps, two armored corps, and four mechanized corps, among them the Pyongyang Defense Command (the Ninety-First Metropolitan).8 It also controls operations and planning for the KPA Air Force and Anti-Air Force—which include the majority of the country’s anti-aircraft artillery units—and the Eleventh Corps, which is home to the country’s special forces.9
The ROK Armed Forces are concerned that, in a conflict, the KPA would use its 200,000-strong special forces to infiltrate the forward and rear positions of South Korean forces using underground tunnels and various aircraft.10 According to South Korea’s 2018 defense white paper, the KPA’s special operations forces are concentrated in the Eleventh Corps and organized into various units including light infantry divisions and brigades, as well as forward-deployed sniper brigades under the Navy, the Air Force, and the Anti-Air Force.
The KPA also has more main battle tanks than the ROK military, but they are older and less capable than their ROK counterparts. Given that the KPA cannot put all its battle tanks on the front lines at once to capitalize on this numerical advantage, their overall combat power is inferior to those in the ROK military. The 2018 South Korean defense white paper notes that Pyongyang has 4,300 main battle tanks that are old Soviet T-class tanks, while another assessment by the International Institute for Security Studies (IISS) puts the figure at 3,500.11 Assuming the South Korean military’s count is accurate, the number of KPA battle tanks is about 1.5 times greater than the 2,300 tanks the ROK military possesses.12 Composing a core element of the KPA Ground Force, these tank models include the T-34, T-54, T-55, T-62, Chinese Type-59, Chonma-ho, Songun-ho, and Pokpung-ho.13
Despite their numerical superiority, North Korea’s tanks are far more outdated than their South Korean peers. First-generation battle tanks—such as the T-34, T-54, and T-55—were introduced immediately after the Korean War in 1953. Given their age, their actual combat value is likely to be significantly lacking. North Korea’s T-62, a second-generation version of the T-55, is similar in power to the ROK military’s M48A5 model.14 The M48A5, the oldest battle tank in the ROK military, is typically deployed in the rear reserves. Meanwhile, the third-generation Pokpung-ho battle tanks the KPA possesses are comparable to the 1,584 total K1, K1A1, and K2 battle tanks the ROK military fields.15 But the Pokpung-ho has far less armored protection and shooting accuracy than its third-generation ROK peers.
Moreover, this capability gap is likely to grow when the ROK military acquires additional K2 battle tanks, which are equipped with 1,500 horsepower maneuverability, reactive armor, an active protection system, an automatic loading device for quick shooting, and targeting accuracy within 2 kilometers even while maneuvering.16 The induction of these tanks has been delayed for a number of years but could occur in 2020.17 The addition of 100 new tanks will put South Korea’s total number of K2s at 200.18
Unlike its more numerous ground troops and tanks, North Korea has fewer and less powerful armored combat vehicles than South Korea does. The KPA has around 2,500 maneuverable armored vehicles, whereas the ROK has 2,800.19 The same is true of North Korea’s helicopters. The KPA Air Force has only 286 multirole, attack, and transport helicopters, while the ROK military has 693 of them across all branches. Lacking mobility and protective power, the KPA’s helicopters include the Mil Mi-2, Mil Mi-4, the Mil Mi-8, and the U.S. Hughes 500/MD, the last of which was smuggled into the country in the 1980s.20 By contrast, the ROK mainly fields the UH-60, which has better maneuverability and protective power. In addition, the KPA Ground Force’s most powerful aerial combat vehicle is its fleet of approximately twenty Mil Mi-24 Hind attack helicopters, which were produced in 1970.21 The ROK military employs a superior caliber of attack helicopters, including thirty-six of Boeing’s latest AH-64E Apache, sixty of the slightly older AH-1S, and many of the 500MD model.22
North Korea still uses many aging weapons systems, though it has unveiled some new ones at military parades in recent years. Many of the KPA Ground Force’s armaments—such as battle tanks, armored combat vehicles, and artillery systems—were secured between the late 1950s and the 1980s, so most of them have aged considerably. North Korea showed off some new weapons at the September 2018 military parade in downtown Pyongyang for the Day of the Foundation of the Republic.23 The Bulsae-3 (modeled on the Soviet AT-4 Spigot), a short-range antitank missile, was mounted on the improved BTR-80 armored combat vehicle. The Bulsae-3 would be effective against the ROK Army’s rear division M48A5 battle tanks, but it likely could not penetrate the thicker armor of the K1A1 or K2 battle tanks placed in the frontline units.
In terms of its conventional munitions, the KPA also beats the ROK Armed Forces in quantity but not quality. The KPA Ground Force has about 14,100 artillery systems, or more than two times as many as the ROK military, which boasts approximately 6,000.24 Among these artillery systems, North Korea has 5,500 multiple rocket launchers (MRLs), or more than twenty times as many as the 200 the ROK military possesses.25 The KPA’s main artillery is the 170-millimeter caliber M-1989 self-propelled artillery and the 240-millimeter MRL. The M-1989 has a maximum range of 54 kilometers, but it is limited to twelve rounds and is not very accurate.26 The M-1989 also has an unusually long barrel that makes it difficult to maneuver, so it is mainly operated in mines. In addition, the frontline division of the KPA has a 122-millimeter self-propelled artillery, which has a less advanced, automated weapon fire system.
