Managing Catastrophic North Korea Risks


Jan 21, 2010

This commentary originally appeared in The Korea Herald on January 21, 2010.

In recent years, U.S. commanders of the ROK/U.S. Combined Forces Command have been unanimous in stating that CFC could defeat a North Korean invasion. Nevertheless, they have also expressed concern about the catastrophic damage that North Korea could do to the ROK before losing, for example from the 13,000 North Korean artillery pieces that could "rain on Seoul." And even one North Korean nuclear weapon delivered on Seoul could cause incredible damage—100 times the U.S. 9/11 experience.

Many today believe that a North Korean government collapse is a more likely future, especially in light of the instability in North Korea caused by actions like its recent currency devaluation. But even such a scenario may still pose some artillery and nuclear threats to the ROK. In addition, the ROK would likely need to stabilize North Korea to facilitate Korean unification—a potentially very large and long-term job, as the United States has learned in Iraq. And if adequate military resources are not employed, Korean security and prosperity could be jeopardized.

How should the ROK manage such catastrophic risks? Are military capabilities being built to handle them?

Building the required military capabilities

For almost 60 years, the ROK and the United States have worked together to deter and defeat North Korean military threats. But while the United States remains ready to assist the ROK, ROK security is ultimately a ROK responsibility; the ROK must take the lead. Operational control (OPCON) transition in 2012 will formally give the ROK the lead.

There are some still 28,000 U.S. military personnel in the ROK on a daily basis. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has explained that more personnel could deploy if a conflict develops, but they would be mainly U.S. Air Force and Navy personnel.

For years, the U.S. government has been pressing the ROK government to assume more responsibility for Korean defense. Increased defense responsibility requires greater military capabilities and higher military budgets.

To enhance ROK military capabilities, the ROK Ministry of National Defense in 2005 prepared a Defense Reform Plan (DRP) 2020, requiring 9.9 percent annual military budget increases for 2006 through 2010. Instead, the average increase has only been 7.2 percent, placing the 2010 military budget roughly 3.5 trillion won ($3.1 billion) behind the plan.

The original DRP 2020 was designed to pay for the ROK military and modernize ROK military forces at a total cost of 621 trillion won over 15 years. By 2009, the DRP 2020 had a 22 trillion won shortfall. The Ministry of Strategy and Finance's 2010 military budget revision increased the 15-year shortfall to about 42 trillion won. This ministry plans further reductions from 2011 to 2013, increasing the shortfall to about 75 trillion won. And if its planned budget growth factors are extended through 2020, the shortfall grows to about 110 trillion won—almost four times the 2009 MND budget.

How adequate is the Korean military budget for assuring the security of the Korean people from North Korea's catastrophic threats?

The DRP 2020 included substantial budget increases because ROK military capabilities are already under-funded. The U.S. military spends some 16 times as much as the ROK military on equipment acquisition each year despite the U.S. forces having only twice as many personnel. U.S. military research and development spending is some 50 times ROK spending each year.

Many major ROK weapon systems are very old, such as M48 tanks and F-5 aircraft originally designed and produced three decades or more ago. Old weapons are generally less capable. Ironically, few ROK families have cars as old as the major weapons their sons use in the military.

The ROK military budget has been too small to acquire key military capabilities. Thus few ROK soldiers have GPS to identify their own or adversary locations with accuracy, making precision battlefield attacks difficult and increasing the potential for friendly fire. But in civilian life, many soldiers have GPS in their cars.

Shortfalls undermine personnel needs

The ROK faces a serious birthrate problem. From 1977 to 2002, the ROK had more than 400,000 young men turn draft age almost every year. But in 2009 only about 325,000 young men turned draft age, and by 2023 that number will be less than 250,000. The ROK military is still some 72 percent conscripts, and almost all young men serve in the military.

