South Korea less battle-capable than North, top ex-general warns

SEOUL — Regional tensions are expected to spiral Monday, as South Korea and the United States kick off their first full-scale spring war games in six years, and North Korea rattles its sabers in protest.

Drills, thankfully, are not war. But if a fight did break out, a former top commander in South Korea’s military is going public with his concerns that Seoul’s forces would not be badly set up for the clash.

On the divided, nuclear-armed peninsula, South Korea’s military is increasingly unfit for purpose, retired Lt. Gen. Chun In-bum says in an interview, lacking in manpower, training, equipment and civilian readiness compared to its implacable foe to the north. Despite vastly greater wealth and a sizable population advantage, South Korea rates poorly in multiple metrics compared to its lower-tech North Korean competitor.

Gen. Chun knows his business: The retired warrior served on Seoul’s joint chiefs of staff as a major, saw active service as a battalion commander countering Northern infiltrators in 1996 and, as a general, led the country’s elite Special Warfare Command before leaving military service in 2016.

Today, he is known nationwide for his plain-spoken advocacy of the need to beef up both his country’s defenses and its critical security alliance with the United States.

At a time when many Western armies, drained by the demands of the war in Ukraine, face questions of sustainability, Mr. Chun told the Washington Times in an interview that Seoul “needs to wake up to modern war.”

North’s manpower advantage

The nuclear-armed North’s powerful missile and artillery arms are well known. But in conventional terms, too, the South is finding itself increasingly on the back foot, according to the general.

Though the North has half the population of some 51 million in the South, it fields over double the number of active-service troops: 1.2 million compared to the South’s 500,000.

Gen. Chun estimates that combining special forces, marines and top-tier infantry units, Seoul commands perhaps 50,000 crack soldiers. That’s a significant force, but pales in comparison with Pyongyang’s 200,000 equivalent forces.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s conscripts have another edge. A Northerner serves 13 years in the military, while South Korean conscripts serve just 18 months. Though the average North Korean foot soldier may be physically smaller than his South Korean counterpart, due to poor nutrition, he could be tougher — and easier to supply.

The world was horrified in 2017 when a Northern defector was found to be infested with intestinal worms. But Vietnam demonstrated decades ago the resilience of troops whose health was sapped by years of jungle living but remained highly effective in combat.

“When we see a North Korean with a handful of rice, it looks like they must be starving,” Gen. Chun said.  “But he might be able to survive on that.”

Unit organization also favors the North, he said.

The typical 12-soldier North Korean unit  wields two rocket-propelled grenade launchers, while the South Korean squad — consisting of just eight soldiers — typically fields just one German-made Panzerfaust. The Southern squad has a light support weapon, while the Northern boasts a medium machine gun and a marksman’s rifle.

Battlefield communications are also problematic, despite Seoul’s reputation as a world-class tech center and perhaps the world’s most Web-wired nations. “How come South Korea makes the best cell phone in the world, but we can’t make a good small-unit radio?’” Mr. Chun asked. “North Korea seems to have a good radio. It’s amazing!”

Aerial advantage vs. asymmetric smarts

Where the South has an edge is in the skies. Its air force, complete with F-35s and F-15s, outmuscles the North’s decrepit fleet, which is doubly handicapped by lack of fuel for training. In heli-lift capabilities — major assets in the peninsula’s mountainous terrain — the South comes out on top, too.

But North Korean generals have recognized this imbalance and moved to make low-level flying a high-risk proposition. Virtually every North Korean armored vehicle boasted a mounted surface-to-air missile launcher, Gen. Chun said. Those assets can also be used for asymmetric offense.

“Every North Korean [special forces] squad has a MANPAD,” he said, the acronym for a portable surface-to-air missile. One mission of North Korean commandos is to infiltrate sites near South Korean or U.S. air bases, meaning that  “anything that flies near airfields will be at risk.”

