There’s been a lot of focus on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, and specifically, its hopes of developing a missile that could deliver a nuclear strike on the United States.
But what can be lost in the discussion of the country’s recent missile tests is the vast military capabilities the country already has.
This morning, US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said any military solution to the North Korea crisis would be “tragic on an unbelievable scale”.
This is why a diplomatic solution is widely seen as the only solution.
What do we know about North Korea’s military?
Nick Bisley, executive director of La Trobe Asia and editor-in-chief of the Australian Journal of International Affairs, says the military is the second most important institution in North Korea behind the Kim dynasty.
“The whole economy and the purpose of the state is organised around ensuring that the military has vast capacity,” he said.
So despite North Korea having an estimated population of about 25 million — not much more than Australia — it has the second biggest military in Asia behind China.
Professor Bisley says its active military probably has about 1.2 million service people, and that two thirds of its army is situated within a few dozen kilometres of the demilitarised zone (DMZ).
In other words, they’re right on the doorstep of South Korea and its capital Seoul. And they’re pointing a gun right at it.
What could they do to the South?
North Korea has vast artillery capabilities that are targeted on Seoul, which has a population of 10 million and is less than an hour’s drive from the DMZ.
“If you Google some of the North Korean propaganda videos of their live fire exercises, you can see the scale,” Professor Bisley said.
To put it bluntly:
“They’ve got the ability to destroy Seoul fairly quickly.”
That’s despite the fact that we’re not talking about the most advanced weaponry.
“It’s a slightly antiquated military. This is not cutting-edge war fighting kit,” Professor Bisley said.
Nevertheless, many observers believe the artillery fire that North Korea could unleash would be so high intensity that it would have the devastation effect of a kind of nuclear attack, minus the radiation.
As well, Professor Bisley says there’s no question North Korean soldiers could get across the DMZ.
“There’s vast tunnel networks that would allow the North to get into the South,” he said.
As for the potential death toll:
“If there was just a massive lashing out by the North on the South, you are looking at well into the millions.”
What about Japan?
The gun that’s pointed at South Korea is also pointed at the south and west of Japan.
Professor Bisley says North Korea has short- and medium-range ballistic missiles which could hit cities like Fukuoka and Hiroshima.
Meanwhile, it’s important to remember that the US itself has many service people in both South Korea (just under 30,000) and Japan (about 40,000), and most of them would also be in harm’s way should the North lash out.
What is North Korea trying to achieve by getting nuclear weapons?
North Korea is many things, but it isn’t mad.
Professor Bisley says leader Kim Jong-un might be completely indifferent to the suffering of his own people and those south of the border, but despite that, he’s acting “perfectly rational”.
That’s because many argue that the whole purpose of North Korea’s military is less about defence in the traditional sense — “someone invades us, we can see them off” — but more about having a gun pointed at the South so the international community leaves them alone.
Getting a nuclear weapon that could reach mainland US would mean North Korea has an even bigger deterrent. And to do that, they’ll need more than just one nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile.
“They need to have enough that they can hit the US reliably, but also survive a pre-emptive attack and still be able to unleash a pretty nasty attack on the US,” Professor Bisley said.
“They are still a fair way away from that.”
Ultimately, it’s all about regime security.
“Yes, there’s a paranoid streak in North Korean thinking, but it’s not unfounded. There is someone who’s out to get them,” Professor Bisley said.
Why aren’t we talking about what North Korea can already do?
Mostly because it’s nothing new. They’ve had these capabilities for many years.
We focus on North Korea’s nuclear program because that’s a potential game changer with massive ramifications.
Beyond that, Professor Bisley says nuclear weapons have a “perfectly understandable fascination”, especially when you marry their apocalyptic imagery with the “faintly absurd 50s Stalinist aesthetics of North Korea”.
Nevertheless, he says the threat that North Korea already poses should be much more part of the debate.