The Mythical North Korean Threat

      The Korean conflict is over, but Cold War warriors refuse to accept this reality because they need a “threat.”  In 1994, the Military-Industrialist worked the media and politicians into a war hysteria which almost caused President Clinton to order air strikes in North Korea.  In his book “Hazardous Duty,” retired Colonel David Hackworth describes his trip to Korea in which he uncovered this phony threat.  Fortunately, former President Jimmy Carter heard the war drums and flew to North Korea as a private citizen and ended the phantom crisis. 

     When Pentagon officials talk about the need to maintain a “two-war” capability, they often refer to Korea.  This is absurd since South Korea can crush North Korea without  American help.  North Korea’s million-man army may look impressive on paper, but remember that Iraq had a million-man army, which also had modern equipment, combat experience, and plenty of fuel. 

      In contrast, North Korean soldiers suffer from malnutrition and rarely train due to a scarcity of fuel and ammo.  Most North Korean soldiers could not attack because they are needed to defend the entire DMZ and coastal approaches (they remember the 1950 landing at Inchon) while entire divisions must remain throughout North Korea to fend off heliborne offensives, food riots, and probable coups.

      On the other hand, the entire 700,000 man South Korean active duty army can be devoted to the defense of Seoul.  The modern South Korean army is backed by over 5,000,000 well-trained reservists who can be called to duty in hours.  South Korea has twice the population of the North, thirty times its economic power, and spends three times more on its military each year.  South Korean military equipment is first class whereas most of the North Korean military equipment is over 30 years old and much is inoperable due to a lack of maintenance.  If war broke out, South Korea has a massive industrial capacity and $94 billion in foreign currency reserves to sustain a war, while North Korea has no industry and no money.  As a result, South Korea is roughly five times more powerful than North Korea.

     If North Korea insanely attacked, the South Koreans would fight on mountainous and urban terrain which heavily favors defense, and complete air superiority would shoot up anything the North Koreans put on the road.  Assuming the North Koreans could start up a thousand of their old tanks and armored vehicles, they cannot advance through the mountainous DMZ.  The South Koreans have fortified, mined, and physically blocked all avenues through these mountains, and it would take North Korean infantry and engineers weeks to clear road paths while under fire.

     The North Korean military could gain a few thousand meters with human wave assaults into minefields and concrete fortifications.  However, these attacks would bog down from heavy casualties, and a lack of food and ammo resupply.  Fighting would be bloody as thousands of South Korean and American troops and civilians suffer from North Korean artillery and commando attacks.  Nevertheless,  the North Korean army would be unable to breakthrough or move supplies forward.  Even if North Korea magically broke through, all military analysts scoff at the idea that the North Koreans could bridge large rivers or move tons of supplies forward while under attack from American airpower.  

     It is important to remember that the last Korean war involved Chinese forces supported by North Koreans with the latest Soviet equipment and supplies.  China and Russia no longer aid North Korea and trade openly with South Korea.  Thousands of Chinese soldiers guard the Yalu River to prevent crossings by starving North Koreans.  North Korean soldiers no longer train for war, but spend most hours harvesting crops, while their old aircraft and ancient tanks sit idle from a lack of fuel and parts.  In 1999, Lt. Gen. Patrick Hughes, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told Congress that discipline in the North Korean army had collapsed, and that refugees report soldiers stealing food at gun point.  Nighttime satellite pictures reveal few lights in the North because of a lack of electricity.   

       Even if North Korea employs a few crude nuclear weapons, using them would be suicidal since it would invite instant retaliation from the United States.  North Korea lacks the technical know-how to build an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, despite the hopes and lies from the National Missile Defense proponents in the USA.  North Korea's industrial production is almost zero, over two million people have starved in recent years, and millions of homeless nomads threaten internal revolution.

        The US military ignores this reality and retains old plans for the deployment of 450,000 GIs to help defend South Korea, even though the superior South Korean military can halt any North Korean offensive without help from a single American soldier.  American forces are not even required for a counter-offensive.  A North Korean attack would stall after a few intense days and South Korean forces would soon be in position to overrun North Korea.  American air and naval power along with logistical and intelligence support would ensure the rapid collapse of the North Korean army.   

