(If you don’t get the title reference…get cultured.)
Missile launchers near the borders. American warships chugging towards the Korean Peninsula. A cartoonish North Korean guy threatening to wipe everyone else off the map. Once again, it seems like we are closer than ever to a second Korean War. Actually, it would technically be the same war since a peace treaty was never signed to end the first one, but I digress. To someone who is only moderately familiar with the situation, things look bad: North Korea, or Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as it is formally known, almost certainly has nuclear technology as well as rockets to deliver it with; they have the largest army by number of personnel in the world; and they have a young leader with something to prove. But are things really as bad as they think? Let’s face it; diplomatically, things with the DPRK are always screwed up to one degree or another. So let me offer a few considerations from a military perspective that will hopefully let you breathe a sigh of relief.
1) The Nuclear Situation
Bad News: To date, the DPRK has conducted three known nuclear tests, where they detonated a nuclear weapon underground in hopes that it would not be detected. Unfortunately, things that go *boom* underground tend to create seismic waves, so the tests were easily detected by our monitoring stations.
Good News: The most recent test was estimated to have an explosive yield of between 6 and 40 kT of TNT. The Hiroshima bomb had a yield of 16kT, and is considered to be very weak by modern standards.
The DPRK also lacks the resources to manufacture the nuclear material for these bombs in sufficient quantities; after all, their entire national GDP is around $40 billion annually. To put that in perspective, Apple sells about $40 billion worth of its products every three months. I’d be willing to bet that they have three, maybe four operational nuclear devices at most.
2) But what about the missiles?
Bad News: The DPRK has ballistic missiles with ranges of thousands of kilometers. And they like to remind everyone of that fact by shooting one off once in a while.
Good News: Their missile program is a joke. Since resuming testing in 2006, only one of the four long range missile launches was a success. In 2009, eleven missiles were successfully tested, but they were short-range variants. And again, due to their limited economic means, these missiles were most likely given to them by other countries. They were even caught recently displaying fake missiles during a military parade; so not only can they not build them, they really don’t know how to reliably work them.
Even if they had hundreds of accurate missiles, they are still limited by the number of nukes they probably do not have. With all their resources put into one massive launch, they could probably put a few dozen missiles into the air, but half of them would fail. Add to this the amount of anti-ballistic missile forces we have in the area, and the chances of a successful strike are minimal. Oh, and there is pretty much no way for them to drop a nuke on America; even with perfectly-implemented “auxiliary boosters”, their missiles just don’t have the range.
3) Ok, but what about their MASSIVE army?
Let’s talk about that. The DPRK has about a million people on active service, with about eight million in reserves. This gives them the largest army in the world (the US has about 1.4 million active military personnel, and 850,000 in reserves). However, due to the intricacies of modern warfare, the amount of people in the military does not always translate into proportional strength.
First of all, the DPRK spends about $10 billion on its military every year. The United States spends $700 billion. 70 times as much. A huge portion of this goes into developing and maintaining incredibly advanced weapons systems – planes, tanks, bombers, missiles, radar, communications…pretty much every military technology you can think, we have the best and most advanced.
Second, we objectively have the most highly-trained military personnel in the world with which to operate those weapons. The DPRK has some tanks and aircraft as well, but they are less advanced and their forces most likely lack the training and logistical capabilities to effectively use them. Sorry, Kim Jung Un; in this case, size really doesn’t matter.
4) If it’s as easy as you say it is, why didn’t we win the Korean War?
That’s a big issue, so allow me to oversimplify; By September 1950, North Korea had almost conquered the entire south after four months of war. By October, U.S. forces had intervened and pushed the North Koreans back to the 38th parallel. Unfortunately, General MacArthur decided to continue pushing, until the North Koreans were almost pushed into China. Fearing that the entire Korean Peninsula would turn into U.S. controlled territory, the Chinese sent a massive army into Korea. American forces were largely overwhelmed until both armies essentially fought to a series of stalemates over the next couple of years. In 1953, an armistice was signed, and the 38th parallel became the dividing line between North and South.