In terms of performance, the KPA artillery cannot compete with the ROK military’s more advanced models.27 Most of the KPA’s artillery systems were acquired before 1990, whereas the large majority of the ROK military’s artillery systems were procured after 2000. The South Korean military wields 155-millimeter K-55 self-propelled artillery and 1,200 155-millimeter K-9 self-propelled artillery. The highly accurate K-9 has a maximum range of 40 kilometers; the forty-eight shells it carries are loaded into and fired from armored vehicles.28 South Korea also uses K-10 armored ammunition cars to automatically replenish ammunition stocks.29 The ROK military’s artillery batteries can respond much more quickly and accurately than its KPA peers because they are equipped with a weapon fire control system that automatically inputs the coordinates of the KPA artillery captured by counter-artillery radar systems.
In past cases, like the December 2010 shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, the accuracy and firepower of North Korean artillery was limited. The 2010 KPA’s shelling of the island, located along the western coast of the Korean Peninsula, made it possible to evaluate some of the combat power of the KPA’s artillery. At that time, the KPA shot more than 170 shells using 122-millimeter MRLs, half of which fell into the sea; what is more, 25 percent of the eighty rounds that landed on the island failed to detonate.30 Nevertheless, in a more extensive military campaign, heavy, larger-scale targeting of KPA artillery on Seoul and the possible use of chemical weapons would still undoubtedly pose grave risks.
In addition to these other conventional munitions, the KPA has been developing a 300-millimeter MRL, the KN-09, in recent years.31 This model mimics China’s A-100 MRL and the Russian BM-30 Smerch. First detected in May 2013, the KN-09 has an estimated range of 190 kilometers, so it could be fired from the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) as far as Daejeon, South Korea, far south of the demarcation line.32 At least some experts believe that this new MRL model will be equipped with a satellite navigation guidance system.33 The Center for Strategic and International Studies Missile Defense Project judges that these MRLs are still in development as of September 2019.
Overall, the KPA has many more MRLs than South Korea. Moreover, North Korea’s new MRLs comprise only a small part of its arsenal, and the majority of its MRLs are aging. The combat effectiveness of these weapons has not been closely evaluated. That said, North Korea has significantly improved its MRL systems compared to previous generations like the M1985 with more limited ranges. This increased range heightens North Korea’s ability to strike areas far from the MDL but, according to the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, the “limited deployment” of the KN-09 likely does not newly threaten U.S. “assets that were not all ready [sic] in range of different DPRK systems.”34
Beyond the aforementioned artillery batteries, the North Korean strategic forces have an estimated 900 short-range ballistic missiles and intermediate-range ballistic missiles that can reach anywhere on the Korean Peninsula.35 The country’s short-range missiles include the SCUD-B (Hwasong-5), SCUD-C (Hwasong-6), SCUD-ER (Hwasong-9), KN-18, and KN-02 (a solid-propellant missile also known as the Viper), and its main intermediate-range missile is the Nodong (Hwasong-7).36 The KN-02 missile has a range of 120–170 kilometers and could, if stationed near the MDL, quickly strike Camp Humphreys, the main U.S. military base in South Korea located close to Pyeongtaek.37 Meanwhile, in May 2019, North Korea also tested a new short-range missile modeled after the Russian-made Iskander-E and Iskander-M models.38
In the event of war, the KPA would support ground operations by attacking major South Korean targets with an array of ballistic missiles. The missiles that the country would use for early ground operations are not very precise, although more advanced navigation systems such as the U.S. Global Positioning System and Russia’s Global Navigation Satellite System have improved their accuracy to some degree since the mid-2010s.39 Most KPA ballistic missiles use liquid-propellant rockets that take more than an hour to prepare for launch, but Pyongyang has recently been developing solid-propellant models that would be ready for launch more quickly.40
In addition to these short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles, the KPA has at least 700 long-range artillery aimed at the Seoul metropolitan area and northern parts of South Korea; the North Korean military would presumably target civilian facilities in the densely populated metropolitan area to induce widespread public panic.41 In practice, however, continuously shooting long-range artillery in civilian areas unrelated to combat zones is not very strategically effective. Therefore, North Korean long-range artillery shells would probably be fired temporarily into civilian-populated metropolitan areas at the beginning of a war and then would be redirected at military targets.
On balance, although the North Korean military has a greater quantity of some kinds of conventional military assets like armored combat vehicles and ground troops, the ROK Army’s superior capabilities give it the advantage. That said, the KPA’s superior quantities of artillery batteries, tanks, troops, and other assets would enable it to inflict significant damage on the ROK military and South Korean infrastructure in the type of lightning warfare strategy North Korea would be expected to employ.
North Korea’s Navy
As for North Korea’s naval forces, estimates of the size of the country’s fleet vary somewhat. South Korea’s 2018 defense white paper judges the country to have about 740 naval surface vessels, whereas the IISS military balance assessment put the figure at around 700.42 The KPA Navy’s fleet is mainly composed of small vessels, with only two larger frigate-size vessels, a fact that limits the country’s ocean-faring operational capabilities. North Korea’s underwater forces consist of about seventy submarines, according to the IISS, including Romeo-class submarines and various other models. The country’s naval forces and its 60,000 troops are organized into the East Sea and the West Sea fleet commands under the Korean People’s Navy. The two fleet commands are comprised of thirteen naval squadrons and two maritime sniper brigades.
