War with North Korea

WARFARE EVOLUTION BLOG: Previously we've looked at what wars with Russia and China might look like. Now, let’s look at a war with North Korea.

China has supported North Korea for many decades, to keep it as a buffer zone between them, and the U.S. and South Korean troops on their southern border. Russia was supporting North Korea before the collapse of the Soviet Union, to keep the U.S. off balance in the region.

North Korea’s population is 25 million people, led by Kim Jong Un, but that number is suspect since their civilians routinely starve and freeze to death in the winters. Life expectancy is about 66 for males, 73 for females, and 70 overall, if they get enough food and fuel to survive. Their population growth is 0.5 percent recently, but their total population has been declining since the 1970s.

As a country, North Korea has a land area of about 46,500 square miles, the size of the state of Pennsylvania. The border to the north with China is 880 miles long, the border with Russia to the east is about 11 miles, and 148 miles with South Korea. They have 1,550 miles of coastline, most of it on their east coast on the Sea of Japan, with the remainder on the Yellow Sea to the west. This is one of their naval vulnerabilities: an attack on their western naval fleet could not be protected by their eastern fleet, since the those ships must sail south and around the peninsula and then turn north into the Yellow Sea. North Korea has 17 naval ports, most of them on the eastern side. Some ports ice-over in winter, hampering their brown-water .

Gross domestic product () numbers for North Korea are dated and all over the map, between $17 billion and $30 billion. So, let’s go with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) fact book estimate of $30 billion, about the size of the GDP of Vermont. They make their money by exporting coal and iron ore to China, and they use that money to import food, fuel, and pay for their programs. North Korea does not have the ability to feed their people. Their soldiers get fed first, before the civilian population, and they seldom have meat. Their diet is mostly rice, grains, and vegetables. The North Korean soldiers and residents regularly cross the border with China, over the Tumen river, to steal food and money. North Korea does not have an economy to fight a war, at least not for very long.

To read more Evolution of Warfare blogs by Ray Alderman, click here.

The North Korean military has 950,000 active duty personnel with 4.5 million in reserve. They are underfed, undertrained, and ill-equipped. About 60,000 sailors serve in their navy, with 110,000 in their , and the rest in the army. They have mandatory conscription, with soldiers serving as many as ten years on active duty. They also conscript women for three to five years of service.

Like the GDP numbers, military spending estimates are scattered. The most recent data suggests that they spend 25 percent of their GDP on their military, or about $7 billion per year, while their people starve in the cold.

The North Korean navy consists of about 750 naval vessels, the great majority of them being shallow-water patrol boats. They have 70 submarines, ranging from full size to midget versions. Hold on folks, make that 69: in early March, one of their subs submerged on an exercise in the Sea of Japan, and never surfaced. As this loss shows, those boats are old rusty technically-antiquated platforms ranging from German World War II (WWII) U-boats designs to aging Russian and Chinese models. They are all noisy diesel subs that must surface often for air and battery recharging. North Korea seldom operates their subs far from shore, and they hide in the many coves and inlets along their coastline when they need to surface. They have no , , boats, or battleships.

The North Korean air force consists of 1,300 aircraft. About 800 of those are fighter planes, mostly cold war Mig-29s. The flight-hours of their is very low. I remember reading a report some years ago: radar surveillance noticed that the North Korean air force training missions only lasted about 30-40 minutes, from take-off to landing. U.S. intelligence sources concluded that North Korea had a shortage of jet fuel, so training missions were brief. Other intelligence sources contended that the North Korean generals allowed only 30-40 minutes of fuel on the aircraft to limit their range, to keep their pilots from flying over the border with China, Russia, or South Korea, to defect. There is truth in both conclusions. Between 1950 and 1983, five North Korean pilots flew their planes out of the country and defected.

With their aging arsenal, and the United Nations (UN) weapons embargo in place, North Korea has a hard time obtaining replacement parts for their weapons, planes, and ships. Back in 2013, the North Korean cargo ship Chong Chon Gang was seized at the Panama Canal, suspected of carrying banned cargo, after picking up a load of raw sugar in Havana. While unstacking the bags of sugar, authorities found two complete Mig-21 Russian fighter planes and 15 aircraft replacement engines in the hold, along with 240 tons of Cuban-made weapons and ammunition.