     However, South Korean leaders would be distressed about economic losses and the cost of occupying the North.  They would have little incentive to overrun North Korea quickly if 450,000 free spending American GIs with billions of dollars in American military aid were on the way.  Rather than quickly overrunning the North, South Korean leaders may demobilize some units to restart its economy.  Hopefully, Americans will realize that something is wrong when infantrymen from Kansas are deployed to invade North Korea while infantrymen from Seoul are sent home.  Perhaps they will recall the logic of  President Lyndon Johnson who said in 1964 that he was “not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing themselves.”   If South Koreans are unwilling to defend their nation from poverty stricken cousins from the North, why should Americans defend them?  The USA imports no vital resources from Korea; the consumer items imported from South Korea are readily available elsewhere.

      Chinese participation is extremely unlikely since China is busy with its free enterprise transformation while ensuring domestic tranquility.  In fact, stopping thousands of starving North Korean refugees from crossing their border has become a major problem, although the Chinese refuse to spend any of their billions of dollars in US trade surpluses to purchase food for their old ally.  Korea has no natural resources which interest China, and Chinese support would cause a major war with powerful South Korea, the United States, and probably Japan and Taiwan.  On the other hand, a prosperous Korea provides a buffer against China’s traditional enemy - Japan.

      The US Army must adapt to the end of the Cold War in Asia and stop wasting millions of dollars on new military construction projects in Korea.  Second, the North Koreans have stated that the 37,000 American troops must go before peace talks can progress.  (Imagine how South  Korea would feel if 37,000 Russian troops were based  in North Korea.)  Many South Koreans know that American troops are no longer needed and anti-American base protests are common.  

     The United States must support peace efforts by announcing that 17,000 soldiers will withdraw from South Korea within two years.  The US Army could move the headquarters for the 2nd Infantry Division and one combat brigade to Washington State to join two combat brigades at Fort Lewis to form a solid combat-ready division near Pacific ports.  This would allow the US Army to close several camps in Korea, which would eliminate several thousand military and civilian base support billets, and save millions of dollars each year from base operations and overseas shipments.  Pulling 17,000 soldiers from Korea will also increase morale and readiness since most Korea positions are filled with one-year unaccompanied tours.

     This would leave one combat brigade in Korea, which could become part of the 25th Infantry Division in Hawaii.  This brigade and two US Air Force wings could remain as  a symbolic presence of 20,000 American troops until a peace agreement is formalized.  The billions of dollars saved could be used to improve Army readiness and the thousands of support personnel freed could fill gaps in other units.  Army Generals may dispute savings by pointing to the $333 million a year in “burden sharing” by the South Korean government.  However, not one penny of this money is paid to the US military, but goes to Koreans for land rent and some base services.  

     If the US military pulled 17,000 soldiers out of Korea, there is no reason why this contribution must shrink.  South Korea spends less of it’s GDP on its military each year than the United States.  The US Army has complained about maintaining Patriot missile batteries and Apache attack helicopters in South Korea; a burden it imposed on itself in 1994.  Meanwhile, South Korea has refused to purchase these advanced weapons with the billions of dollars in annual trade surpluses with the United States.  If South Korea is truly concerned about the North Korean threat, it has the resources to expand its military and buy the latest military equipment from the United States.       

      The Center for Defense Information estimates that US military business injects almost $5 billion a year into the South Korean economy.  Shifting some of this activity to Fort Lewis would spur economic activity in Washington State.  Closing unneeded overseas bases is far cheaper than domestic bases and the economic impact is actually positive as spending shifts to American communities.  However, this will be opposed in Washington DC as lobbyists representing Korea and certain corporations politic to keep “their” bases open, and by Army Generals seeking to retain an outdated mission.    

