What military options does North Korea have? Not many, but North Korea remains a major threat to its southern neighbor and nearby Japan because of the few military options it does have. For nearly 70 years North Korea has called for unification of Korea, under their terms and by force if necessary. They tried it once in 1950 and failed catastrophically. During the Cold War they built and maintained armed forces that were considered a serious threat to South Korea, but the possibility of American intervention and the very public threat of the U.S. going nuclear held the North Koreans back. The American nuclear threat also caused China and Russia, who backed the 1950 invasion, to persuade the North Koreans to forget about another invasion unless their two big allies agreed to it.
When the Cold War ended and Russian subsidies disappeared the country went into an economic depression that led to over a million North Koreans starving to death. While the troops were fed, they no longer received new equipment or sufficient money and supplies (especially fuel) to maintain the equipment or the combat capabilities of the troops. To make up for that North Korea put what little resources it had into developing better ballistic missiles and chemical weapons. Most importantly they developed nuclear weapons. These are crude, according to data from the few nuclear tests so far. There is one other new weapon the north has developed that might prove decisive and that is the growing North Korean Cyber War force. Developed slowly since the 1980s in the last few years the North Korean hackers have proved themselves to be quite competent and a growing number of effective hacking operations have been carried out (mostly in in South Korea and Japan). South Korea and American military planners are scrambling to get a more accurate idea of just how effective these North Korean Cyber Warriors would be in wartime. The combination of hacking, nukes, chemical weapons and surprise might enable North Korea to grab the South Korea capital (Seoul) and enough of South Korea to make a peace deal possible. It’s a long shot and once you look into the details you see that it is a more dangerous option of the North Korean leadership (who would be declared war criminals) and the North Korean people in general (because of possible nuclear retaliation).
Meanwhile the main, if no longer decisive, threat remains North Korean conventional forces. Some 70 percent of North Korean ground forces are within a hundred kilometers of the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone, the border with the south.) This was long the main threat to South Korea but two decades of money, fuel and food shortages have greatly reduced North Korean Army capabilities. Two decades of extreme poverty have done even more damage to the navy and air force.
The Inmun Gun (the North Korean armed forces) looks scary on paper, in large part because nearly every adult male serves at least six years in the military. The big problem is that years of economic problems and failed harvests have left the troops poorly equipped, often hungry and increasingly insubordinate. With most of the best educated troops bribing their way into any job but one in a combat unit it is increasingly doubtful if the North Korean combat forces could get very far during an invasion of South Korea. Despite all that a lot of North Korean troops are believed to be reliable enough to carry out orders to invade South Korea, for a while at least, and that could end up doing a lot of damage to Seoul (the southern capital where half the population and a quarter of the GDP are). South Koreans have more to lose than the northerners if the invasion order is given.
Sprawling Seoul is 40-50 kilometers from the North Korean border. The city alone is 600 square kilometers, and the suburbs are even larger. There are over 17,000 people per square kilometer (45,000 per square mile) in the city. The southerners know the north is desperate and heavily armed. What do you do? South Korea has responded by increasing its ability to quickly halt any rocket and artillery bombardment from the north. This would involve a lot of artillery and smart bomb use in a short time. Many North Korean targets would be destroyed but the south has much more to lose, even if the northern attack is cut short.
The North Korean Army has about 800,000 troops, over 3,000 tanks, 3,000 other AFV, nearly 8,000 artillery pieces (including 2,000 rocket launchers) and most of them are aimed south. Thus 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 "leg" infantry divisions (for occupying the DMZ positions).
Nuclear bombs are not all that unique a weapon for North Korea. They have had chemical and biological weapons up there for decades. These, like nukes, are weapons of terror, meant mainly to intimidate without having to use them. The North Korea leadership (military and political) has been told by the U.S. that if nukes or chemical weapons are used against South Korea the northern leaders would be declared war criminals and hunted down and punished (if the hunting process didn’t kill them first.) If North Korea attacked and lost, China could probably protect those leaders who fled to China. But if North Korea used chemical, nuclear or biological weapons against the south, China would have a much more difficult time protecting those involved in carrying out that atrocity. Thus North Korean leader are betting their own lives if ordered to attack and use everything they’ve got.
The most modern aircraft the North Koreans have are 40 MiG-29s they got in the 1980s, when they were still getting freebies from the Soviet Union. The rest of their combat aircraft are poorly maintained and infrequently used (because of fuel and spare parts shortages) antiques. There are 50 MiG-23s, an unreliable 1960s design which few other countries still use. There are about 190 MiG-21s (40 of them Chinese copies of the Russian design) and about 90 each of F-6s and F-5s (Chinese copies of the MiG-19 and MiG-17, both 1950s designs hardly anyone else uses). They have 160 bombers and ground attack aircraft, most of them elderly Russian and Chinese designs. The best of this lot are the 32 Su-25s, which are a decent contemporary of the U.S. A-10 that has proven itself in Afghanistan and the Caucasus. The last “new” aircraft North Korea was able to obtain were 40 MiG-21s secretly purchased from Kazakhstan in 1999.
