Paramilitary: The Two Koreas Learn Different Lessons


September 3, 2022: The Ukraine War has been studied by other nations for insights on how they might improve their own forces and war plans. This had an interesting impact in Korea where both North Korea and South Korea detected opportunities for useful changes.

North Korea has seen its million-strong military decline as capabilities diminished because of shortages of cash and food. North Korea has always been an economic disaster constantly adapting downward to shortages. For the last decade the emphasis has been on developing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles to overcome the diminishing capabilities of the conventional forces.

South Korea has a different problem created by an abundance of cash but a growing shortage of troops. This is the result of lower birthrates and growing reluctance by military age South Koreas to do any military service, including service in the reserves.

Both Koreas noted that in Ukraine the readiness and availability of reserve forces was a key factor. The Russians had no reserves to speak of and suffered for it.

South Korea had allowed its reserve forces to deteriorate while North Korea did the same with their active forces, especially the commando forces. The South Korean reserves were important because a key wartime task was to deal with any North Korean use of commandos trying to operate unopposed in the south. North Korea appeared to have made this less important by allowing their commando forces to diminish in capabilities. Because of Ukraine both Koreas are reconsidering their current strategies. The north sees an opportunity to upgrade some of their commando units so they can get into the south and do some real damage against a South Korea that has allowed its reserve forces, and their ant-commando capabilities, to wither.

North Korea saw another opportunity to get commandos into South Korea during peacetime and do much damage. The North Koreans were thinking of a larger scale version of the North Korea 1968 Blue House (South Korea, presidential palace) raid. North Korea sent a carefully selected and trained unit of 31 commandos across the border on foot to reach the Blue House and attack the inauguration ceremony. The 31 commandos managed to make good progress during their first 24 hours, but then they encountered two farmers out gathering wood and had to decide whether to kill them and hope that did not alert the South Koreans, or to quickly indoctrinate the two about the superiority of communism and get them to agree not to report the commando presence. The two South Koreans convincingly went along with this but when released went straight to the police, which triggered a rapid movement of thousands of soldiers and police to the vicinity of the Blue House. The 31 North Koreans realized this before they were detected and reverted to Plan B. Each commando had a South Korea combat uniform in their backpack and these were put on before the North Koreans continued towards the Blue House disguised as a “counter-terrorism” unit on patrol. Then they encountered an unexpected checkpoint near the Blue House. An attempt to talk their way past failed and so began a series of clashes that lasted a week as the North Koreans sought to get back to North Korea or die trying. All but two of them died and only one of those made it back to North Korea to report on the failed raid. Another North Korean was captured. The North Koreans killed 26 South Koreans and four Americans while wounding 66, which included some civilians.

In response to the 1968 attack South Korea upgraded and expanded its reserve forces. At the same time North Korea changed its tactics and used submarines to insert and pick up intel agents seeking specific information on South Korea military targets. South Korea was largely ignorant of how this worked until one of the North Korean subs ran aground in South Korea while bringing fifteen agents home. The grounded sub was soon discovered, with its eleven-man crew dead, apparently executed by the agents for causing the grounding. With an unknown (it was fifteen) North Korean agents on the loose in South Korea, 13,000 South Korea reservists were mobilized to work with police and active-duty troops to find the North Koreans. It took two months to find and kill 13 agents. One was captured and one made it back to North Korea. Twelve South Korea military and four civilians died. There were 27 wounded, including one reservist and one policeman. Another casualty was the reserve system. The North Koreans noted the poor performance of the South Koreans and kept detailed journals of all the weaknesses of the South Korean forces.

The North Korean observations were accurate. Only 34 percent of the reservists showed up the first day, mainly because most reservists did not know where they were supposed to report when called up. Once mobilized the reservists proved to be poorly trained and disciplined. These were incidents of friendly fire and drinking on duty.

In response to this poor performance South Korea decided to depend more on tech and active-duty troops for dealing with North Korea raiders. North Korea still has its espionage agents plus a larger force of commandos prepared to get through the DMZ (DeMilitarized Zone) in large numbers and terrorize the south. North Korea sees this as a viable strategy because most of their military is weakened by years of shortages. South Korea has modern weapons and air power and the ability to quickly destroy their North Korean adversaries. The commandos and agents are a different story and the North Koreans believe their specialists would do a lot of damage. The North Korea nuclear weapons delivered by ballistic missiles are still considered the decisive weapon. South Korea seeks to counter the North Korean nukes with their own ABM (Anti-Ballistic Missile) and ballistic missiles aimed at storage and launch sites for the North Korean nukes.

Meanwhile South Koreans, both in and out of the military, are concerned about the corrosive effect conscription is having on the military, especially the army. In the last two decades there have been a growing number of incidents of sloppiness and erratic behavior in the military. This is a serious matter because North Korea was always expected to use surprise and subterfuge to make up for the advantages South Korea has in terms of more modern equipment and enough money to allow the troops to practice a lot with all those new armored vehicles, aircraft and ships. Then it was noted that this year the Inmun Gun (North Korean army) spent a lot of their training time on practicing surprise attacks, ambushes and sneaking up on the enemy. The North Koreans cannot afford to keep their ancient armored vehicles well maintained, much less allow the troops to use them a lot for training. But most of the Inmun Gun are infantry and they have plenty of assault rifles, machine-guns, mortars, RPGs and mines. The infantry can train hard without lots of fuel and spare parts.