Only two vessels in North Korea’s fleet can be classified as large, namely its Najin-class frigates. Initially deployed in the early 1970s, these ships are equipped with two SS-N-2 Styx anti-ship missiles (80-kilometer range) and two Soviet-produced 100-millimeter guns made in 1960.43 This frigate model cannot compare to destroyers such as the Aegis-class and the Chungmugong Yi Sun-sin–class destroyer equipped with the ROK Navy’s latest combat system. Five other KPA Navy ships, including the Sariwon-class corvette, are not equipped with anti-ship-to-ship missiles. In addition, the North Korean navy has about 383 small, high-speed coastal vessels including the Osa-class missile boat and the Komar-class missile boat.44
South Korean naval vessels are well-equipped to take advantage of the vulnerabilities of North Korean vessels. Sejong the Great–class destroyers, of which the ROK Navy has three, are equipped with 128-cell vertical missile launch systems, while North Korea’s two Najin-class frigates have just two launchers each. That indicates that North Korea’s naval vessels could be destroyed by South Korean naval forces before they even began full-scale operations.45 Moreover, the Gumdoksuri, also called Golden Eagle, the ROK Navy’s latest high-speed vessel, can travel at a speed of 74 kilometers per hour.46 South Korea’s eighteen Gumdoksuri ships are each equipped with a 130-millimeter guided multiple-launch rocket, a 76-millimeter gun, and an automated weapon fire control system.47
Given their various limitations, in a naval battle, North Korean small naval vessels would presumably strike from afar with Styx missiles and flee, rather than engage in close combat. After all, the quality of North Korea’s surface vessels has deteriorated for more than thirty years, and the small hulls of most of their ships force them to operate only in coastal waters off the Korean Peninsula. One potential challenge is that the North Korean Navy can deploy a relatively large swarm of small vessels to battle at once. Yet North Korean vessels generally would be at a disadvantage compared to their South Korean peers, since the ROK Navy’s ships are equipped with relatively powerful radar that can detect small enemy vessels quickly.
That said, the KPA Navy has more than just surface vessels, and its underwater forces supply its most lethal offensive firepower. Yet KPA submarines perform significantly worse on an individual basis compared to the ROK Navy’s twenty-two vessels, including the Sohn Wonyil–class submarine and the Chang Bogo–class submarine.48 Pyongyang is estimated to have a fleet of about seventy submarines, according to a 2017 U.S. Department of Defense report, a fact that lends itself to the country’s swarming strategy of striking from a distance.49 Moreover, if North Korea is able to operationalize nuclear-armed submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), it would be a game changer. In July 2019, North Korean state media released a number of pictures of Kim visiting a submarine yard believed to house a “new sub [that] will carry nuclear-tipped missiles that could be used to threaten U.S. military bases in Japan and throughout the Asia-Pacific region.”50 In a conflict, the North Korean navy would probably launch submarines at major South Korean ports just before such a war began. The KPA Navy’s submarines also would likely disrupt maritime traffic, lay mines, attack surface vessels, and support infiltration operations by special forces. In March 2010, the KPA demonstrated its ability to covertly disrupt ROK naval operations when a Salmon-class submarine sank an ROK Navy patrol boat at night in the southern part of the Yellow Sea. And in 1996, a North Korean Shark-class submarine was found stranded in the East Sea, revealing that it was attempting to infiltrate waters off of South Korea.51
North Korea’s submarines are relatively small and old, but they are still a formidable challenge for the ROK military largely because they can conduct secret raids and infiltration missions. Environmental considerations compound these difficulties: the East Sea, in particular, has cold and hot sea currents flowing simultaneously, making it very hard to detect submerged submarines. North Korea has recently strengthened its underwater forces, including the construction of a Sinpo-class (or Whale-class) submarine capable of carrying and launching two to four ballistic missiles.52 As noted above, if North Korea is able to master SLBM technology with nuclear warheads, that cannot but be seen as a major threat to the ROK, Japan, and the United States.
North Korea also possesses 136 Kong Bang–class hovercrafts, which pose a major threat to the ROK Armed Forces.53 These hovercrafts can sail at a brisk pace of 40–50 knots and are located on the North Korean coast near the Northern Limit Line by the Yellow Sea.54 North Korea likely could use them to reach South Korea’s Baeknyeong Island and Yeonpyeong Island, where it could launch surprise attacks and amphibious operations. If the ROK Armed Forces fail to defend these islands, the KPA hovercrafts could land special forces at Incheon Airport and along the coast of the Yellow Sea. To guard against this possibility, the ROK Armed Forces are preparing to deploy Apache attack helicopters on Baeknyeong Island.
