As tensions between the United States and North Korea continue to increase, it’s important to temper patriotic faith in our nation’s military with a fair and reasonable assessment of a potential opponent.  In the social media sphere, it isn’t uncommon to find posts ripe with capital lettered shouting and sweeping generalizations about what the American military machine could do to Kim Jong un’s reclusive nation, and while that type of support for our war fighters isn’t a bad thing, it can sometimes skew our perception of war away from brutal reality, and toward meme-like propaganda.

It’s important to have confidence, but it is equally important that we don’t underestimate the enemy. We must approach the potential for conflict with a firm understanding that, in war, people die, and beyond the victory America and its allies would secure, problems would remain.  These hard truths are often lost to the more simplistic of perspectives that would boil down complex situations like that on the Korean peninsula to slogans like, “Kim’s gotta go.”  Remember, once he’s gone, a nation full of issues, a widely indoctrinated populous, and a sociopolitical quagmire between Eastern and Western ideologies would remain.

There are always reasons to avoid war, which is why developed nations in the modern world rely heavily on diplomacy and things like economic sanctions to initiate change in rogue nations like North Korea, but like stepping on the toe of the drunk guy at your local bar, sometimes no amount of talking can get you out of a scrap – and when that time comes, it won’t matter how good your intentions were coming into the fight, now it’s got to be all about winning.

We’ve already analyzed the broad strokes of what war with North Korea would look like, so in order to broaden our collective understanding of the North Korean military threat, lets focus now on just the hard numbers.  North Korea’s self-induced seclusion makes it difficult to assess exactly what their overall military capabilities truly are, but analysts from the U.S. Department of Defense, the South Korean Ministry of National Defense, and the Council on Foreign Relations have devoted sizable manpower and resources to trying to establish the most accurate depiction of North Korea’s military that they could muster.

First and foremost, in terms of threats, are North Korea’s nuclear weapons, which have already received a fair amount of coverage.  Despite the most recent atomic test seeming to indicate North Korea’s possession of thermonuclear (hydrogen bomb) technology, it stands to reason that the majority of their warheads remain a lower yield atomic design.  Many North Korean missiles would be intercepted, but in a nuclear war scenario, some would not.  Mutually assured destruction still in play, it seems unlikely that Kim would opt to launch his nukes, even in the face of invasion.  Of course, that’s unlikely, but not impossible.  It is more likely that North Korea would utilize its massive biological and chemical weapons stores before moving to the nuclear option.

With conventional warfare in mind then, what’s the tale of the tape?

Troop count

Despite its small size and weak economy, North Korea boasts the 4th largest standing military in the world, with more than 1.1 million people serving in their active armed forces, and millions more in reserve.  This is no surprise, as North Korea’s constitution reads: “National defense is the supreme duty and honor of citizens,” and mandates service for all able-bodied North Koreans.


North Korean artillery, placed throughout its mountainous southern region are too well hidden and too plentiful to count, and would pose a serious problem for South Korean population centers like Seoul, as well as an American allied invasion force moving across the DMZ.  Many of these artillery pieces are nothing more than old-fashioned tubes that have been concealed and fortified for decades, making them extremely difficult to eliminate, even with the massive air superiority an American led coalition would field.

Air assets

North Korea is believed to possess more than 1,300 military airplanes, as well as 300 helicopters.  This would mean North Korean air assets would likely outnumber American fighters and bombers in the region, but quality would undoubtedly upset quantity, as American jets made quick work of their outdated competition, which are primarily Mig 29s.

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Naval assets

In the water however, North Korea’s estimated 430 combatant vessels, 250 amphibious vessels, and 70 submarines would prove dangerous if employed properly.  None of North Korea’s ships could stand a chance at open warfare with America’s Navy on the high seas, but their small size and littoral strategy could prove troublesome to an American invasion force, while firing anti-ship missiles that may prove difficult to defend against.  Submarine launched missiles would be a risk, but North Korean special operations troops deploying from their midget style submarines could prove a larger one, as they infiltrate South Korean populations and conduct sabotage operations.

Armored assets and missile launchers

A war on North Korean soil would mean facing off against perhaps the most sizable part of the North Korean military machine: its 4,300 tanks, 2,500 armored vehicles, and 5,500 multiple-rocket launchers, as well as an estimated 1,000 ballistic missiles of varying ranges.  There’s no way around it, old and outdated as they may be, that’s a lot of hardware to engage, even when coupling air strikes with ground forces.  However, it is important to note that North Korea’s lack of oil reserves could remove much of this equipment from the equation, provided oil supplies actually stopped coming in from nations like Russia.

North Korea certainly possesses an old and outdated military, but it would be a mistake to associate that observation with a quick and easy victory.  Home field advantage would certainly come into play in a ground war on North Korean soil, and without a solid embargo on fuel and other supplies, fighting within North Korea could rage on for far longer than your average American back home may have the stomach for, despite what recent polls may suggest.

Victory, of course, would be forthcoming, but to the victor would not go the spoils of war, but rather the costs of a massive, nation-scale reorganization and rebuilding process that would promise to take decades, working with a population that would be ripe for insurgency.

Some prize indeed.


Images courtesy of North Korean state owned KCNA