The Korean Civil-Military Balance

By Anthony H. Cordesman

This report has been revised.

President Trump's cancellation of the summit with North Korea is a warning as to just how difficult it is to bring any kind of stability to the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia. It is also a warning that the U.S. cannot focus on the nuclear issue and ICBM, rather than the overall military balance in the Koreas and the impact that any kind of war fighting can have on the civil population of South Korea and the other states in Northeast Asia. The nuclear balance is an all too critical aspect of regional security, but it is only part of the story and military capability do not address the potential impact and cost of any given form of conflict.

The Burke Chair is issuing an updated and expanded report of the civil and military balance between the two Koreas, and one that also shows the strength of the U.S. forces now in Korea, Japan, and the Pacific.  This revised report is entitled The Korean Civil-Military Balance, and is available on the CSIS web site at here.

The Civil Side of the Balance

The civil part of this assessment highlights the extreme differences between the high level of civil development in South Korea and the limited development of North Korea's economy, governance, and civil society. It highlights the very different kinds of vulnerability on each side, and raises serious question about the North Korea's ability to support and sustain the highest level of overall militarization of any nation in the world if current CIA and other estimate of the size o and character of its economy and budget are correct.

Geography                                                                                          (pages 11-18)

The data on geography highlight the fact that both Korea's are highly mountainous, have limited arable land, and often have cities in areas than are somewhat contained by either terrain or the sea. The fact that North Korea separates South Korea from the rest of mainland Asia effectively makes it an island from a strategic viewpoint, as well as makes access to Japan and Japanese support critical in wartime. It also makes continued access to maritime and air traffic critical to the operation of its large, modern economy.

Terrain and access to air and seaports also has a major impact on tactical military operations bit involves a level of detail which is beyond the scope of this report.

Governance                                                                                        (pages 19-27)

North Korea and South Korea have fundamentally different political systems -- an authoritarian dictatorship controlling a large command economy and a functioning democracy dependent on capitalism and its private sector. This gives the leader of North Korea an advantage in terms of allocate resources to security and taking risks, but has severely limit North Korea's development and overall economic growth and strength.

Many aspects of the World Bank's governance ratings for North Korea --voice and accountability, government effectiveness, regulatory quality, rule of law and control of corruption -- are so low that they raise serious questions about how well North Korean governance could survive sustained attack and support sustained, large-scale military operations.

People and Society                                                                             (pages 28-38)

North Korea's limited development has affected life spans and every aspect of public health. Its high level of militarization also requires so many men that it consumes a large percentage of its population and potential labor force, adding to its development problems while the outdated structure of its economy makes it over-dependent on agricultural labor.

At the same time, South Korea is highly urbanized and very vulnerable to attacks on its major cities -- especially in the greater Seoul area which has nearly half its population.  Its higher living standards also make it much more dependent on the continuity of economic operations and various services. North Korean vulnerability is different. it has a much more dispersed general population with lower expectations, but it is critically dependent on every aspect of an economy with limited redundancy and on the operations of its one major semi-modern city-- Pyongyang.

Economy                                                                                             (pages 39-52)

CIA estimates that North Korea has an extraordinarily small GDP for a state with such large military forces: Some $40 billion in 2015 in purchasing power parity (PPP) terms, and $28 billion in 2013 in official exchange rate terms -- by far the most relevant measure of economic strength in terms of the size of a modern economy. Its per capita income for a population of 25.2 million was only $1,700 in 2015.

In contrast, the CIA estimates that South Korea had a GDP of $2,027 billion in 2017 in purchasing power parity (PPP) terms (over 50 times the most recent figure reported for North Korea), and $1,530 billion in official exchange rate terms (55 times that of North Korea). It also estimates that South Korea has a GDP per capita of $39,400 in 2017, for a population of 51.2 million.  This is 23 times the most recent figure the CIA reports for North Korea.

There are no credible current unclassified estimates of North Korean military spending. The estimates that are available are badly dated, and do not track with any other major sources of economic data. The CIA estimate of the total North Korean budget seems to fall significantly below the probable real world level of military and security spending. At the same time, an estimate of a North Korean state budget of an authoritarian command economy whose expenditures are only 0.011% of South Korea’s budget raises major credibility problems.

These gaps are so great that they also raise serious question about North Korea's ability to fund future military modernization and its sustainment capability. At the same time the illustrate the vulnerabilities created by South Korea's dependence on a far more sophisticated and modern economy and higher expectations.

Energy                                                                                                (pages 53-60)

South Korea’s modern economy makes it a massive importer of oil and gas, and has led it to develop a major nuclear power industry. Its refineries, energy transit and processing facilities make it a target rich energy environment but also give it considerable energy storage capacity and reserves as well as redundancy. North Korea’s energy production is far lower than South Korea’s. It makes only limited use of gas, and it is far more dependent on coal. An EIA study indicated that North Korea had reserves of about 600 million metric tons of coal in 2014, according to BP Plc, compared to recoverable reserves of 251 billion tons for the U.S. and 244 billion for China.

