North Korea capable of inflicting damage, analysts say
WASHINGTON — North Korea's large but poorly trained and equipped military could cause significant damage in the early stages of an attack on its southern neighbor, military analysts say, but any attack would ultimately be repulsed by superior U.S. and South Korean forces.
It's not clear how serious North Korea is on following through with its threats, but it has increased its bellicose rhetoric recently, renewing worries that its unpredictable leader, Kim Jong Un, could take actions that might trigger a wider conflict.
The North Korean leader said his rockets were ready “to settle accounts with the U.S.”
The United States has responded to the heated rhetoric by announcing that it flew two B-2 bombers on a training mission over South Korea. It was part of an annual joint training operation that continues until the end of April.
Analysts say the rhetoric is particularly worrisome when coupled with recent provocative actions taken by the North.
In 2010, the North Koreans sank a South Korean warship, killing 46, and initiated an artillery barrage on an island that killed two of its civilians and two South Korean marines.
“It's the rhetoric plus the provocations that are increasing the level of tensions,” said Steven Kim, an analyst at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies based in Honolulu.
To an extent, the threats are par for the course, said Richard Bush, senior fellow and director of the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution. North Korean leaders portray the training exercise as a prelude to invasion, Bush said.
They make provocative statements, occasionally backed up by attacks, and claim to have repelled the West, he said. Bush rated as low the chances of all-out war.
“A lot of it is show for the domestic audience,” Bush said. “The North Korean leadership is cynical. They know these are exercises. It's useful domestically. They get their own people spun up. In worrying about war, maybe that distracts from how hungry they are.”
Analysts say North Korea's aging military would not be able to prevail in an attack.
“This is a military that if you ran them against the Iraqi military in 1991, North Korea would lose,” said Jennifer Lind, a professor at Dartmouth College.
But North Korean forces are arrayed along the demilitarized zone with 10,000 artillery pieces capable of reaching Seoul, said Bruce Klingner, a former CIA analyst now at the Heritage Foundation.
That proximity would allow them to cause a significant number of casualties and damage in the initial stages of an attack.
The North Koreans have about 1.1 million troops in their armed forces. Three-quarters of them are staged within 60 miles of the DMZ, Klingner said.
They have long-range missiles capable of reaching targets in Japan and U.S. bases in Guam, Okinawa and the Japanese mainland.
A conventional attack from the North likely would begin with an artillery barrage, which could include chemical weapons. North Korea has 5,000 tons of chemical warheads, Klingner said.
“They would try to overwhelm U.S. and Korean forces with volume,” he said.
The artillery barrage probably would be followed by a blitzkrieg of tanks. Mechanized forces and infantry also could pour across the border. The North's special forces could infiltrate before an assault.
Any initial assault would face about 28,500 U.S. troops and about 600,000 troops in the South Korean armed forces.
“In the war game simulations eventually we prevail, but it's World War I (levels of) casualties,” Klingner said.