      The chance of a Korean war is extremely unlikely.  North Korean leaders realize they have no hope of success without major backing from China or Russia.  The previous South Korean President, Kim Dae Jung,  encouraged peace and visited North Korea.  The two countries are reconnecting rail lines and sent a combined team to the Olympics.  Even the United States is providing $500 million dollars a year in food to the starving North Koreans.  The new South Korean President, Roh-Moo-hyun was elected on a peace platform and suggested US troops may be gone within ten years.

     It may take many years for the two Koreas to unite, meanwhile the USA can contribute to peace and save billions of dollars by starting a withdrawal of forces.  The US Army can increase its ability to deploy expeditionary forces in Asia by cutting infrastructure in Korea and forming a solid division at Fort Lewis.  The USA already has a huge logistical infrastructure in Japan, Hawaii and Guam, it doesn't need bases in Korea.  American forces should continue to train with South Korea, but the $5 billion a year military base subsidy to South Korea must end.  Unfortunately, lying about the Korean situation has become a cornerstone of the Pentagon's effort to boost military spending beyond Cold War levels.  

                                                                           Carlton Meyer  editor@G2mil.com

       Carlton Meyer served one year with the US Marine Corps in Asia and participated in the massive TEAM SPIRIT 1990 military exercise in Korea.  

Letters

Korea Insanity

     Politicians claim we must keep American soldiers in Korea because its an unstable and dangerous place. Since South Korea is five times more powerful than North Korea, I say we must bring our soldiers home because its unstable and dangerous. Of course the Generals know the threat is bogus, which is why they have their families living like royalty in Seoul.  I recently read where the Pentagon plans to deploy more GIs for a second Korean war than we had in the first one, even though the first war involved one million Chinese and no real South Korean Army.

                                                                                           U.S. Army Sergeant

Updates

CATO Institute - May 7, 2003 Study

Bring the Troops Home: Ending the Obsolete Korean Commitment

*************

     The Korean Employees Union of US Force Korea began holding rallies in the Summer of 2001 to oppose the withdrawal of US troops.  Their 18,000 members are concerned that North Korea's demand that US troops be withdrawn threatens their jobs.

**************

    In the December 2001 issue of Armed Forces Journal, retired Army four-star General Barry McCaffrey commented on the 1994 Korean crisis:

      "It was my personal view during this extremely dangerous crisis that the ensuing bloody battle would have totally destroyed the obsolete and poorly trained North Korean armed forces in a US-ROK campaign of less than six months.  The courage and physical hardness of the North Korean forces would have counted for little against the air-land-sea blitzkrieg they would have encountered as they tried to attack out their their fortified assembly areas.  They would have face overwhelming violence unleashed by greatly superior US and ROK technology, training, and tactical leadership."

***************

     In the summer of 2002, the US Army will begin construction of 20 high-rise apartments at Yongsan Army Garrison near Seoul to house 1066 Army families, despite objections from the city of Seoul which wants the base closed.  This wasteful spending will allow more soldiers to deploy to Korea with their families.  If that area is threatened by invasion and nuclear or chemical attack as many claim, why spend money to keep 1066 more families there?

**************

I just finished reading your evaluation of North Korean military readiness and was very interested in this new perspective. Are you familiar with the (Center for Korean Affairs) version of the situation? If not, it is virtually the exact opposite of your version and was also posted on the Information Clearinghouse website this last April. It led with an excerpt that read: North Korea has not only the military power but also the political will to wage total war against the United States. I'm always interested in discovering the truth if not then the closest version to it.

                                                                                                 Bray

Ed:  It would be interesting to find out who funds the "Center for Korean Affairs"  They probably won't say so.  As I mentioned, the US troop commitment requires ~$5 billion dollars a year, and those getting that money don't want change.  G2mil is funded by no one except subscribers.  And don't forget the US military is full of "experts" on Korea who live there and depend on a never-ending conflict for their livelihood.  They are terrified the US might pull out, leaving them unemployed Cold Warriors, like the old "Sovietologists"

People seem to forget we mostly fought the Chinese army in the last war, and are surprised when I mention the five million man South Korean Army.  These are mostly reservists who can be mobilized within hours and are better trained  and equipped than the North Korean regulars.  In addition, only about half the million man North Korean Army could attack, the other half would have to guard the coasts and capital from amphibious or heliborne attacks, and to check likely coups and food riots.  Keep in mind that regional police are included in the "million man army".  