As for petroleum, China supplied North Korea with 10,000 barrels a day of crude oil before sanctions according to the EIA. This is only equivalent to less than one percent of daily consumption in the U.S. North Korea built a coal gasification plant in 2006 as part of its upgrade of the Namhung Youth Chemical Complex, but it is unclear it can turn to coal gasification or liquids on large commercial scale.

South Korea has about 10 times the installed electric generation capability of North Korea. Electrification is also very different. The CIA estimates that in 2013 some 18.4 million North Koreans were without electricity: 18,400,000: 30% of the total population, 41% for urban areas and 13% rural areas: 13%. It estimates that 100% of South Koreans have electricity.

Communication                                                                                 (pages 61-65)

South Korea permits access to all modern forms of communication on a market basis. North Korea sharply restricts access to communications and media – including satellite receivers, use of radios, cellphones, internet access, and access to all forms of news media. North Korea has  no independent media; radios and TVs are pre-tuned to government stations; 4 government-owned TV stations; the Korean Workers' Party owns and operates the Korean Central Broadcasting Station, and the state-run Voice of Korea operates an external broadcast service; the government prohibits listening to and jams foreign broadcasts.

South Korea has 24 times more fixed phone lines, and 18 times more cell phones than North Korea. South Korea has 44.153 million Internet users and this covers 89.9% of the population (July 2016 est.), making it the 17th largest user in the world. Internet distribution in North Korea is limited to a small number of state sanctioned users.

South Korea, however, is far more dependent on modern communications for all aspects of its economy and social structure, but has far larger and more survivable systems.

Transportation                                                                                 (pages 66-73)

South Korea has a far more modern and survivable transport system. It has a modern civil air transportation system with competing airlines and extensive international connections. North Korea has negligible civil air traffic by comparison.

South Korea has a modern pipeline system. North Korea has one short pipeline. North Korea is more reliant on rail transport: 7,435 kilometers versus 3,874 kilometers for the South. South Korea, however, has a modern road system with 91,195 km of paved roads, including 4,193 km of expressways. North Korea has only 724 kilometers of paved road. South Korea has well over seven times as many ships in its merchant marine and 3 major container ports and 6 LNG terminals while North Korea has none.

The Military Side of the Balance

The military portion of the analysis provides data on both  the size and location of U.S. forces in Korea and Asia, and the conventional Korean military balance. It draws on recent and past reporting by the Department of Defenses -- as well as reporting from other sources and NGOs.

The quantitative comparisons illustrate the fact that North Korea has parity or superiority in numbers, but the various narratives highlight  North Korea's major qualitative weaknesses. It also addresses key aspects of the asymmetric balance, the potential impact of nuclear warfighting on South Korea, and the uncertainties surrounding the missile balance, North Korea's holdings of chemical weapons, and the risks posed by North Korea's possible development or possession of biological weapons.

U.S. Military Forces                                                                          (pages 74-83)

The United States does not normally deploy large combat forces in South Korea, but has a major presence in the region, can rapidly project air power including stealth and precision strike capability, cruise missiles, missile defenses, and seapower. It can build up a major land presence as well if it has strategic warning. Its series of regular exercises with Korean forces also allows it to cooperate effective with South Korean forces and maintain the situational awareness and interoperability that is critical to actual military operations.

North Korea's steadily expanding missile ranges do, however, allow it to strike at U.S. targets well beyond the Korean Peninsula, and a fully credible nuclear threat to U.S. bases and civil targets in the U.S. will affect the future levels of deterrence unless the U.S. offers some matching form of extended deterrence or South Korea acquires nuclear weapons.

Conventional Military Balance                                                         (pages 84-105)

North Korea has massive conventional forces of a country its size and with its comparatively small and poorly developed economy. It has a nearly 2:1 lead in manpower, and a major lead in main battle tanks, artillery, and combat ships. North Korea also however, is sharply inferior in weapons quality, key aspects of sustainability, and advanced C4I, IS&R and battle management systems.

North Korea could almost certainly use conventional forces to inflict major damage on the south. at the same time, North Korea's its less developed and less redundant target base gives it a different kind of vulnerability. It would take only a comparatively limited number of precision air strikes to cripple key aspects of the North Korea economy and/or military point targets.

South Korea also has an advantage in surface-to-air missiles with some point defense capability against missiles, and the U.S. is introducing theater missile defense systems. It would take substantially more such system, however, and something approaching Israel's layered missile, rocket, and artillery defenses to give South Korea major protection against North Korean attacks.

As a result, the he South's qualitative advantages seem great enough to offset North Korean numbers and allow it to win any major conventional conflict with U.S. support. Key wild cards would be the specific scenario involved, the level of  North Korean surprise if any, the potential role of China, a shift to some form of asymmetric or unconventional warfare that would favor the North, and escalation to nuclear weapons.