The North Koreans have frequently shown, usually via some of their soldiers quietly making their way through the DMZ and showing up at a South Korean outpost seeking to defect, that they can get across this well-guarded barrier. North Korean troops have also done this as part of their training for getting spies or other agents into South Korea. On paper South Korea troops are equipped and trained to prevent this, but often inattention and other forms of sloppiness and poor discipline negate those defenses and allow North Koreans to walk right in. While the air force tends to stay alert and effective, even the navy has had some serious lapses and embarrassments. All this makes more South Koreans inclined to support efforts to end conscription and go with an all-volunteer force.

Meanwhile the Inmun Gun has its own problems. While nearly every adult male serves at least five years in the military up there, the big problem is that years of economic problems and failed harvests have left the troops poorly equipped, often hungry and increasingly insubordinate. Despite all that, a lot of North Korean troops are believed to be reliable enough to carry out orders to invade South Korea and, given the bad attitudes of many South Korean troops, the Inmun Gun could end up doing a lot of damage. With about 800,000 troops, over 3,000 tanks, 3,000 other AFV, nearly 8,000 artillery pieces (including 2,000 rocket launchers), North Korea has the means to be dangerous, for a little while anyway. Fuel shortages, elderly equipment and lack of maintenance means that a lot of this gear would not stay operational for long. North Korea has two armored divisions, 12 motorized infantry and 23 non-motorized infantry divisions (for occupying the DMZ positions).

South Korea, like North Korea, still drafts (conscripts) most of its soldiers, and the young men involved are increasingly unhappy with this involuntary servitude. This is especially true in South Korea where civilian living standards are among the highest in the world. While many North Korean conscripts see their living standards improve a bit in the military, South Korean draftees are angry over the fact that they are paid practically nothing and most live in elderly and decrepit barracks. The actual pay in 2004 was about $81 a month. Conscripts in nearby Taiwan got four times as much, and conscripts in Germany (who only serve six months), got about eleven times more than their South Korean counterparts. The minimum wage in South Korea is about four dollars an hour. South Korean troops work about 200 hours a month during much of their 21 months of involuntary service. South Korean conscripts are well educated, and can do the math. Unfortunately, when politicians try to raise conscript pay to what Taiwanese draftees get, which would cost the taxpayers another $2.5 billion, the political support just isn't there. Currently South Korea conscripts get about $372 a month while the minimum wage is about seven dollars an hour.

Surveys indicate that most voters believe the troops should be paid more, and that over 40 percent of conscripts depend on money from home to help them get by. These are young guys, most of them right out of high school, and like their counterparts in other industrialized countries, have certain necessary expenses. A beer now and then, or some food treats are great for morale. The pittance they get each month from the army doesn't cover it. There is a growing morale problem because of this, especially now that the North Koreans have demonstrated a growing willingness, and ability, to kill young South Korean conscripts.

Meanwhile, the South Korea generals sought to reduce troop strength from 680,000 to 500,000 by the early 2020s. The reduction did not go that far, with active-duty strength going down to only 600,000 plus three million reserves. A falling birth rate is producing fewer young men to conscript, but the booming economy is producing more money, and technology, for more effective weapons and equipment that can replace soldiers. The current crop of conscripts have parents who were born after the Korean War (1950-53), and only the grandparents (a rapidly shrinking group) remember why the draft is still necessary. Most of today's voters want to get rid of the draft, but they don't want to pay for the more expensive volunteer force.

Draft dodging is on the increase, and even within the armed forces, there are fewer volunteers for more challenging jobs, like being a commando. Previously, only NCOs (sergeants) were recruited for army commando units. But that has not been enough of late, so the army is allowing lower ranking troops to volunteer. The marines have long recruited lower ranking troops for commando jobs, and been successful at it, so the army is following the marine example. But this loss of enthusiasm is disquieting to many South Koreans, especially the older ones who remember the last time the North Korean army came south.

What do the generals think of all this? Some of the generals want a smaller army so they can professionalize it, with a goal of having an all-volunteer force. Conscription is getting more unpopular, and the draftees are becoming less enthusiastic about their service. Another faction of the generals believe a larger army is needed to help deal with a collapse of the North Korean government. They expect a lot of unrest in the north if things fall apart. Other generals believe the reserves could be mobilized for this, and the active force should be cut so living conditions, and pay, of the remaining troops can be improved, along with their morale and effectiveness. Today's conscripts are not as tolerant of the shabby military housing, which was always a problem. Most of today's teenagers grew up in modern housing, and the culture shock of living in some of those ancient barracks is hard to take. An all-volunteer force would require new living quarters, but for a smaller force. Finally, all generals fear a reduction in army size because that will mean a lot less jobs for generals.

Politicians are responding to this by shrinking conscript service 25 percent, to 18 months, and assigning more conscripts to jobs in the police or social welfare organizations. Eventually South Korea would like to have an all-volunteer force. But that won't be affordable until the armed forces are down to only a few hundred thousand. That won't happen as long as North Korea has nearly a million troops aimed south.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close