Ajay Vaishnav / Zee Research Group
If it happens, it would be a war which was thrust on a reluctant United States of America. In the last decade, we have seen US-led pre-emptive wars against nations whether to wipe out al Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Tower or on the pretext of searching and destroying the ever-elusive weapons of mass destruction and unveil democracy in Saddam’s totalitarian Bathist Iraq. But, the Korean peninsula could turn out to be a different affair where belligerent power is a communist regime, i.e. the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, commonly referred as the DPRK or North Korea.
While the US, particularly under former president George W Bush, has considered North Korea as a rogue regime – part of an evil axis comprising of Iran and Cuba, Washington’s diplomatic efforts over the last decade have focused on ignoring Pyongyang’s belligerence and defuse crisis between the two Koreas through six-party talks which also included China and Russia along with Japan.
But, the unusual combative response of the US to North Korea’s declaration of “state of war” last week and Friday’s shifting of a mid-range missile to a site on the east coast of the country suggests that a showdown is looming. South Korean media even reports the possibility of use of smart nukes. While one hopes that the crisis doesn’t snowball into a major war and dread the use of nuclear or chemical and biological weapons, a war in the peninsula won’t be a zero-sum game for any Korea. In that eventuality, North Korea’s communist regime, with its depleted economy and massive food scarcity situation, will probably not survive the war. Likewise, considerable loss of people and resources will be incurred by South Korea and may push its economy to few years back.
However, if the war happens even by accident, how would it play out? Zee Research Group thought it’s worthwhile to measure the strengths and weaknesses of two Korean armies pitted against each other along with American and Chinese presence as the two ‘overlays.’
The lesson learned by North Korea after the 1950-53 Korean War has been to amass as much military both conventional and nuclear to thwart any aggression from the South. While the DPRK’s economic decline and lack of financial resources has taken a toll on its conventional forces, the fact remains that with 1.1 million active and 4.7 million reserve personnel Pyongyang maintains world’s fifth largest standing Army in the world. Compare that to South Korea’s 6, 90,000 and the ratio seems to be in favour of the North with a manpower superiority of roughly 3:2.
North Korea’s armoured forces are estimated to include some 3,500 main battle tanks, 3,000 armoured personnel carriers and light tanks, and more than 10,000 heavy-calibre artillery pieces, many of which are self-propelled. In addition, the ground forces have about 7,500 mortars, several hundred surface-to-surface missiles, 11,000 air defence guns, 10,000 surface-to-air missiles, and numerous anti-tank guided weapons.
The North Korean Air Force possesses some 605 combat aircraft. The Air Force mostly comprises older MiG aircraft (of the MiG-15/17/19/21 types), but includes small numbers of more modern MiG-23, MiG-29 and Su-25 aircraft.
The North Korean Navy can be divided into six main groups: 43 missile craft; about 100 torpedo craft; 158 patrol craft (of which 133 are inshore vessels); about 26 diesel submarines of Soviet design; 10 amphibious ships; and 23 mine countermeasures ships.
What should worry South is that most combat weapons and troops of the North are forward-deployed near the Demilitarised Zone and can inflict heavy damage on virtually any South Korean population centre along with the capital, Seoul.
While military experts question North’s hardware quality, there is hardly any doubt that Pyongyang has accumulated significant striking capabilities with its missiles, some of which have been supplied to our western neighbour. North Korean missiles Nodong, Taepodong 1 & 2, and Musudan reportedly have a range between 1000 to 6000 kms. Any of these are capable of carrying a nuclear warhead and strike major parts of the Asia-pacific.
The Republic of Korea
In comparison, South Korean forces are numerically small but superior in terms of supply of quality hardware and latest reconnaissance technology. Most importantly, they have Uncle Sam’s full military backing as recently shown in air drills which involved B-2 stealth bombers.
South Korea’s armed forces comprise approximately 6, 90,000 active-duty troops and 4.5 million reservists. Seoul’s personnel are well-fed and battle hardened as well due to their continuous participation in numerous UN peacekeeping operations and US-led war in Iraq.
In addition, they can deploy some 2,300 main battle tanks, 2,500 armoured personnel carriers and light tanks, 4,500 heavy-calibre artillery pieces, 6,000 mortars, an estimated 600 air defence guns, over 1,000 surface-to-air missiles, and about a dozen short-range surface-to-surface missiles.
The South Korean Air Force has 538 combat aircraft and 117 attack helicopters. Meanwhile, the South Korean Navy includes 39 principal surface combatants, 20 submarines, 84 patrol and coastal combatants, 15 mine warfare ships, 12 amphibious vessels, and 60 naval combat aircraft.