Back then, we had neither the manpower nor the firepower to stop such a massive number of troops; American troops were still carrying the same semi-automatic rifle used in World War II. In fact, the lack of firepower was partially what spurred the development of the fully-automatic M16 assault rifle. Today, our tactical strike weapons are so sophisticated that any concentration of North Korean troops or equipment could easily be wiped out. The North Koreans can’t make the same claim.
Case in point: before Operation Desert Storm in 1991, Saddam Hussein had one of the largest armies in the world. After 100 hours of warfare, he had no army. Meanwhile, the US-led coalition had lost only a few hundred troops and a handful of planes and vehicles (mostly to accidents).
5) Can they even hurt us at all?
Yes. Absolutely. Millions of troops, hundreds of tanks and artillery pieces, and probably a few nuclear missiles can still cause massive amounts of damage. They have artillery pieces and rocket launchers that can fire all the way to the South Korean capital of Seoul, a city of over 10 million people that is only 35 miles from the North Korean border. Were the DPRK to launch a surprise attack, they could kill tens or even hundreds of thousands of South Korean civilians before we could identify and destroy their artillery. Then, of course, there is the almost unthinkable result of a North Korean nuclear warhead successfully hitting Seoul or even Tokyo, as unlikely as that may be.
6) Alright nerd, enough of this military talk…will they DO IT???
To answer this question, I’ll offer one certainty and one uncertainty.
What is certain is that were the North to attack anyone, the United States and South Korea would completely annihilate the North Korean government in ever sense of the word. The military would be destroyed, the country would be jointly occupied by South Korean, American, and UN troops, and Kim Jung Un would be rounded up along with the rest of his massive administration. As Colin Powell said last week, attacking South Korea or the United States would provoke “a regime-ending response“.
What is uncertain is exactly what is going on in Kim Jong Un’s head. On one hand, he may be a very well informed person who knows that his entire regime is a sham but is playing the traditional role of the belligerent Dear Leader. The North Korean people are so oppressed that they have no idea what the world is like; they believe the North Korea is the most prosperous and advanced country on earth, and that the west is full of uncivilized, aggressive barbarians. If this is the case, KJU will continue pushing the envelope (short of initiating an attack) until he gets some other country to go back to the negotiating table. This will strengthen the will and resolve of his people and cement his place as supreme leader for decades to come – or until he does something else really, really stupid.
The other possibility is that he is actually bat-shit crazy, that his advisers all think that their military is unmatched, and that they all truly believe that they are going to destroy America, South Korea, and everyone else they hate. Fortunately, this is highly unlikely for several reasons. First, Kim Jung Un has to be reasonably intelligent: he was educated in Switzerland, got good grades, and even took a liking to basketball. This would indicate to me that there is no way he could actually be tricked or persuaded into thinking that their military is strong enough to prevail. Second, China and other nations have very close relations with North Korea; fortunately, China has no desire or patience for the Dear Leader causing any trouble within their sphere of influence. I also would figure that with all the diplomatic exchanges between the two countries, the “by the way, KJU…you know you guys really don’t stand a chance against any of the countries you are threatening, right” conversation would have had to have happened eventually. Third, KJU’s regime really has nothing to gain and everything to lose from attacking someone else.
The reality is that this pattern has been repeated many times since the Korean War; North Korea beats its chest, the rest of the world reacts with a mixture of laughter, skepticism, and fear, until it eventually backs down after securing food aid or something similar. But while I certainly don’t think they should be feared, I also wouldn’t make the mistake of underestimating them. This time around, they have nuclear technology and a young, unproven, possibly unstable leader who has absolute control over the country. America, you’re safe for now – just don’t forget our allies in South Korea and throughout East Asia who constantly live under the threat of a kid with his hand near a nuclear button.