The war of words between North Korean leader Kim Jung Un and President Trump rages on. Trump tweeted the U.S. military is “locked and loaded” and later telling reporters that the isolated country would “truly regret it” if it attacks Guam or any other U.S. territory. In response, a North Korean state news agency statement warned that “even a single shell dropped on the Korean Peninsula might lead to the outbreak of … thermonuclear war.”
North Korea has conducted four separate nuclear weapons detonations, in addition to its many missile tests. In May 2006 North Korea detonated its first atomic device of 4.2 magnitude, small by nuke standards. Since then there have been three more confirmed tests each of increasing magnitude: May 25, 2009, February 12, 2013 and January 6, 2016. North Korea says it conducted a fifth test in September 2016 and that time it was a hydrogen bomb with a total yield between 10 and 20 kilotons (equivalent of thousands of tons of TNT). By comparison, the bomb dropped on the Japanese city of Nagasaki at the end of World War II had a yield of 22 kilotons.
With each nuclear test came more international condemnation and more sanctions against the regime in North Korea. With the increased sanctions came more crazy rhetoric of war and threats from Pyongyang. In March 2016 the North Korean news agency KCNA, the country’s powerful National Defense Commission vowed to launch a “pre-emptive nuclear strike of justice” against what it called the “U.S. imperialist aggressor forces bases in the Asia-Pacific region and the U.S. mainland.”
Just this month, as Donald Trump sends the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier group to the Sea of Japan, the United States and South Korea have been warned against any military action. “If they (the US and the South) try to ignite the spark of war, we will wipe out all of the invaders without a trace with… our strong pre-emptive nuclear strike,” Hwang Pyong-So, director of the political bureau at the North’s army, said in a speech.
North Korea’s nuclear program is the only reason anyone is paying any attention to them at all. Yes, North Korea is a nuclear power, but just how much of a threat is Kim Jung Un and his military to the United States?
First, even his nuclear program has been plagued with problems. There is no proof at all that they have managed to make a nuke warhead small enough to put into a missile. If they can’t do that, they can’t deliver a nuclear weapon anywhere. They do have tactical missiles that can reach targets in South Korea and maybe Japan and strike American forces and civilian targets there, but it is debatable if they deliver a weapon to the continental US. If their nuclear weapons’ program is allowed to continue unrestrained, it is fair to say that Kim Jung Un will eventually be able to do just that. In 2016, estimates were they could accomplish this in “five to ten years.”
It is unthinkable that the international community would sit idly by and allow the very unstable regime of Kim Jung Un to develop the capability to deliver nuclear weapons to the US mainland. North Korea’s testing of an ICBM has changed the calculus of the problem. Reports indicate now that the Obama administration knew North Korea was miniaturizing their nuke warheads to fit into a ICBM. Due to their inaction, we may face a scenario where they can deliver the bomb to Japan, Guam or maybe Hawaii, Alaska or the west coast of the United States. If any of these detestable scenarios played out that America had to act militarily to end their nuclear program, just how strong is North Korea and their military?
The Korean People’s Army is the fifth largest in the world with an active duty force of about 700,000 soldiers. Quantitatively, Kim Jung Un can field a potent force. In sheer numbers, the North Korean army can be pretty intimidating. According to Global Firepower, their military consist of more than 9000 tanks and armored fighting vehicles and nearly 9000 artillery pieces, many of these are ranged to reach and target the South Korean capital, Seoul. Any preemptive massive preemptive conventional artillery strike on that city of over 10 million people could kill thousands of civilians.
The numbers in their air force and navy shouldn’t be dismissed in any future fight either. The North Koreans can put up nearly 1000 aircraft against any aggression. That includes over 450 fighters and interceptors. The cornerstone of their navy is their submarine force. They have a total of about 70 of these with at least one capable of launching ballistic missiles.
Those are the numbers. But there are many other factors that determine any army’s fighting prowess other than just how many tanks, planes and boots it can put into the field. Saddam Hussein had a large army too and they were crushed in two weeks by a much smaller force of American soldiers and Marines.
Once you put an army in the field, you have to keep it oiled, gassed, armed, fixed and fed. That is where North Korea will fail. Also, the armed forces of totalitarian regimes are habitually regimented to a central command. Meaning, the fighting units in the field are paralyzed unless and until they receive orders from the “ivory tower” of higher headquarters. This makes their army rigid, inflexible and predictable, and easy to hit.
