By Jim Garamone
WASHINGTON, Oct. 26, 2006 – Lost amid all the discussion over North Korea's Oct. 9 nuclear test is an issue that Defense Department officials who specialize in that region have studied for decades and continue to study now: the possibility that, as it has before, North Korea could launch a conventional "bolt from the blue" attack on South Korea. At 4 a.m. June 25, 1950, a tremendous artillery barrage disturbed the pre-dawn air over the 38th Parallel dividing North and South Korea.
Within minutes, 135,000 North Korean soldiers, supported by hundreds of tanks and artillery pieces, poured over the line, quickly killing or knocking aside poorly equipped and poorly trained South Korean forces.
In three days, the North Koreans took the South Korean capital of Seoul. They pushed through the city and attacked further down the peninsula. On June 30, American troops joined the fight. They did not do well. The North Korean army had better equipment, and American soldiers fought with leftover weapons from World War II.
The South Korean and American troops were soon fighting with their backs against the sea at the Pusan Perimeter in the southernmost section of South Korea.
While U.S. forces prevailed, the Korean War lasted three years, claimed more than 35,000 U.S. lives and visited untold suffering and misery on all of Korea. The war ended where it began: with opposing sides facing each other over the 38th Parallel.
North Korean leader Kim Il Sung, father of the current dictator Kim Jong Il, built the North Korean military. Today, it is still the fourth-largest military in the world, with 1.21 million soldiers, according to State Department figures. In a country where starving peasants have stripped bark from trees to eat, the military absorbs the lion's share of resources, receiving more than a quarter of the gross domestic product.
Combined Forces Command Korea officials said the North Korean army has more than 8,000 artillery systems including tube-launched and long-range rocket launchers. Most are camouflaged in caverns near the demilitarized zone. "Artillery is still the big threat," Pentagon spokesman Air Force Maj. Dave Smith said. "The guns can range Seoul."
And the target is much bigger than it was in 1950. The South Korean population is now more than twice that of the North, nearing 50 million people. South Korea has lifted itself from the destruction of the war and now is the 10th largest economic power on Earth. The capital of Seoul -- only 30 miles from the DMZ -- has grown north toward North Korea and has an estimated 20 million people in the megalopolis.
Officials estimate that if the North were to open artillery fire on Seoul, about 250,000 people would die. Officials have not estimated, at least publicly, what a nuclear blast would do to the South Korean capital.
North Korea has a 120,000-man special operations force. The force is capable of attacking targets anywhere on the peninsula, U.S. Forces Korea officials said.
Equipment and sustainment are the main problems with the North Korean army. Even with receiving an inordinate share of the country's economy, the North Korean army is still cash-starved, driving antiquated equipment and unable to supply itself, Smith said. "They might be able to launch an attack, but they couldn't sustain it," Smith said.
In 1950, North Korea received equipment and logistics from the Soviet Union and China. The regime cannot count on that support now. Soviet pilots manned many of the MiG-17 fighters that defended North Korea in 1950. Today, North Korean pilots fly 1960s-era MiG-21s, MiG-23s and a small number of technologically advanced MiG-29s, but financial woes limit their flying hours.
But now the North has tested a nuclear device. DoD officials said it is too early to tell if North Korea can build a device small enough to place aboard a missile. But even without that, DoD officials say they believe North Korea has "weaponized" Scud missiles -- the North Koreans call them Nodong missiles -- and can hit targets on the peninsula, Japan, China and Russia. The country is testing the Taepodong 2 missile, an intercontinental ballistic missile that could hit the West Coast of the United States.
U.S. and South Korean officials say the North has chemical and biological agents. Some believe North Korea would begin any bolt-from-the-blue attack today with a liberal use of the nerve agent sarin, mustard gas and phosgene. Their special operations forces may try to plant biological agents in the south as a prelude to an attack, officials speculate. American servicemembers assigned to the Republic of Korea receive anthrax vaccinations.
South Korea's military has 680,000 servicemembers toting state-of-the-art equipment. North Korea fields Soviet-era T-54 and T-55 tanks, some now 50 years old. These are no match for M-1A2 Abrams tanks that the South Koreans deploy, but the North does field almost 4,000 of them.
South Korea clearly outclasses the North in all aspect of the military arts with the exception of sheer numbers. The South Korean air force flies the latest all-weather, day/night aircraft. They are linked via airborne warning and control aircraft. Pilots drop smart bombs and train constantly.
The communications net in the country may be the best in the world, U.S. Forces Korea officials said. There is full compatibility through the armed forces, and the South Korean military is able to seamlessly coordinate with allies.
And the Republic of Korea has one great advantage over the North: allies. The United States is a treaty ally of the Republic of Korea. American servicemembers have been based in the country since the Korean War. About 28,000 U.S. servicemembers are in South Korea today.
While that number is going down -- it is planned to be roughly 25,000 by the end of 2008 -- it should not be seen as a lack of will, but rather as a reflection of modern capabilities, U.S. and South Korean officials say. The capabilities the United States bring to the fight more than make up for any reduction in the size of the force, DoD officials said. Plus, the United States can quickly reinforce troops on the peninsula in the event of any hostilities.
By treaty, the United States regards any attack on the Republic of Korea as an attack on itself. The U.S. nuclear capability shields South Korea. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld reiterated this point during the U.S.-ROK Security Consultative Meeting at the Pentagon Oct. 20. "The United States reaffirms its firm commitment to the Republic of Korea, including continuation of the extended deterrence offered by the U.S. nuclear umbrella consistent with the Mutual Defense Treaty," Rumsfeld said during a news conference after the meeting.
North Korea has not raised or lowered the readiness status of its armed forces since the nuclear test Oct. 9, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during an Oct. 24 news conference.
Pace said it is tough to come to terms with the nature of the threat North Korea poses. "A threat consists of two things: one, capacity, and the other, intent," he said. "I can certainly, as we all could, go to the books and tell you how many soldiers, how many ships, how many planes, within a decent margin of error, that the North Koreans have, and you can determine how much power they can put on the battlefield.
"What is not knowable is the intent of the leadership in North Korea to use or not use that power at any given time," he continued. "And applying Western logic to the leadership in Korea is not something that I would personally want to bet my future on."
Pace said that his best military advice to anyone who might want to challenge the U.S, military is, "Don't."
"We have just over 200,000 U.S. military in the Gulf region right now," he said. "We have 2.4 million Americans -- active, Guard and reserve -- right now defending 300 million of our fellow citizens. My Marine math tells me that leaves us more than 2 million U.S. servicemembers who are not currently involved in the Gulf war who stand ready to do whatever our nation needs them to do. And that should not be lost on any potential enemies."