Gauging a potential opponent’s military capability is a very inexact business. A simple counting of boots in the barracks can be extremely misleading. History is replete with instances of miscalculation and of cases where god was not on the side of the big battalions. Young Alexander of Macedon headed off east in 344 BCE and defeated the much larger Persian Empire, being rewarded with title Alexander the Great, and ultimate accolade of a retrospective virgin birth. Did he know the odds, and would it have made any difference?
Both Hitler and before him Napoleon headed off to Moscow with high hopes, and disastrous results. Napoleon himself put a finger on one of the key factors. What I want in general, he famously said, is that he is lucky. To which might be added the vagaries of fate, such as disease and weather. Moscow’s fierce winter might have been anticipated but the Mongols might reasonably have been taken unawares by the typhoons – the kamikaze or divine wind – that destroyed their invasion fleet off the coast of Japan in the 13th century. With the precedent of Napoleon why did Hitler make the same mistake?
Wars with third parties can provide a guide, albeit sometimes misleading. The Russian- Israeli journalist Israel Shamir makes the interesting observation apropos of the downing on 24 November of a Russian bomber by Turkey:
The U.S. approved of this (Turkish) action for an additional reason. They wanted to test Russian resolve and its military preparedness. It is impossible to assess correctly an enemy’s strength except in battle. This is especially true regarding Russia. There were various reports alleging the military weakness of Russia. We remember that in 1930s, Imperial Japan had made a few armed incursions into Soviet Russia. These incursions were beaten off quite convincingly, and Japan preferred to sign a non-aggression treaty with the USSR. In the west, the Soviets weren’t successful in their Finland war, and Hitler concluded Russia would be easy prey. In 2008, Georgia tried to attack Russian forces. The then-Georgian president Mr. Saakashvili boasted his army would reach Moscow without meeting strong resistance. His forces were thrashed in a few days. Turkey is much stronger than Georgia, and a limited Russian-Turkish war would provide a much better assessment of Russian military might.
The Russians are well aware of this reason, and this is why they used their cruise missiles and strategic long range bombers in Syria. They wanted to impress the US generals so they wouldn’t provoke a battle.
Sun Zi’s much-quoted aphorism – “know thyself, know thy enemy; a hundred battles, a hundred victories” has been around for over 2,000 years, but it doesn’t get any easier to put into practice. Military planners try, of course and the results can be disturbing. A series of scenarios carried out by the Pentagon since 2014 with the Americans battling the Russians in the Baltic came out with the Russians winning each time. Another scenario this September outlined by retired Army Colonel Douglas Macgregor again had the Russians winning. All a bit galling given that the U.S. military budget is 10 times that of the Russian. The U.S. military attempts the same sort of assessment about others, especially the Chinese of course, and North Korea.
The problem of assessment is compounded by the question of experience. The United States is constantly at war and whilst this provides advantages it means that its strengths and weaknesses are fairly visible. Not so with the potential adversaries. Russia was last in a serious war in 1945, North Korea in 1953 and China in 1979 (the border war with Vietnam). This means, as one writer said of China’s People’s Liberation Army – “There is still a big question mark over the PLA’s true war-fighting capabilities” – and this holds true of the others. One can see that setting the Turks to test the Russians might have its attractions.
However, recognizing the inherent uncertainties does not mean that we cannot make a meaningful assessment of North Korea’s relative military capability.
I was somewhat surprised a couple of months back when doing an interview with Russia Today on the situation on the Korean Peninsula to see a table on military strength in the anchor’s presentation:
The table both in terms of the figures themselves, and what was left out, was grossly misleading but it does represent the standard propaganda line so it is worth discussing, albeit briefly.
The figures for North Korea are, of course, estimates and whilst all official statistics need to be treated with suspicion, estimates can take us, innocently or deliberately, into fantasyland. Firstly that army 1 million strong. The Hankyoreh calculated in 2010 on the basis of the census of 2008 that there were about 700,000 troops in the Korean People Army. The census had been carried out in collaboration with the United Nations Population Fund and so can be considered authoritative. The debate recently flared up again and one expert lowered the figure to 500,000. Moreover, if we take into account reservists then even inflated estimates tell a different story.
