ANALYSIS – In its latest report on ongoing threats to the U.S. and global security, the Washington DC-based Center for American Defense Studies (CADS), which I lead, has just released a report on the North Korean army. The author, a retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel with significant experience analyzing the North’s war machine reached some interesting conclusions.
In effect, Lt. Col Charles Schlom, a career Army aviator, and Subject Matter Expert (SME) on the Hermit Kingdom’s military, argues that — its nukes and missiles notwithstanding — the North Korean army is a massive (well over one million man), but poorly equipped, trained, and led, beast.
While it can still inflict massive damage, witness Russia’s flailing, but destructive offensive against Ukraine, its conventional forces are riddled with inadequacies.
As an aviator, Schlom, a Contributor to CADS, who has participated in numerous North Korean Battle simulations and exercises, focuses initially on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRKs) Air Force, known as the Korean People’s Air and Anti-Air Force.
Like China’s armed forces, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the Korean People’s Army (KPA) is the overarching force, and the other services are akin to branches of the Army.
Referring to the North Korean Air Force, Schlom notes that its pilots receive only 15-25 hours of actual flight training annually, while its counterparts in the South get more than 135 hours. He also notes that, other than the roughly 35 MiG-29 ‘Fulcrum’ fighters from the mid-1980s, most of its aircraft date to the 1960s and 1970s.
“In fact,” he writes, they are so old that “many of the DPRK’s aircraft, like the MiG-21 and 17, can now be bought on the open market as civilian sport aircraft.”
When discussing the Army, or land force, Schlom notes, that while it does have some newer Chinese Main Battle Tanks (MBTs), “like the Air Force, the KPA suffers from antiquated armor, such as WWII vintage T-34s, 1950s era T-55s, and 1960s T-62 tanks.”
He adds that: “The T-62s 115mm gun would be no match for the Korean K-2 and US Abrams, which sport 120mm guns and superior armor.”
And even the thousands of vaunted North Korean artillery pieces arrayed near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and only miles for the South’s capital of Seoul, are less impressive than at first glance.
While they are certainly a serious threat, due to their number and proximity, the North is using “Russian/Chinese made guns and Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS), [whose] performance is in doubt.” He provides several specific examples of why.
Schlom also discusses the North’s lack of combined arms doctrine and training, a significant failure seen even among the far superior Russian forces in Ukraine.
Finally, Schlom describes the Korean People’s Army Naval Force (KPANF), which despite its over 700 vessels, including fast attack boats, hovercraft landing ships, and some submarines, is mostly limited to coastal defense.
“Their capability is limited by the same issues that plague the rest of the DPRK’s conventional arsenal, old ships and weapon systems, and poor training.” And even their 70-odd Romeo-class diesel-electric submarines are considered “loud,’ thus easily detected by U.S. and Republic of Korea (ROK) sonar.
The report misses one important North Korean ‘conventional’ military capability – its massive, 200,000-strong North Korean Special Operations Force — the largest in the world. And larger than the entire U.S. Marine Corps.
While, even the best of these troops are seen as light infantry, likely more akin to U.S. Marines or Army Rangers, than SEALs or Delta Force, they do need to be factored in when analyzing the North’s military structure. Hopefully that study will be coming soon. ADN