On the whole, the KPA Navy has many small and medium-sized vessels capable of fast maneuvering and enough submarine power to be adept at surprise attacks. The ROK Navy, on the other hand, has large ships capable of coastal combat with automated strike systems and superior radar detection. As with the KPA Ground Force, while the KPA Navy could inflict significant damage in an initial surprise attack, its ability to sustain that advantage against the ROK Navy’s powerful ships, surveillance, and strike systems would make it difficult for the KPA to retain any advantage for long after the early days of a conflict.
North Korea’s Air Force
The KPA Air Force and Anti-Air Force consist of four air divisions, one tactical transport brigade, three air force sniper brigades, and air defense forces.55 According to South Korea’s 2018 defense white paper, North Korea’s air force possesses 810 combat aircraft out of 1,630 aircraft.56 The remainder are surveillance, transport, and training planes.57 A total of 40 percent of North Korean combat aircraft are located south of the Pyongyang–Wonsan Line, where they could quickly attack Seoul, located 40 kilometers south of the MDL.58 By comparison, South Korea possesses 410 combat-capable aircraft.59
Of the KPA’s 810 combat aircraft, only its eighteen MiG-29s are classified as fourth-generation combat aircraft.60 Produced by the Soviet Union in the 1980s, the MiG-29 was developed in response to the U.S. F-15 and F-14. But, in terms of performance, it is inferior to the F-15K and KF-16 models that the ROK Air Force possesses. The MiG-29 is equipped with R-29 air-to-air missiles that have a maximum range of 73 kilometers.61 By comparison, the ROK Air Force has fifty-nine F-15Ks and 160 KF-16s armed with AIM-120 advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles with a range of 85–120 kilometers and AIM-9X new short-range air-to-air missiles.62 The navigation and tracking capabilities of the F-15K’s radar systems are also far superior to those of the MiG-29, while those of the KF-16 are similar or slightly superior. Moreover, the MiG-29 has no air-to-ground precision strike capability, whereas the F-15K and KF-16 can use day-and-night ground target navigation, air-to-ground missiles, and guided bombs. This capability gap is set to widen, as the ROK Air Force introduced forty F-35s, a fifth-generation stealth combat aircraft, starting in 2019.63
Some of Pyongyang’s aircraft are even older than the MiG-29. North Korea operates third-generation combat aircraft including fifty-six MiG-23s and 120 MiG-21s, while the ROK Air Force has sixty F-4Es.64 Some of North Korea’s combat aircraft also fall below a second-generation designation, such as the 207 MiG-17s and MiG-19s the country possesses.65 The MiG-23 and MiG-21 are only capable of short-range engagements, while the F-4E is equipped with AIM-7 medium-range air-to-air missiles and AIM-9L short-range missiles. During the Vietnam War, the F-4E was judged to be superior to the MiG-23 and MiG-21.66 North Korea’s third-generation combat aircraft, like its fourth-generation MiG-29, do not have precision ground attack capabilities. By contrast, almost all of the combat aircraft the ROK Air Force fields wield long-range air-to-ground missiles, including high-speed antiradiation missiles (the AGM-88), long-range air-to-ground missiles (the AGM-84K and the Taurus KEPD 350), and the Maverick (AGM-65). They also operate the Joint Direct Attack Munition (a type of air-to-ground guidance bomb), small diameter bombs, and other munitions.
In addition to their technological disadvantages, North Korean aircraft must also contend with other limitations. The KPA Air Force suffers from fuel shortages due to the country’s continued economic woes, so North Korean pilots only train for an estimated 15–25 hours a year,67 while spending the rest of their time practicing indoors. In comparison, ROK Air Force pilots fly more than 135 hours per year.68 In addition, North Korea only has stockpiled a three-month supply of oil, and under UN Security Council sanctions, Pyongyang has only been permitted to import 500,000 barrels per year, though it likely imports more, as some exporters, including Chinese ones, are widely suspected of violating sanctions.69 The KPA Air Force further finds it difficult to maintain aircraft due to a lack of spare parts. At least three North Korean fighter jets crashed in 2014 alone.70 In 2014, the North Korean military tried to smuggle in two MiG-21 fighter aircraft and other air defense systems, missiles, and command and control vehicles from Cuba, but they were caught in Panama.71
South Korean aircraft enjoy other technological edges too. KPA Air Force combat aircraft lack an aerial refueling capability, whereas the ROK Air Force has aerial tankers, so its combat aircraft can be refueled in the air without spending valuable time returning to base. In addition, the ROK Air Force can significantly increase operational efficiency with the E-767 aircraft, which provides airborne “early warning detection and tracking of low-level targets at extended ranges over land and water” and allows for airborne command and control functions, making the ROK’s surveillance and command and control capabilities more survivable.72 In contrast, if the ROK Armed Forces were to destroy North Korean radar and air force command and control facilities on the ground, with ballistic missiles or combat aircraft, the KPA Air Force would lose its command and operational capabilities and the combat prowess of its aircraft would be greatly weakened.
Nevertheless, if a conflict broke out, the ROK Armed Forces would almost certainly sustain massive damage from an initial, large-scale, surprise attack by North Korean combat aircraft. The ROK Armed Forces believe that North Korea would seek to drop general-purpose bombs on major military installations, such as South Korean radar sites, air force bases, and military command facilities at the beginning of such a war. The KPA would likely use deteriorated and expendable MiG-15, MiG-17, MiG-19, and MiG-21 aircraft to hit targets using the kamikaze method some Japanese combat aircraft used in the Pacific theater during World War II. However, most of the KPA Air Force planes could be neutralized soon after a war began, because a full-scale North Korean invasion of South Korea would prompt the vastly superior Japanese and U.S. air forces to join the conflict.
