How serious is the military threat from North Korea?

Kim Jong Un knows his military can't stand up to the ROK-US alliance. Photo: Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY, April 1, 2013 — Bluster is North Korea’s most effective weapon these days.

The People’s Republic of Korea asserted Saturday that a state of war existed between them and The Republic of Korea, its southern neighbor. The latest salvo is nothing short of a declaration of war against the U.S.  

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The United States has been a strong defensive ally with the ROK since 1950, when the North launched a surprise attack against the South. The young North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, who has been the titular head of state for less than a year, is either a genius or incredibly stupid.

His bravado seems sufficient to cause war by itself.

Tension has escalated in recent months. South Korean military leaders and US forces are in the middle of Exercise Foal Eagle, an elaborate series of joint and combined tactical exercises.

Key Resolve, the command and control portion of the exercise, concluded last month.

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The US maintains that the exercises are defensive in nature. But defense can quickly turn to offense; Key Resolve simulated a northern attack on the south.

Following an artillery barrage from the communist Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, ROK forces and their US allies push back. Hard.

Under the scenario, Kim’s regime is dismantled within months and the biggest challenge is a humanitarian one.

So what if we took Kim Jon Un at his word, and assumed that his military leaders are ready to strike the south? Naysayers would complain that the US would quickly get caught up in a fight that couldn’t be won.

But the facts suggest otherwise.

The ROK has one of the best trained and equipped armies. Some experts say it has the sixth largest in the world. Per capita, it is the second largest. It has an industrial capability that is the envy of all but a handful of countries, and builds much of its own armaments.

Hyundai, for example, supplies the ROK with its primary battle tank.

The South also has twice the population of the north. They are likely healthier, better educated, and more willing to defend what they have built.

For 60 years a strong alliance with the United States has given it a competitive advantage in tactics and arms. Its special forces, while not combat tested, have benefitted from the mentorship of US special forces that have gotten better through the last dozen years of warfare.

South Korea also benefits from an airtight mutual defense treaty with the US. Just last month, the Obama administration beefed up its assurances to help retaliate against the north in the event of tactical level attacks against the south.

The US has nearly 30,000 troops in the ROK, with more nearby in Japan, not to mention a surplus of ready forces inside the US. Its Pacific Fleet is larger than the North Korean and Chinese navies combined. And again, it is operationally tested.

If North Korea launched an attack, the international community would rush to defend South Korea’s sovereignty. In the race to build up national defenses, it is somewhat of a hindrance to be one of the most reclusive regimes in history. North Korea has few friends, even fewer who can do anything to help them in war.

Perhaps the regime would assume, or hope for, Chinese help, but China is a much different country than it was in 1950, when the Red Army came to the aid of the communist North Koreans. It is impossible to know, of course, what the PRC would do, but China has much more to lose by helping North Korea than it does by staying out of the conflict. China might just be content to rid itself of the ersatz ally, figuring it would be easier to deal with a consistent and rational unified ROK than the Kim government.

South Korean leaders plan on taking the initiative if hostilities ever break out, and move swiftly into the north with superior ground and air forces. With allied help and technological advantage, the ROK could make of the DPRK’s soviet-era military what the US did to Iraq’s in 1991 and 2003. Kim Jong Un probably doesn’t want to count on a devastating insurgency to keep him in power.

If Kim is, in fact, smart, he will keep his provocation at the level of bluster. 

You can learn more about the author at and on Facebook 

Rich is a teacher and a soldier. In addition to writing the “Rich Like Me” political column at the Washington Times Communities, he is the author of Nine Weeks: A Teacher’s Education in Army Basic TrainingTunnel Club; and Not Another Boring Textbook: A High School Students’ Guide to their Inner Conservative. 

This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Rich Stowell

Rich Stowell has written about politics and travel for the Washington Times Communities since 2011. He is a soldier in the Utah National Guard and a fellow at the Center for Communication and Community at the University of Utah. Rich is the author of "Nine Weeks: A Teacher's Education in Army Basic Training"and continues to blog about military issues at “My Public Affairs.”

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