Any success from North Korea would depend on a quick surprise attack. “The first wave is the most destructive one,” says former Army Intelligence Officer Michael Pregent. The opening salvos of any war would consist of thousands of artillery pieces raining down shells on population centers and any known military targets north of Seoul. Then, armored personnel carriers would attempt to rush into the South. That’s the plan. With any kind of warning of impending attack, things would not go according to plan for Kim Jung Un.
With the qualitative advantage held by the United States and South Korea, we can expect to very quickly gain air and sea dominance. At that point, we will be able to roam the seas and the skies with impunity. Attack helicopters, fighter bombers and our own long range artillery will wreak havoc on the North Korean columns trying to get south.
Even without us bombing their convoys and artillery, even before American cruise missiles from the Sea of Japan destroy the North’s command and control, their stuff will likely break down or run out of gas. Not only would the North find it a challenge to support its army logistically, meaning getting the truck convoys to its army without it getting blown up by us, it would find it a challenge to even have all the beans, gas and bullets needed to keep any kind of offensive momentum. Just wouldn’t happen.
“The regime fears desertion once their forces cross the DMZ,” said Pregent. “They can’t supply their troops with food, fuel, clothes, and ammunition. Every war game that I’ve ever been part of, the North Koreans run out of water, food and ammo.” What will happen when an army who has been told they are the best in the world, find out they aren’t? Their equipment is at least 20 years old. If they ever do cross into the South, what will their soldiers, coming from a country with chronic hunger and that can’t keep the lights on, think when they see food stands burtsting with goods? Mass desertions are the likely outcome.
Additionally, Kim Jung Un has purged his military of the most experienced senior officers. Since taking power, Un has purged at least 70 senior members of the higher echelons of the general staff, including his Chief of Staff, Ri Yong Gil.
The North Korean People’s Army is much more a force to control its own population and squash dissent than it is a real modern army that can take on the United States. Despite the military parades and displays of bluster, it is unlikely their army can put up a real fight. Since 1953 the North Koreans have focused all of their attention and energy on intimidating and oppressing the North Koreans. This has likely had devastating effects, both on military readiness and on the nation’s will to fight.
The North Korean people are totally isolated from the outside world, brutally oppressed by an ever present police state and fed a constant barrage of propaganda making the United States and South Korea as not only as “the enemy of the people” but as the source of their every problem, big and small. Run out of rice? It is the imperialist Americans’ fault.
In January 2013, Navi Pillay, the chief human rights official at the United Nations, said North Korea’s human rights abuses “no parallel anywhere in the world.” North Korea, Ms. Pillay said, operates an “elaborate network of political prison camps” that hold more than 200,000 prisoners, according to human rights organizations. The camps not only punish people for peaceful activities, but also employ “torture and other forms of cruel and inhumane treatment, summary executions, rape, slave labor, forced abortions and forms of collective punishment that may amount to crimes against humanity.”
North Korea exercises what they call “three generation punishment.” This is the law and the practice where if a person commits an offense, not only are they sent to the concentration camp, but so are their parents, grandparents and/or children.
Even outside the camps, North Koreans endure “extreme forms of repression and human rights violations,” according to Amnesty International. They may be subject to arbitrary arrest, and lack recourse to legal rights and protections, an independent news media or independent civic organizations. There are no known opposition political parties, and those who criticize the government are severely punished. Government policies have contributed to food shortages and famine.
Millions of North Koreans are still dependent on food aid, according to the United Nations. In March, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Relief Web) reported that more than a fourth of all North Korean children are stunted from chronic malnutrition, and that two-thirds of the country’s 24 million people struggle to find food from day to day.
Those are not the conditions for a strong country or a strong military. North Korea is a rotten state filled with concentration and forced labor camps, a hungry population and a weak military led by a madman. The only reason it matters at all is because that madman has nuclear weapons. The only reason Kim is still in power is because they have historically been guarded by their big brother, China.
The regime of Kim Jung Un is much more like Pol Pot with nukes than a real viable threat against the United States, for now. If President Trump is able to bring China around and end their support for this murderous and dangerous regime, the Kim reign of terror can be over and peace and unity finally brought to the Korean peninsula.