North Korea in Cyberspace
Given the disparities between the quality and sophistication of North Korea’s and South Korea’s armed forces, it is not surprising that Pyongyang has found asymmetrical cyber capabilities an attractive option. The KPA has about 6,000 cyber operatives who have hacked governments, military forces, financial institutions, energy firms, defense contractors, and media companies in South Korea and the United States to steal information and money.73 According to the Federation of American Scientists, the KPA has cyber-focused departments in the General Staff Department and the Reconnaissance General Bureau, North Korea’s foreign intelligence service “responsible for collection and clandestine operations.”74 The country’s hacking and cyber attack units themselves are overseen by the Reconnaissance General Bureau, and the General Staff Department is responsible for carrying out cyberwarfare.75
The KPA’s cyber units have engaged in numerous illegal activities including the major distributed denial-of-service attack in July 2009 against several government and corporate websites in South Korea and the United States, the hacking of Sony Pictures in 2014, the major cyber attack on Bangladesh’s central bank in 2016, and the hacking of the South Korean Ministry of National Defense’s intranet in 2017.76 Presumably, North Korea’s cyber operatives would play a significant role in the event of war with South Korea and the United States. In particular, the Electronic Reconnaissance Bureau (Bureau 121) under the Reconnaissance General Bureau would likely seek to hack and paralyze a wide range of South Korean infrastructure and military command and control systems just before such a war began.77
Critically, South Korea’s defenses against North Korean cyber attacks leave a lot to be desired. Seoul’s prowess in cyberspace is inferior to that of Pyongyang. South Korea suffers a barrage of cyber attacks from North Korea every day, with some experts estimating the number of daily attacks at 1.5 million.78 Between 2014 and 2016, South Korean authorities estimated that North Korea hacked into 140,000 computers at roughly 160 South Korean private companies and government offices. The South Korean government and private sector are unprepared to successfully protect against this onslaught of attacks due to their sheer volume.
The resulting damage has been considerable, including the theft of U.S.-ROK wartime contingency plans, attacks on the financial system (such as the Ten Days of Rain attack in 2011 and the DarkSeoul hack in 2013), losses due to theft reported by financial institutions (suffered by many countries in 2016 and 2017 including, most notably, Bangladesh), and a number of other disruptive, invasive attacks (like the WannaCry hack in 2017).79 Although North Korea’s cyber warfare capabilities have yet to be tested in a conflict, the successful attacks its hackers have mounted in peacetime add one more asymmetric capability (in addition to weapons of mass destruction) to Pyongyang’s arsenal that could devastate South Korean critical energy, financial, or industrial structures, increasing the costs of war and making allied operations more cumbersome.
In many respects, KPA forces have a powerful numerical advantage, as Pyongyang has more military assets than the ROK armed forces across all three services. Since a significant portion of the KPA is deployed along or close to the Demilitarized Zone and Seoul only lies 50 kilometers from the MDL, the KPA’s conventional forces with numerous long-range artilleries remains a major source of concern.
Nevertheless, the quality of a nation’s military assets is more important than sheer numbers. Combat troops must be well-trained and well-provisioned, but this is not always a given in the case of North Korea. The country’s deteriorating economic conditions have hindered its ability to maximize the quality of its military assets, while South Korea has continuously improved its capabilities. One of the reasons why North Korea has emphasized nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles is precisely because of the growing qualitative edge of the ROK’s conventional forces.
The KPA forces are concentrated near the MDL so that if and when war breaks out, they would be deployed immediately. While the KPA’s surprise-based tactics could do significant damage in the early days of a conflict, because the KPA’s capabilities do not surpass those of the ROK Armed Forces, any early advantage would quickly be lost.
While the KPA’s surprise-based tactics could do significant damage in the early days of a conflict . . . any early advantage would quickly be lost.
When factoring in U.S. support of the ROK response, South Korea’s advantage becomes even more decisive. That said, the military balance on the peninsula would become murky if China, or even Russia, were to intervene in such a conflict on North Korea’s behalf. China prioritizes stability on the peninsula, though exactly how and when that would motivate it to intervene is unclear. On the one hand, Beijing, Seoul, and Washington would all share the common goal of preventing Pyongyang from using its nuclear weapons, and China would also seek to deescalate conflict to prevent a flow of refugees over its border and wider regional instability.
On the other hand, China has broader geostrategic interests at play too. If the outcome of a conflict could conceivably shift the balance of power on the peninsula in favor of the United States, Beijing’s calculations would change accordingly. If, for instance, allied forces were to cross the thirty-eighth parallel or if it appeared that the Kim regime were about to collapse, China would be incentivized to intervene to ensure the DPRK survives, like when Beijing stepped in during the Korean War. At the end of the day, while the disparity between North and South Korea’s armies is readily apparent, the intervention of their allies and added incentives to maintain the status quo on the peninsula in the context of U.S.-China strategic competition may ultimately determine the outcome of a conflict.