This demographic problem is complicated by President Roh Moo-hyun's reduction of the conscription period. Before 2005, ROK Army conscripts served for 26 months, but the conscription period was set to gradually drop to 18 months by July 2014. Shorter conscription periods reduce the number of conscripts, and also reduce the average level of conscript experience (their military quality).

These factors will reduce the size of the ROK military. The ROK military that had 690,000 active duty personnel in 2000 may have only 517,000 in 2020. The ROK Army, in particular, is scheduled to decline from 560,000 personnel to 388,000 personnel, or a 30 percent reduction. The DRP 2020 included a major investment in advanced weapons—roughly 70 trillion won—to offset the smaller forces. The military budget shortfalls could eliminate this tradeoff; if so, the ROK military could be less capable in 2020 than in 2000 or 2005.

Military force capability depends on military equipment and on having personnel capable of using and maintaining that equipment. Military proficiency is learned over time. Soldiers serving short conscription periods reduce military capabilities and make unit cohesion fragile.

The National Defense Reform Act of 2006 addresses these needs by requiring officers and NCOs to be at least 40 percent of each service by 2020. ROK officers and NCOs on average serve three to four times as long as conscripts. The ROK Navy and Air Force already meet this requirement, but the ROK Army is still not quite 25 percent officers and NCOs.

As a result, the Defense Ministry will demand more officers/NCOs even though the supply of young men is decreasing. More demand and less supply will increase the cost of officers and NCOs, in part because civilian firms will likely try to offer more salary and benefits to get the employees they want as the ROK economy strengthens. To compete, the ministry may have to offer higher salaries and may need to offer bonuses, especially for reenlistments, as the U.S. military does.

Thus, the ministry likely needs to increase the personnel portion of DRP 2020 to avoid shortfalls. If more money is spent on personnel, less will be available for equipment acquisition. Tight budgets will leave too much equipment outdated, prevent the acquisition of capabilities like GPS, and potentially cause a salary freeze (as is apparently planned for 2010). These situations suggest the lack of importance given to the military by the ROK government and people, hurting military morale. And low morale could lead to even greater manpower shortages.

Meeting the needs of different missions

DRP 2020's trade of advanced technology for reduced manpower focused on defending the ROK against a North Korean invasion. In that mission, there are many ways that advanced military technologies can make up for fewer personnel.

The tradeoff is different if the ROK military mission is to stabilize North Korea after a collapse of the North Korean government. In this mission, it is harder to replace manpower with technology. Many of the required tasks are manpower intensive, including disarming the North Korean military and searching thousands of underground facilities for weapons (especially weapons of mass destruction). While technology can be useful in these tasks, the useful technologies are sometimes different from those critical to a defense against an invasion.

It is difficult to predict how large a ground force will be required to successfully deal with a North Korean collapse. In Iraq, a country with comparable population to North Korea, the U.S. surge in 2007-2008 involved some 160,000 U.S. military personnel, more than that number of U.S. contractors, and 600,000 Iraqi security forces. Requirements for stabilizing North Korea could be greater because North Korea has an active duty military of about three times the size of the Iraqi forces before the U.S. 2003 invasion, and reserves of about 10 times what Iraq had. Thus even current ROK ground forces—some 550,000 active duty ROK Army and Marine personnel—appear marginal for handling a North Korean collapse, and would likely be too small in 2020 (at 415,000) and even worse by 2028 (at less than 300,000) with an 18-month conscription period. A 22-month conscription period would provide about 15 to 20 percent more ground forces, a potentially critical margin in stabilizing North Korea.

The tradeoff is also different if the mission is to prevent North Korean missiles or artillery from delivering limited attacks (possibly including weapons of mass destruction) against the ROK. While key personnel are essential to this mission, technology assumes a greater role in terms of precision strike, counterbattery fire, missile defense, and defense against artillery (the Israelis are now fielding such a system).

The diversity of missions that the ROK military may be called upon to perform thus requires larger investments than the traditional military budget, investments in a range of equipment, personnel with broader capabilities, and a diversity of training for all personnel.

