North East Asia Security
and International Relations
Up-to-date summaries and translations of Chinese, Korean and Japanese language news, features and analyses
  - Making NEA sources on security and international relations more accessible
Estimated reading time:  4 minutes
Categories:  korean

Defence Whitepaper: Comparing “the Military Strength of North and South Korea”

국방백서 ‘남북 군사력’ 비교해보니,

February 2, 2021

Asia Business Daily Military Affairs Reporter Yang Nak-kyu:

The standing army (defence force personnel minus non-serving reserves) of the North Korean military (the Korean People’s Army’s = KPA) is 2.3 times larger than South Korea’s (ROK), and it is estimated that the North also comes out on top in terms of its number of tanks, fighter jets and naval vessels. However, both military and civilian experts estimate that the ROK’s defence forces, which are continuously securing or developing cutting edge weapons, are overwhelmingly superior to the KPA in terms of quality.

According the the “2020 Defence White Paper” (hereafter ‘the White Paper’) published by the Ministry of National Defence on 2 February 2021, the standing military force of North Korea numbers more than 1.28 million, which is slightly more than 2.3 times that of South Korea (over 555,000). While North Korean numbers are no different to what they were late 2018, the gap has widened due to the ROK having reduced its manpower by more than 44,000 on the back of structural reforms set forth in the ROK Defence Reform 2.0.

The ROK also has 2130 tanks, which is less than half the number possessed by the North (totaling more than 4300). The North also has far more field artillery pieces (ROK = 6000+, KPA = 8800+) and Multiple Rocket Launcher (MRL) (ROK = 270+, KPA = 5500+). In terms of ships, North Korea also takes the lead in terms of numbers of surface combat vessels (ROK = 100+, KPA = 430+), landing ships (ROK = 10, KPA approx. 250) and submarines (ROK = 10, KPA = approx. 70).

However, the ROK military estimates that most of the KPA’s vessels are littoral combat ships and that most have exceeded their hull’s life expectancy. Between 1973 and 1995 the KPA brought in Romeo-class submarines from China that were designed in the former Soviet Union in the 1950’s. These are 25-47 year old, ageing submarines.

The KPA enjoys numerical superiority in terms of numbers of combat capable aircraft (ROK = 410. KPA = approx. 810) and surveillance aircraft (ROK = 50, KPA = 350). KPA training aircraft numbers have decreased from 170 to 80. Up to 90 were cut when the North decommissioned older model Mig-15’s and Mig 17’s.

The ROK Air Force has fighter models that are at least a generation ahead of the KPA’s fighters including the [latest generation] F-35A, and [older generation] F-15K, KF-16. Thanks to its Boeing E-737 so-called “Peace Eye” Airborne Early Warning and Control System (AEW&C) aircraft and Airbus A-330 aerial refueling tanker, the ROK has a qualitative military edge in terms of surveillance and reconnaissance, long range precision strike capacity, and operational scope.

With a view to retaining this edge, the White Paper includes plans to strengthen the ROK’s core military assets such as military reconnaissance satellites, mid-high altitude reconnaissance drones, high powered, high precision surface to surface missiles, AEGIS destroyers (KDX-III), F-35A, Korea’s homegrown fighter jet (KF-X).

The PKA Army’s preexisting two mechanised corps have been renamed as divisions. As a result the number of mechanised divisions increased from 4 to 6.

100 more armoured vehicles have been deployed to these units, which have been fitted with anti-tank missiles and mobile guns. A new tank model is being developed with increased mobility and survivability and is replacing older models. It is believed that concentrating the deployment of heavily armed armoured personnel carriers in mechanised infantry divisions is reducing troop numbers in divisions as part of a structural revamp. The K2 Tank, which is the main battle tank of the ROK army, is far superior to the KPA’s main tanks, the Seon’gun and Pokpung.

The KPA has deployed coastal artillery and surface to ship missiles along the east and west coast in order to block ROK-US coalition vessels and landing forces should they attempt to approach. In particular, the surface to air missile [launcher which appeared in] last October’s event marking the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Worker’s Party of Korea featured 8 launching tubes, up from the 4 on the then-new model unveiled in a military parade held in September 2018. increased the number of launching tubes a military parade. The transporter erector launcher (TEL) was also replaced.

The White Paper describes the current state of North and South Korea’s military strength as analysed by the ROK’s Ministry of National Defence and Joint Chiefs of Staff Department and Joint Chief of Staff late last year.