Portable missiles are also a threat in armored combat. The retired general revealed that illegally exported North Korean anti-tank missiles — a modification of the Russian “Kornet,” roughly equivalent to the Pentagon’s anti-tank Javelin system — have destroyed Saudi Arabian M1 tanks in Yemen.

Then there is the poor man’s air force – military drones. Last December, five North Korean drones infiltrated South Korean airspace in the heart of Seould, and the government was humiliated by its inability to bring them down. The general said the drones dramatically demonstrated a vulnerability that many South Koreans had not appreciated.

Manpower, oversight, readiness

The general’s bleak assessment came just days before the U.S. and South Korea on March 13 start 10 days of large-scale military drills, both computer-generated and boots-on-the-grounds, despite repeated warnings from the Kim regime. The drills were halted in 2018, while both the Trump administration and the government of left-leaning former President Moon Jae-in pursued what turned out to be fruitless denuclearization talks with Pyongyang.

Subsequently, Covid-19 forced further downgrades to the military drills, causing rising readiness concerns in the Pentagon as North Korea resumed an active schedule of weapons tests. Mr. Moon added another complication when his government upgraded human rights oversight of its forces.

“These three things impacted the readiness of the South Korean military,” Gen. Chun said.  

Beyond military and diplomatic policy, South Korea is facing a demographic plunge which is in turn gutting recruitment goals. “In just the past few years, the military went from 600,000 to 500,000, and the majority of cuts have gone to land forces,” Gen. Chun said. “But what is more concerning is [that] we have fewer combat support units.”  

Seoul’s regular infantry battalions field around 450 troops, rather than the 600-man standard in most modern armies. And compared to the hardy South Korean soldiers who earned respect – and fear – during the Vietnam War, critics say today’s comfortable, middle-class rising Korean generation lacks the grit of yore.

In each battalion, Gen. Chun reckons, are between 10 and 20 soldiers “who are trying to get out, at all costs, with their families involved. It drives commanders crazy!”

With ex-generals having established two dictatorships in pre-democratic South Korea, popular suspicion still lingers over military leadership. Under the Moon government, conscripts were allowed smartphones, which contributed to a surge in blogs focusing on alleged military abuses.

Now the first daily task of many commanders, Gen. Chun said, is checking these blogs to ensure that conscripts in their units — and their families — are not complaining about poor rations or overly harsh training.

Training woes

Training has suffered. Following an incident when an abused recruit went on a firing range rampage, many rifles are now chained to firing positions, hindering weapons-handling skills, Gen. Chun said. First aid training is similarly inflexible.

He was scathing about equipment. Uniforms are cheaply made and, if ignited, will — unlike U.S. military fabrics — melt, causing hideous skin burns. Night-vision goggles, a staple of modern military fighting, are in short supply

In armor, South Korea fields an impressive 3,000 tanks, Mr. Chun continued – but only 300 are the vaunted, top-of-the-line South Korean-made K2s. The rest, he said, are older, less sophisticated, models.

All this concerns Gen. Chun, who works with civic groups seeking ways to upgrade the country’s military effectiveness.

“We have the American alliance — but other than that, I believe we are at a pretty bad disadvantage,” he told The Washington Times. “We don’t have the initiative, [Seoul] is really close to North Korea and we are not serious about defending against an attack.”

And the North’s challenge seems only set to grow: Mr. Kim on Thursday personally monitored a live-fire artillery drill simulating an attack on a South Korean airfield and called for his troops to be ready to respond to what he called the enemies’ “frantic war-preparation moves,” the North’s official KCNA news service reported.

The North’s official Rodong Sinmun newspaper published photos Friday apparently showing at least six rockets being fired from launch vehicles lined up in an unspecified coastal forest area, the Associated Press reported.

If Pyongyang installs the kind of digital/biometric surveillance net pioneered by China’s Communist regime, Mr. Kim will gain a degree of social control George Orwell never dreamed of, Gen. Chun said.

“He will have 20 million robots he can control by looking at their faces and checking their blood pressure,” he warned. “Can you imagine what he can do with that?”

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