No. North Korea will not strike South Korea first under rational circumstances because the North Korean military has fatal weak points, even when compared to the South Korean military.
The North Korean military force has a clear superiority in numbers against the South Korean military. According to the Defense Report of National Intelligence Service of South Korea, North Korea can theoretically raise an army of 8.87 million, including reserve forces, while South Korea can only raise an army of 3.67 million. North Korea also possesses more military equipment, like tanks and artillery.
With no military knowledge, people may assume that North Korea is an imminent threat to both South Korea and the United States. However, many fatal disadvantages of the North Korean military clearly prove that North Korea desperately wants to avoid the total war against South Korea and the United States.
Most importantly, North Korea is suffering from an extreme scarcity of resources, including food and fuel. With desertified land and primitive farming technology prevalent in most areas, many North Korean military personnel are forced to farm instead of train for battles. In most times, even these methods are not enough to feed all personnel, so the majority of them suffer from malnutrition. Most of North Korea’s fuel is supplied by China, and its energy self-sufficiency is slim to nonexistent. With the limitations of North Korea’s economic situation, there simply are not enough resources to maintain a standing army of any practical size.
Even the geography of the Korean Peninsula is not in North Korea’s favor. Since the establishment of the North Korean Navy, two separate commands were formed because it was impossible to exchange forces between the Yellow Sea and the East Sea. However, in the case of South Korea, naval forces can freely move from one sea to another through the South Sea. On land, the vast majority of North Korean terrain is covered by mountains, making air-base construction difficult. As a result of this, there are few North Korean air bases. It would be trivial for the U.S. or South Korea to put the entire North Korean air force out of commission.
Lastly, the South Korean military is of a much higher quality than the North Korean one. During the Korean War, the only reason that North Korea was able to push as far south as Pusan was the element of surprise and some Soviet tanks. North Korea still uses those same tanks, which cannot even scratch modern third-generation tanks. Although North Korea has 200 third-generation tanks called “Pok-Poong” (Thunder Storm), which are merely a cheap knockoff of Russian third-generation tanks, South Korea has1,800 third-generation tanks. Furthermore, South Korea recently finished development of a fourth-generation tank called “Heuk-Pyo” (Black Panther), which can annihilate a North Korean armored platoon in a matter of minutes. On the ocean, the South Korean Navy owns three Aegis-equipped destroyers. One Aegis ship can locate over 200 enemy ships and strike 24 enemy ships at the same time. To make a boxing analogy, North Korea’s navy is a couple of toddlers while South Korea’s is an angry Joe Frazier. Lastly, North Korea’s 40 MiG-29s may be a threat, but with their poor maintenance and inexperienced pilots, I seriously doubt that they can match against any modern jet fighter. Any North Korean jets lesser than a MiG-29 are really just target practice.
With the support of the mighty United States Pacific Fleet, which could obliterate all of North Korea in days, North Korean military forces are simply no match against the joint forces of the United States and South Korea. But why does North Korea keep provoking hostility and speaking of unceasing war? I believe the answer lies in the internal situation in North Korea. The only reason that the North Korean people silently allowed iron fisted-rule of the Kim family is the belief that the government will protect them from the imperialist forces of the United States. If the Korean War or perceived “hostile acts” cease to exist, there are no reasons to follow the unjust rule of Kim Jong Un. This is why the propaganda ministry keeps the North Korean people on edge.
However, North Korea’s recent successful nuclear tests suggest that the DPRK may be an actual threat. Fortunately, this development is only the early part of the weaponizing of nuclear power. With midrange missile technology, the only possible targets for North Korea are South Korea and Japan. However, if we let North Korea develop long-range ballistic missiles and minimize nuclear warheads, North Korea will ultimately become uncontrollable. In a worst-case scenario, if North Korea sells a minimized nuclear warhead to an extreme terrorist group, no place in the world could be made safe from a nuclear apocalypse. It could even happen right here in Philadelphia.
I doubt that North Korea will actively launch nuclear missiles pre-emptively because the primary role of these weapons is to protect Kim’s regime from outside threats, unless the situation in North Korea becomes “irrational,” in which case even the assumption that North Korea will only use them to protect its government will be a null theory.
Therefore, the fate of the world relies on decisive actions by the United States and South Korea, either to let North Korea own “the grip of the sword” or to strike before the North can pose any more threats to world peace.
Alex Cho is a freshman political science major at Drexel University. He can be contacted at [email protected]