Asymmetric Balance                                                                         (pages 106-124)

Both sides have large, well trained, and capable special and unconventional forces. However, North Korea's status as a largely closed society with a single major leader or decision-maker willing to risk significant parts of the civil population gives it a major potential advantage in conducting asymmetric warfare.

North Korea has a long history of exploiting low level asymmetric threats and incidents, and has deployed two major asymmetric threats to South Korea: A series of tunnels across the DMZ and a major sheltered missile-rocket-artillery   threat just north of the DMZ that can pose a major threat to Seoul.

Such threats do need to be kept in careful proportion. Moving mechanized forces through closed tunnels without exposed major ventilation systems is difficult, as is moving infantry troops. Some of the higher estimates of South Korean civilian casualties in the greater Seoul area seem to be based on highly unrealistic rates of fire, exposed vulnerability, unrealistic range estimates, and survival in the face of modern precision counterstrikes.  North Korea's most valuable key targets are within the range of U.S. and South Korean precision strike systems, and while these are no designed to produce mass casualties they could have a major impact on North Korea's economy, governance, and ability to conduct and sustain military operations.

Missile Forces                                                                                    (pages 125-144)

North Korea has a major lead in conventionally armed  ballistic missiles for short, medium, and long range combat -- a threat compounded by its potential use of nuclear and chemical weapons, and possibly biological weapons. Almost all of North Korea's current ballistic missiles, however, lack sufficient precision to for it to use conventionally armed warheads effectively against critical military, governance, and infrastructure point targets.  They are more suited for use as terror weapons against civil area targets.

South Korea is, however, beginning to acquire its own ballistic and cruise missile forces, and both sides are acquiring cruise missiles and UCAVs with precision strike capability. This can radically change the missile capabilities on both sides in the near future.

Nuclear Forces                                                                                  (pages 145-163)

North Korea now has a monopoly on nuclear weapons although the U.S. has deployed nuclear weapons in South Korea in the past and South Korea has the technology base to produce nuclear weapons and has examined this option.

Both North and South Korea are “one bomb” countries to some extent.  A nuclear strike on either Seoul or Pyongyang would cripple key aspects of each regime and economy. The U.S. and South Korean can conduct devastating precision conventional and stealth attacks, but the political and strategic impact of a nuclear strike would be far greater.

South Korea faces special problems because it is highly urbanized and its major cities have a very dense population. Its mixed terrain and many high rise and solidly built buildings would affect this vulnerability, however, and most damage models assume a flat plain. South Korea's recovery capability to deal with a major strike on Seoul is unclear. The capital has very high percentage of it population, core leaders, and critical elements of economy.

South Korea also has limited dispersal capability around cities to absorb population fleeing strikes, and high vulnerability to interruption of imports. It has limited ability to sustain the resulting refugee or IDP populations, and provide medical and other services. North Korean “offset” targeting and choice of height of burst could radically increase fallout effects.

As a result, steadily rising North Korean yields, range, and accuracy could pose a growing threat, and even the most effective missile and air defenses cannot guarantee security. North Korean nuclear-armed missiles could can threaten Japan and U.S. bases in the region, as well as targets in the U.S. Possible counters are U.S. extended deterrence, South Korea going nuclear, or North Korean freeze/dismantling of effort.

The Chemical and Biological Dimension                                         (pages 164-176)

There is no chemical or biological balance. U.S. and South Korea can develop chemical and biological defenses but their arms control agreements prevent them from, acquiring a matching offensive threat.

The data on North Korea's ability to pose chemical and biological threats range from highly probable inventory of  chemical weapons to a potential capability to develop and deploy biological weapons that are so lethal that their use could inflict the equivalent of a nuclear attack.

Most sources agree that the North Korean chemical threat is all too real, but many sources seem to exaggerate the range of deployed weapons, their numbers, and their lethality. Real world chemical weapons are more terror weapons that weapon of mass destruction. Terror, however, can be enough. Simply testing or disbursing chemical rounds can have a powerful effect.

There is no evidence that North Korea has deployed biological weapons or that permits any assessment of its lethality. It is clear, however, that the  biological option could give North Korea a credible alternative to sustaining its nuclear program with much depending on North Korea’s level of efforts or claims. One key issue that affects any use of biological threats, deterrence. and war fighting is any side’s ability to determine real world effects without significant large-scale human testing.

Other Burke Chair Reports on the Korean Balance

This report is designed to highlight key quantitative and geographic comparisons, and not to provide a full analysis of each area that is covered. It builds on prior studies of the military balance and testimony to Congress to examine both the civil and military balances in the Koreas, and the cost of a range of different forms of war fighting. These earlier reports include:

  • Anthony H. Cordesman and Charles Ayers, The Military Balance in the Koreas and Northeast Asia, January 31, 2017,
  • Anthony H. Cordesman, More Than a Nuclear Threat: North Korea’s Chemical, Biological, and Conventional Weapons, March 22, 2018,, and
  • Anthony H. Cordesman, South Korea’s Civilian Vulnerabilities in War, March 22, 2018,

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Nicholas Harrington