South Korea faces significant military threats going into the 2020s. On a positive note, its forces continue to be modernized, but the ROK military also must contend with a North Korea that is armed with nuclear weapons and numerically superior conventional forces. Pyongyang is also making progress on SLBMs and other asymmetrical capabilities. Despite shifting political priorities and perceptions, it is imperative for Seoul to maintain a very strong defense posture geared toward meeting not only a widening array of North Korean threats but also challenges to regional stability. It is therefore critical for South Korea to maintain the closest of security and military ties with the United States even as it assumes greater confidence in its own military capabilities.
About the Author
Kim Min-seok is a senior defense correspondent and editorial writer for JoongAng Ilbo, and he also serves as director of the Institute for Military and Security Affairs. He was the first civilian spokesperson for the Ministry of National Defense and also worked as a research fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses.
1 Lee Jung-woo, “Bughan-ui jaelaesig gunsalyeog pyeong-gawa daenam gunsawihyeob-ui pyeong-ga” [The Assessment of North Korea`s Conventional Military Power and the Change of Its Military Threat to South Korea], North Korean Studies Review 17, no. 2 (2014).
2 International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), The Military Balance 2018 (London, United Kingdom: Routeledge, 2018), 221.
3 Ibid, 275.
4 U.S. Department of Defense, Military and Security Developments Involving the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea: Report to Congress (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense, 2017), https://fas.org/irp/world/dprk/dod-2017.pdf.
5 South Korean Ministry of National Defense, 2018 Defense White Paper (Seoul, South Korea: Ministry of National Defense, 2019) 21, http://www.mnd.go.kr/cop/pblictn/selectPublicationUser.do?siteId=mndEN&componentId=51&categoryId=0&publicationSeq=846&pageIndex=1&id=mndEN_031300000000.
6 South Korean Ministry of National Defense, 2018 Defense White Paper.
7 North Korea Leadership Watch, “General Staff Operations Bureau,” March 27, 2018, http://www.nkleadershipwatch.org/dprk-security-apparatus/general-staff-operations-bureau/.
10 South Korean Ministry of National Defense, 2018 Defense White Paper, 23.
11 South Korean Ministry of National Defense, 2018 Defense White Paper,” 29; IISS, The Military Balance 2019, 281.
14 Hong Sung-pyo et al., “Bughan mugichegye yangjeog·jiljeog pyeong-ga” [Quantitative and qualitative evaluation of the North Korean weapon system], Korea Defense Security Forum, 2010, http://www.prism.go.kr/homepage/researchCommon/downloadResearchAttachFile.do;jsessionid=E93CA2043AB8670EAD49A6257A89C4DB.node02?work_key=001&file_type=CPR&seq_no=001&pdf_conv_yn=N&research_id=1250000-201000022.
15 IISS, The Military Balance 2019,285.
16 Ed Kim, “North Korea Nightmare: Why South Korea’s K2 Black Panther Is One Mighty Tank,” National Interest,, October 24, 2019, https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/north-korea-nightmare-why-south-koreas-k2-black-panther-one-mighty-tank-90931; and “K2 Black Panther Main Battle Tank,” Army Technology, https://www.army-technology.com/projects/k2-black-panther-main-battle-tank/.
17 IISS, The Military Balance 2019; and Franz-Stefan Gady, “South Korea: Induction of New Battle Tank Delayed by 3 Years,” Diplomat, October 17, 2017, https://thediplomat.com/2017/10/south-korea-induction-of-new-battle-tank-delayed-by-3-years/.
18 IISS, The Military Balance 2019.
19 IISS, The Military Balance 2019, 280–287; and South Korean Ministry of National Defense, 2018 Defense White Paper, 23.
20 Sebasian Roblin, “This Is How North Korea Smuggled in 87 U.S. Scout Helicopters,” National Interest, October 8, 2017, https://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/how-north-korea-smuggled-87-us-scout-helicopters-22638.
21 Yoo Yong-won, “‘Satan-ui macha'lo bullin gong-gyeoghelgi, Mi-24 haindu” [Attack helicopter called “Satan’s carriage,” Mi-24 Hind], The World of Weapons, December 21, 2011, http://bemil.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2011/12/21/2011122102492.html; and James King, “Tale of the Tape: What Would North Korea Bring to the Fight?” Real Clear Defense, May 30, 2017, https://www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2017/05/30/what_would_north_korea_bring_to_the_fight_111478.html.
22 IISS, The Military Balance 2019, 285.
23 “ICBM mideungjang…bae 9·9jeol yeolbyeongsig ‘sinmugi’neun?” [ICBM did not appear . . . What is the new weapon at North Korea’s Day of the Foundation of the Republic?], Segye Ilbo, September 10, 2018, https://n.news.naver.com/article/022/0003303042.
24 South Korean Ministry of National Defense, 2018 Defense White Paper.
26 Ibid, 29.
28 Sebastien Roblin, “Meet the K-9 Thunder: Korea’s Giant Artillery Gun (Aimed at North Korea),” National Interest, October 26, 2019, https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/meet-k-9-thunder-south-koreas-giant-artillery-gun-aimed-north-korea-91431; and Sebastien Roblin, “South Korea Has Its Own Massive Artillery That NATO Loves (and North Korea Hates),” National Interest, January 6, 2018, https://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/south-korea-has-its-own-massive-artillery-nato-loves-north-23962.
