04 December 2004

Defense Minister Subdues DPRK in Ninety Minutes

South Korean Defense Minister Yoon Kwang Ung, speaking Dec. 3 before the National Assembly Budget and Accounts Committee, said “If a war were to break out, our forces can respond quickly and should be able to subdue the threat posed by these weapons within an hour or an hour-and-a-half.”

Yoon’s confidence is encouraging, but not necessarily all that accurate. The weapons he is referring to are some 10,000 artillery and rocket units on the North Korean front lines. And while these may be out of date systems, they are anything but obsolete given that they are designed for a saturation attack of the greater Seoul area (one of the reasons the US forces are moving South of the Han River).

As of 2001 (the last time I’ve seen such statistics bandied around), the North Korean artillery barrage takes place in the following time sequence.

14 minutes from “Go” order to first shots fired.
110 seconds flight time from muzzle to target.
10,000 rounds per hour.

This is the basis of North Korea’s frequent “Sea of Fire” comments. Most of these systems are kept in hardened bunkers or hollowed out mountains – thus the 14-minute set-up time. But in addition to this, North Korea maintains a missile arsenal, numbering as high by some estimates as 800 short- and medium-range missiles. Many of the artillery shells, rockets and missiles are capable of carrying chemical or biological warheads as well as conventional explosives.

In comments earlier this year, General Leon LaPorte, Commander, United States Forces Korea (USFK), said that despite the aging nature of the North Korean military, it is quite capable of causing “great destruction and casualties if they chose to attack.” LaPorte did say that the South Korean and U.S. forces are capable of defending the South against a North Korean attack – ultimately.

Seoul alone certainly doesn’t have the armament yet to take on the frontline North Korean artillery in an hour or an hour and a half. South Korea was long held back in its development of surface-to-surface missiles (Washington didn’t want the South to launch a pre-emptive strike on the North, and thus precipitate another major war on the Peninsula).

In recent years, Seoul has added AGM-142 Popeye air-to-surface missiles for their F-16s (111 km range for the missiles), as well as ATACMS Block 1A surface-to-surface missiles (300 km range). But these are in relatively small quantities, and while several more recent studies suggest that the South Korean military, in a one-on-one fight with the North Koreans, are more likely to win in the end, wiping out Pyongyang’s frontline artillery in an hour is excessively optimistic.

That said, South Korea IS moving toward a more independent defense capability, and continues to develop its own ballistic missiles and spy satellites, as well as additional defense technology. And what it can’t develop, it is seeking to buy. Ultimately, Seoul has little intention of using its military against the North, and would much rather integrate its technology with the North’s manpower (and nukes?) to create a stronger and significantly more independent military force. And given the pace of military and technological evolution in China and Japan, and the growing tensions in Northeast Asia, Seoul may find its defense buildup much earlier than it currently perceives.

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