So do we need 14,000 US combat troops to help five million South Koreans fend off 500,000 North Koreans whose equipment dates from the 1950s - 1970s.  And the South Koreans will fight from fortifications with complete air and naval superiority.  Some readers worry about "tunnels".  However, once those were discovered many years back the S. Koreans began to employ ground penetrating radar and seismic devices so they know even if rats are digging holes near the DMZ.  Yes, the Chinese or Russians may intervene, but only because they'd be furious the nuts in the North caused a crisis which hurt trade.  The reason they are reestablishing a rail line across the DMZ is to ship goods between China and South Korea; North Korea is a wasteland. So the Chinese or Russians may send forces across the border, but only to quickly topple the North Korean regime and help unify Korea.  

Kudos

I'm doing some research for a book and came across the G2 website.  Let me say briefly that I've enjoyed your commentary on the bogus North Korean military threat.  I have extensive experience on the subject and very much concur with the logic presented and many of your insights. 

One of the many critical problems with the North--as you have appropriately captured--lies in its moribund economy.  While it would be nice for Kim Chong-il and MPAF leadership to pump more won into the KPA, it's not going to happen.  Export markets for weapons and WMD are very finite and, when the North has tried to institute economic development--Sinuiju, for example--the results have been disastrous, if altogether embarrassing.  Modest annual training, poor fighting skills proficiencies, antiquated weaponry, resource and POL shortages, pilot inexperience, a joke of a Navy, a decrepit air defense network, and a historical absence of combined arms will help ensure the KPA fares horribly against the South Korean military in a conventional conflict. 

I would suggest that your arguments might be amended to critique the North's other military capabilities as well.  More specifically, you have not mentioned strategic deterrents such as the nuclear program, BCW, short and medium-range ballistic missiles, and special forces.  Although such resources wouldn't alter the final outcome of an armed engagement, they need to be included in an honest appraisal of military capabilities.  Along these lines, I would also propose that North's best bargaining chips do not lie in its conventional forces--which as you have mentioned face serious shortcomings and numerous problems--but rather in its strategic deterrents.  Could the North inflict "damage" (let the debate begin as to the severity and extent of damage) south of the DMZ with FROG and No Dong missiles?  I certainly believe so, at least to an "unacceptable" extent.  But the real answer to these questions can not be found in discussions that focus around merely orders of battle.

The real question is that of intent and calculus: why would Kim Chong-il--an individual capable of rational thinking, so it is thought--order the KPA to attack South Korea when he knows that attempted conquest is of a zero-sum nature--and likely to result in the destabilization and/or removal of his regime?  Put another way--why would a weaponless bully punch someone in the mouth "just for the fun of it" when the bully knows that his target possesses a revolver?  Sure, the bully throws the punch and gets in his jab, but at what cost?--the bully gets shot and killed in the retaliatory process.  One other emerging possibility: considering the current administration's "shoot first" policy, the ROK may not have to worry about an attack from the North, but rather US attacks on the North's nuclear facilities.  What does the North do if we bomb them first?   And what does Seoul do if Washington doesn't get the ROK's permission first?  If USFK does bomb the North,  does the KPA then come south across the DMZ--an escalatory move that would not appear to serve its interests (see bully example above)?  Or does Pyongyang just take it on the chin, or maybe conduct a missile or nuclear test in response?  I submit that an increasingly plausible possibility on the peninsula involves a limited US first strike, not initiation of large-scale military operations by the North.    

It would also seem that the uneducated and uninformed out there have fallen under the North's propaganda spell, which is aggressive in nature and directed to influence international decision-making.  Are you scared?  I'm not...bring on the commies!  For whatever it's worth--well done, nice job, and keep preaching the truth good sir!

                                                                                                                Anonymous

©2003 www.G2mil.com