The North Korean Army has more than 8,000 artillery pieces, 4,200 tanks, 2,200 armored vehicles, and 5,500 rocket launchers, according to the latest Pentagon report. About 60 percent of this arsenal is dug-in near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), only 35 miles north of Seoul, South Korea. Battle estimates say that North Korea could destroy Seoul in two hours, raining ordinance on the city of 25 million people. But again, all this firepower is old, rusted, and antiquated, so we don’t know how reliably it would function in an all-out fight. Their tanks consist of the Russian T-55 and T-62 designs, and Chinese Type-59’s, all WWII and cold war vintage platforms.

Finally, North Korea has somewhere between eight and 20 nuclear weapons, with estimated yields between six and 40 kilotons of TNT (the Hiroshima bomb had a yield of 15 kilotons). In January 2016, North Korea claimed they tested their new hydrogen bomb, but the observed seismic and interferometry data suggested the yield of the explosion at 6 to 10 kilotons, not the hundreds or thousands of kilotons generally associated with thermonuclear (hydrogen-fusion) explosions. Furthermore, U.S. intelligence planes analyzed the air off North Korea with “sniffers”, looking for traces of xenon gas. Xenon is a byproduct of hydrogen-fusion explosions, and they found nothing.

In February, North Korea launched an “earth observation” into space atop their latest Unha intercontinental ballistic missile (). This missile has a range of about 5,600 miles, which could reach the U.S. West Coast, Alaska, and Australia. The satellite did enter orbit, but started tumbling and never emitted a signal. In the past, U.S. and South Korean naval forces would recover the booster stage of any fired North Korean missile from the sea for analysis. This time, the North Koreans equipped the booster with a delayed explosive charge, and it exploded into 270 pieces after separation. Those pieces were recovered and analyzed, and showed very shoddy uneven welds and primitive machining on the metal parts. The recovered were made from commercial chips and components from old cell phones, VCR players, and “Chatty Kathy” dolls wired together with speaker wire. Well, not quite that bad, but the electronics were made from commodity components from common consumer products.

In March, North Korea announced that they had miniaturized the new hydrogen warhead they exploded in February, to fit on top of the Unha missile, the same missile design they used to launch the tumbling satellite. Intelligence sources say that present North Korean warheads weigh about 2,100 pounds, and are the size of a small car. A miniaturized hydrogen warhead would weigh 1,100 pounds or less, and be about 35 inches in diameter to fit on a long range missile.

So, what the North Koreans have proven is that they can launch a box of rocks into orbit with a long range missile and detonate a low-yield fission bomb underground. The collected electronic debris says they don’t have the guidance or targeting technology to deliver a nuclear weapon accurately on a target.

As you contemplate North Korea’s claims of accurate long-range missiles and miniaturized hydrogen warheads, remember just a few previous events recounted on the internet:

-In February 1994, Kim Jong il (Kim Jong Un’s father) visited the new 40-lane peoples bowling alley in Pyongyang. He bowled a perfect 300 game, having never touched a bowling ball in his life.
<https://newrepublic.com/article/116303/great-moments-north-korean-sports-beyond-dennis-rodman>

-In October 1994, Kim Jong il visited the new 7700 yard, 18-hole peoples golf course. He proceeded to sink eleven holes-in-one and shoot a 38 under-par score of 34, according to the news reports, having never touched a golf club in his life. See link above.

-And finally, in 2014, North Korea sent one of their men to the sun. The round trip took only 18 hours, and he collected sunspot samples while he was walking around on the solar surface. <https://www.naij.com/57422.html>

North Korea is barely a third-generation warfare (3GW) enemy. They have a respectable level of massed manpower, but their firepower is questionable. They could make a mess of Seoul in a few hours, but a real war with the U.S. would look similar to what America’s fifth-generation warfare (5GW) weapons did to Saddam Hussein’s army in Iraq in 2003, except for one single difference: North Korea has some rudimentary nuclear weapons, and they would probably use them.

Next time we’ll take a look at a war with Iran.