North Korean missile threats

Recently, Dr. A.Q. Khan of Pakistan said that in 1999 he was shown three North Korean nuclear weapons that could have been assembled on ballistic missiles in one hour. If Khan's story is correct, North Korea likely has several more warheads today, facing the ROK with a serious North Korean nuclear weapon threat.

While the Defense Ministry has argued that it could preemptively destroy the North Korean nuclear weapons before they are used, a variety of political, intelligence, and military constraints could limit the effectiveness of a preemptive attack. Missile defense is a hedge against the uncertainties of preemptive strikes, contributing to the potential of both defeating North Korean nuclear weapon attacks and deterring such attacks.

The ROK has been slow to field such defenses because of their costs and its limited military budget. Yet the importance of missile defense is clear: one North Korean nuclear weapon detonating in Seoul could kill or seriously injure several hundred thousand people, and cause damage amounting to hundreds of trillions of won. Even an expensive missile defense with modest performance would be a good investment to prevent such damage.

Undermining the U.S. confidence in ROK military efforts

The ROK has become one of the wealthiest countries in the world, with a strong economy. Yet despite this economic strength, the ROK still depends in major ways on the United States for its deterrence and defense. In recent years, U.S. leaders have urged the ROK to bear more of its military costs. For example, during his visit to Seoul for the Oct. 22 ROK-U.S. Security Consultative Meeting, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said, "We encourage the Republic of Korea's political leaders to make an investment in defense appropriate to Korea's emerging role as a contributor to global security and commensurate with the threat you face on the peninsula."

Many U.S. leaders wonder why the ROK is not taking more responsibility for its own defense. Why is it that the ROK spends only 2.8 percent of its GDP on defense, despite the threat they face on the peninsula, while the United States spends roughly 4.5 percent of its GDP on defense?

For almost 60 years now, the United States has subsidized the ROK economy by not forcing the ROK to pay for a fuller share of its defense requirements. While this approach may have made sense until the ROK developed a vibrant economy, Americans are increasingly feeling that the ROK government is taking advantage of the United States. If ROK national security is adequate to allow the ROK Defense Reform Plan 2020 budget to be significantly reduced, then wouldn't the United States also be justified in reducing its military commitments to the ROK?

What action is needed?

The DRP 2020 budget shortfalls raise questions about future ROK military capabilities. Almost certainly, the original DRP 2020 goals will not be reached. The ROK needs to consider the following actions to minimize the DRP 2020 shortfalls:

  • The Defense Ministry needs to estimate the ROK military and civilian losses that a North Korean invasion or other North Korean military action could cause. It then needs to estimate how much these could be reduced by additional military investments. Given the various uncertainties, what are the biggest risks that the ministry needs to address?
  • The Defense Ministry also needs to estimate the military capabilities required to simultaneously demobilize up to 8.9 million North Korean forces (active duty plus reserves), stabilize the North, secure weapons at thousands of possible storage sites, and provide humanitarian assistance and logistical support in a potentially hostile environment.
  • The Defense Ministry should estimate these losses and capability requirements if conflict develops in 2010, 2015, 2020, 2025, or 2030. It should do so on the basis of its 2009 revision of DRP 2020, and also based upon the Ministry of Strategy and Finance's projected military budgets. It should also examine a 22-month versus an 18-month conscription period.
  • The ROK Army should develop options and their costs for handling any difficulties in increasing its officers and NCOs to 40 percent of personnel in 2020, as required by law.
  • The ROK government needs to explain how it plans to invest "in defense appropriate to Korea's emerging role as a contributor to global security and commensurate with the threat you face on the peninsula."

These analyses need to be shared with the ROK government, the ROK people, and the U.S. government. In the end, each must ask: How many risks are they prepared to accept? If current military preparations are adequate to win a conflict, but not adequate to prevent hundreds of thousands of deaths and casualties, the ROK government and people may well want to select a more capable defense.

Bruce Bennett is a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation ,a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis. This commentary represents his personal views.

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