A South Korean government think tank (Korea Institute for Defense Analyses) recently published a report that gave North Korea an edge in any future war. The analysis was based largely on numbers; North Korea has 1.1 million men under arms, versus 690,000 in South Korea. The report recognized the qualitative edge of the South Korean air force, but gave the overall edge to the north because of the larger army, and more ships in their navy. The report also emphasized the importance of American troops, and reinforcements, if there should ever be an invasion from the north.
Left out was the qualitative (better weapons and equipment) issues, as well as the better training in the south. But South Koreans dont like to include those elements, mainly out of habit. A North Korean invasion is a very real fear in the south. The north did it in 1950, quickly overran most of South Korea, and wrecked the place in the process. For over half a century, American troops have been seen by most South Koreans as their primary protection against another North Korean invasion. But after the Cold War ended, the situation changed radically. North Korea simultaneously lost its subsidies from Russia and, and decades of mismanagement (from central planning and excessive military spending) caught up with them and caused an economic collapse. Lacking money for new weapons, maintenance on existing equipment and training, the combat power of the North Korean armed forces went into decline. At the same time, the South Korean armed forces were increasing the quantity and quality of their weapons and, more importantly, improving the training of the troops. In the last decade, the balance of military power has shifted from north to south.
Believing in this change in the military situation was another matter, particularly in South Korea. After four decades of the very real threat of invasion, and depending on American military power to protect them, its been hard for South Koreans to accept the fact that they are now the dominant military power on the peninsula. Officially, and to most of the media, South Korea is still the underdog. Everyone wants to keep that perception, especially the South Korean military leadership. Admitting that the north was militarily weak would make it more difficult to get money out of the legislature for new weapons and more training. The training is particularly expensive, as it uses up large quantities of expensive fuel, ammunition and spare parts.
So South Korea goes along with the illusion, with all concerned feeling its for the best. North Korean propaganda has always stressed the danger of aggression from the south. The south was never strong enough to invade, and still isnt. But a North Korean invasion, even if it includes the use of chemical weapons, will now run into a superior South Korean army. Many North Korean generals have figured this out, and this has apparently had some impact on politics in the north. Up there, the desperate efforts to build nuclear weapons are proof that the north no longer believes that its conventional forces are capable of defeating the south. Theres still the United States to contend with. But with nuclear weapons, the north will once more have a weapon that South Korea and America will fear.