29 An Seung-bum et al., “Jisang-gun-ui suhoja K-9 jajupo” [Guardian of Ground Force K-9 self-propelled artillery], World of Weapons, September 22, 2010, https://m.terms.naver.com/entry.nhn?docId=3570299&cid=59087&categoryId=59087.
30 Joseph S. Bermudez, “The Yeonpyongdo-do Incident, November 23, 2010,” 38 North, January 11, 2011, https://www.38north.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/38North_SR11-1_Bermudez_Yeonpyeong-do.pdf.
31 Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, “KN-09,” https://missiledefenseadvocacy.org/missile-threat-and-proliferation/todays-missile-threat/north-korea/kn-09/.
32 Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, “KN-09”; and Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Missile Threat, “KN-09 (KN-SS-X-9,” https://missilethreat.csis.org/missile/kn-09-kn-ss-x-9/.
33 Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, “KN-09.”
35 Ankit Panda, “Introducing the KN21, North Korea’s New Take on Its Oldest Ballistic Missile,” Diplomat, September 14, 2019, https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/fact-north-korea-has-thousands-tanks-can-they-fight-78851.
36 IISS, The Military Balance 2019, 221.
37 CSIS Missile Threat, “KN-02 ‘Toksa,’” June 15, 2018, https://missilethreat.csis.org/missile/kn-02/.
38 “300 mm bangsapo? dangeoli misail? . . . bae balsache jeongcheneun,” [300 mm MRL? Short range missiles? The identity of North Korea’s projectile], TV Chosun, May 4, 2019, https://n.news.naver.com/article/448/0000273317.
39 Peter J. Brown, “Is North Korea Using China’s Satellites to Guide Its Missiles?” National Interest, May 23, 2017, https://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/north-korea-using-chinas-satellites-guide-its-missiles-20810.
40 Joy June, “Miuihoejosagug ‘bughan, 5wol misail dobal-eun gocheyeonlyo enjin gaebal mogjeog,’” [North Korea’s missile provocation in May aims to develop solid-fuel engine], Chosun Ilbo, June 12, 2019, https://n.news.naver.com/article/023/0003453055.
41 Prakesh Menon and PR Shankar, “North Korea’s Artillery: Could Kim’s ‘Big Guns’ Destroy Seoul?” National Interest, December 5, 2019, https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/north-koreas-artillery-could-kims-big-guns-destroy-seoul-101837.
42 IISS, The Military Balance 2019, 282; and South Korean Ministry of National Defense, 2018 Defense White Paper, 23.
43 Joost Oliemans and Stijn Mitzer, “KPA Navy Flag Ship Undergoing Radical Modernization, NK News, December 12, 2014, https://www.nknews.org/2014/12/kpa-navy-flag-ship-undergoing-radical-modernization/.
44 IISS, The Military Balance 2019, 282.
45 Michael Peck, “Can South Korea’s New Aegis Destroyers Shoot Down North Korean Missiles?” National Interest, January 19, 2019, https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/china%E2%80%99s-giant-new-warship-packs-killer-long-range-missiles-109786.
46 “Navy to Have More Advanced Patrol Boats for NLL Missions,” Yonhap News Agency, November 26, 2019, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20191126002700325.
47 “Navy to Have More Advanced Patrol Boats for NLL Missions,” Yonhap News Agency; and IISS, The Military Balance 2019, 285.
48 IISS, The Military Balance 2019, 285; and “South Korea Submarine Capabilities,” Nuclear Threat Initiative, October 16, 2019, https://www.nti.org/analysis/articles/south-korea-submarine-capabilities/.
49 U.S. Department of Defense, Military and Security Developments Involving the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” 2017, https://fas.org/irp/world/dprk/dod-2017.pdf.
50 Kyle Mizokami, “A Closer Look at North Korea’s ‘New’ Missile Submarine,” Popular Mechanics, July 23, 2019, https://www.popularmechanics.com/military/weapons/a28483496/north-korea-submarine/.
51 Kim Jin-wung, A History of Korea: From “Land of the Morning Calm” to States in Conflict (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2012), 576–577.
52 South Korean Ministry of National Defense, Gugbangbaeksa 2018 [2018 Defense White Paper], 24, http://www.mnd.go.kr/user/mnd/upload/pblictn/PBLICTNEBOOK_201901160236460390.pdf; “North Korea’s SINPO-Class Sub: New Evidence of Possible Vertical Missile Launch Tubes; Sinpo Shipyard Prepares for Significant Naval Construction Program,” 38 North, January 8, 2015, https://www.38north.org/2015/01/jbermudez010815/; Ankit Panda, “The Sinpo-C-Class: A New North Korean Ballistic Missile Submarine Is Under Construction,” Diplomat, October 18, 2017, https://thediplomat.com/2017/10/the-sinpo-c-class-a-new-north-korean-ballistic-missile-submarine-is-under-construction/; and “Sinpo-C/GORAE-Class SSB NEWCON,” Global Security, https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/dprk/ssb-newcon.htm.