The helicopter force is also elderly. The best of them are 20 Russian Mi-24 gunships and 80 American MD-500D smuggled in from Germany in the 1980s. Perhaps the most dangerous aircraft are 300 AN-2 single engine bi-plane transports. A sturdy Russian aircraft which, although designed in the 1940s, was simple, rugged, popular and remained in production until 2002. Able to carry ten passengers, the North Korean AN-2s have long been seen practicing flying low and at night. Since each AN-2 can carry ten soldiers, they are believed meant to deliver commandos in South Korea early in any war. Several thousand of these troops could cause a lot of confusion as South Korea mobilized for war. But fuel shortages have meant few AN-2s have been flying often enough for adequate training. That means the pilots are not really skilled enough to carry off a night operation, especially flying low (to avoid radar) through the mountains separating the two Koreas. Using AN-2s now would lead to a lot of them, if not most of them not making it. Then there are whatever surprises South Korea and the U.S. have developed to counter this daring use of AN-2s.
The North Korean generals are aware of their aircraft deficiencies and have tried to make up for it with a large anti-aircraft system. But they have mostly very old missiles and lots of small-caliber anti-aircraft guns. The U.S. is very good at taking out radars and communications needed to make a nationwide anti-aircraft system work. It comes down to who is better prepared and equipped. The North Koreans might have some secret tricks, but they definitely don’t have the tech or the track record that the U.S. possesses.
To make up for their lack of offensive aircraft North Korea depends increasingly on ballistic missiles. The main weapon here is the liquid fuel SCUD, of which North Korea has about 500 in working order. The big drawback here is that it takes several hours to fuel these missiles. While this could be done in caves, the North Koreans depend on being able to keep the location of the caves secret. Otherwise they entrances will be bombed early on, leaving the missiles trapped underground and useless until dug out. The North Koreans believe that if they can develop compact and reliable nuclear weapons and equip some of their ballistic missiles with them they will have a reliable weapon to protect the tyrants who run the country. At the moment, the air force is certainly not able to do the job.
The North Korean army is still capable of moving across the border (the heavily mined and defended DMZ or Demilitarized Zone), but not very far. South Korea now has plans to push back once they have halted the North Korean advance and pounded it with artillery and air strikes. South Korean war plans now contain a lot of detail on how South Korean forces would occupy and take control of North Korea. This would include rounding up any military and political leaders who had not been killed or fled (most likely to China.)
American and South Korean military planners believe that, if North Korea were to declare war (as they have been threatening to do for over half a century), the main threat would be the bombardment of Seoul, the capital, and largest city, of South Korea. Some North Korean artillery can reach Seoul, as can nearly all the rockets and missiles. Damage could be in the tens of billions of dollars, and the casualties in the tens of thousands (or more, if chemical weapons are used.) But because of the shortages, and lack of training, the North Korean troops would be unable to advance far into South Korea. And the South Koreans also have plans for using their better trained and equipped forces to try and halt the bombardment, and advance into North Korea as well. For many years, the advance into North Korea was thought to be a difficult option, mainly because of the large number of special operations troops the North Koreans had. But the great meltdown up north has done serious damage to this capability as well. South Korea has also been increasing ability to quickly launch air and artillery attacks against North Korea artillery and missiles aimed at Seoul. U.S. forces would participate in this as well, in addition to providing lots of intelligence data on where those weapons are.
North Korea has long maintained elite commando forces, troops who were carefully selected, then paid, housed and fed better, and given access to better equipment. About 15 percent of all troops are in these elite units. Most of them are similar to U.S. rangers, marines, paratroopers or special reconnaissance troops (U.S. Marine Force Recon and army LURPS). While these troops still consider themselves elite, they don’t get as much training as they once did nor as much new equipment to keep up with what their American and South Korean counterparts have.
The best of the North Korean Special Forces there are about five thousand commando and U.S. Special Forces type troops. These are meant to get into South Korea and go after key targets and people. Again, the North Koreans have trained for half a century to do this, but have not been able to actually put these troops to the test much. There have been hundreds of small operations in the south over the last half century. In the 1960s there was a low level war going on, as the North Koreans sent dozens of small teams south each year. Over a hundred American troops were killed or wounded, and many more South Korean soldiers and police. Yet, the North Koreans had little ultimate success.
While the top special operations units are still well cared for, more and more reports come out of the north about many less skilled special operations troops complaining about less, or at least lower quality, food and other benefits (like access to electricity year round, and heat during the Winter.) More of these troops are deserting and heading for China, where they can be more easily interviewed. Some have made it all the way to South Korea, where the extent of their numbers and preparations has pushed South Korean commanders to increase their own security preparations, and train more troops to deal with all these commandos in wartime.