The North, according to these estimates from the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), the standard source on the subject, has a standing army of 1.2 million, larger than the South’s 0.7 million. But the South’s reserves, at 4.5 million, dwarf those of the North (0.6 million) and the end result is that the total military manpower of the South is 5.2 million, 2.6 times than of the North. Feeding in population data we see that 7.9 percent of the North’s population is “in the army” compared with 10.5 percent in the South. We shouldn’t take these figures too literally. How many reservists would reach the front line on time? On the other hand, we know that the KPA spends a lot of time tending farms, running factories, building ski resorts and airport terminals; how much time is left for traditional soldiering?
More importantly we know that number of troops doesn’t mean very much anymore. In recent years the United States has destroyed countries such as Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya whose armies were quite substantial and even larger, in numerical terms, than the American expeditionary force with trivial casualties. The major reason was overwhelming technological superiority. In some ways it’s an old lesson; if your arrows carry further than those of the enemy you have the upper hand. Whether it’s Maxim guns mowing down African warriors, or something more modern, superior technology usually wins the day. The Chosun Ilbo complained a few years back about U.S. plans to sell F-22s to Japan, but not to ROK:
The F-22 Raptor is a fighter jet capable of incapacitating entire air forces of other countries. It has radar-evading stealth technology and its range of surveillance is vastly wider than that of other fighter jets. It boasts radically improved maneuverability. Its effectiveness in aerial combat is guaranteed by the fact that it can see others, while being invisible to others. In mock battles with F-15, F-16 and F-18 fighter jets, the F-22 won 144 dogfights and lost none. The South Korean Air Force composed mainly of F-15 and F-16 fighters, would be powerless in front of the Japanese Air Self Defense Force equipped with F-22s.
The same applies to North Korea. All those figures of tanks, ships, and planes are fairly meaningless if there is a critical technological gap between the opposing weapon systems. Just how big is the gap between North and South? It is difficult to be absolutely sure and it will vary from sector to sector. The North did, after all, put a satellite into space before the South, and with its own rockets rather than imported ones. But the ability to import is a key advantage the South has. Few countries can make advanced weapons – even the Chinese struggle to build engines for fighters. Arms imports therefore provide a robust measure of the military technology of the two Koreas. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute South Korea, over the last 20 years spent 43 times as much as the North on arms imports, $25 billion in 1990 dollars against $0.6 billion. In 2014 South Korea was the world’s largest importer of arms.
A comparison of military budgets tells a similar story. Estimates vary, but in 2013 the director of the South’s Defense Intelligence Agency was quoted as saying that despite their military budget being some 33 times that of the North “If South Korea fights alone, North Korea has the superior fighting strength, so South Korea would lose.” In order to win, he claimed, they needed the United States
And that brings us to the elephant in the room, and a subsequent article.
Gauging a potential opponent’s military capability is a very inexact business. A simple counting of boots in the barracks can be extremely misleading. History is replete with instances of miscalculation and of cases where god was not on the side of the big battalions. Young Alexander of Macedon headed off east in 344 BCE and defeated the much larger Persian Empire, being rewarded with title
Tim Beal did a MA (Hons) in Modern Chinese Studies at Edinburgh University, followed by a PhD there on Chinese foreign trade. He moved to New Zealand in 1987 teaching at Victoria University of Wellington until his retirement in 2009. He has written extensively on International and Asian affairs, including two books relating to Korea: ‘North Korea: The Struggle against American Power’ (London: Pluto, 2005) and ‘Crisis in Korea: America, China, and the Risk of War’ (London: Pluto, 2011). He has been visiting both Koreas since the 1990s and maintains a geopolitical website focused on the peninsula at http://www.timbeal.net.nz/geopolitics/