53 IISS, The Military Balance 2019, 282; and the South Korean Ministry of National Defense, 2018 Defense White Paper, 24.
54 Joseph Bermudez, “North Korean Special Operations Forces: Hovercraft Bases (Part I),” CSIS Beyond Parallel, January 25, 2018, https://beyondparallel.csis.org/north-korean-special-operations-forces-hovercraft-bases-part-1/.
55 IISS, The Military Balance 2019, 282; South Korean Ministry of National Defense, 2018 Defense White Paper, 24; Kyle Mizokami, “Don’t Underestimate North Korea's 200,000 Special Forces,” National Interest, January 9, 2020, https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/dont-underestimate-north-koreas-200000-special-forces-112196.
56 South Korean Ministry of National Defense, 2018 Defense White Paper, 31.
58 South Korean Ministry of National Defense, 2018 Defense White Paper, 30.
60 Abraham Ait, “Is North Korea’s MiG-29 Fleet Growing?” Diplomat, November 29, 2018, https://thediplomat.com/2018/11/is-north-koreas-mig-29-fleet-growing/; and IISS, Military Balance 2019, 282.
61 “R-27 (AA-10 Alamo) Guided Medium Range Air-To-Air Missile,” Air Force Technology, https://www.airforce-technology.com/projects/r-27-aa-10-alamo-guided-medium-range-air-missile/.
62 IISS, Military Balance 2019, 286; “AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile,” Airforce Techology, https://www.airforce-technology.com/projects/aim-120-advanced-medium-range-air-to-air-missile-amraam/.
63 Jeff Jeong, “South Korea to Buy 20 More F-35 Jets,” Defense News, October 10, 2019, https://www.defensenews.com/global/asia-pacific/2019/10/10/south-korea-to-buy-20-more-f-35-jets/.
64 IISS, Military Balance 2019, 280.
65 IISS, Military Balance 2019, 282.
66 “F-4 Phantom,” Doosan Encyclopedia,
67 Byun Ji-hee, “Kim Jong-un Goes on an Internal Crackdown, Orders Air Force Flight Training Although There’s No Propellant,” Chosun Ilbo, April 18, 2019; and Peter Foster, “Intelligence Experts Analyse ‘North Korean Fighter Jet Crash,’” Telegraph, August 18, 2010, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/7951771/Intelligence-experts-analyse-North-Korean-fighter-jet-crash.html.
68 Lee Han-seok, “jeontujojongsa bihaenghunlyeonsigan choesosujundo mos michyeo” [Combat pilot’s minimum flight training time less than the minimum], SBS News, September 30, 2011,
69 U.S. Energy Information Administration, “North Korea,” June 2018, https://www.eia.gov/beta/international/analysis.php?iso=PRK; and Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein, “China’s Sanctions Enforcement and Fuel Prices in North Korea: What the Data Tells Us,” 38 North, February 1, 2019, https://www.38north.org/2019/02/bkatzeffsilberstein020119/.
70 John G. Grisafi, “N. Korean MiG-19 Fighter Jet Crashes During Training,” NK News, July 30, 2014, https://www.nknews.org/2014/07/n-korean-mig-19-fighter-jet-crashes-during-training/.
71 “North Korean Ship Seized With Cuban Weapons Returns to Cuba,” BBC, February 15, 2014, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-26210187.
72 “E-767 Airborne Warning and Control System,” Global Security, https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/systems/aircraft/e-767.htm.
73 Kim Min-seok, “Gagonghal bughan saibeo gong-gyeoglyeog gagonghal bughan saibeo gong-gyeoglyeog, hangug-eun gineungbujeon,” [North Korean cyber-attack, Korea is dysfunctional], JoongAng Ilbo, February 23, 2019, https://news.joins.com/article/22390232.
74 Federation of American Scientists, “North Korea Intelligence Agencies,” June 4, 2018, https://fas.org/irp/world/dprk/index.html.
75 Matthew Ha and David Maxwell, “Kim Jong Un’s ‘All-Purpose Sword’,” Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Octoer 3, 2018, https://www.fdd.org/analysis/2018/10/03/kim-jong-uns-all-purpose-sword/; and Kim Sang-bae, “Beochueol chang-gwa geumulmang bangpae - saibeo anboui segyejeongchiwa hangug” [World politics of cyber security and Korea-virtual spear and net shield], Hanul, 2018.
76 South Korean Ministry of National Defense, The Military Balance 2018, 277.
77 “Saibeojeonjidogug (121gug)” [Reconnaissance General Bureau (Bureau 121)], Current Affairs Dictionary, 2017, https://m.terms.naver.com/entry.nhn?docId=3548794&cid=43667&categoryId=43667.
78 Ha and Maxwell, “Kim Jong Un’s ‘All-Purpose Sword’”; and Kelly Kasulis, “The South Korean Government Experiences 1.5 Million Cyberattacks a Day, Security Experts Say,” the Mic, November 28, 2017, https://www.mic.com/articles/186373/the-south-korean-government-experiences-15-million-cyberattacks-a-day-security-experts-say#.rQzeuVx42.