South Korean army commandos smash a pile of stone plates in a show of force at the national war museum in Seoul. The South's military is well armed and better equipped than its rivals in the North. Photo: AFP / Park Ji-hwan

According to a survey by the Korea Institute for National Unification, in November 2020 more South Koreans believed that North Korea had a stronger military than South Korea.

That changed for the first time in 2021 – by a slim margin. More now believe the South Korean military is more robust than North Korea’s (37.1%) than the other way around (36.5%).

Why has it taken so long for South Koreans to acknowledge the superiority of their own military?

Donald Trump’s four-year term as president of the United States was a nerve-racking time for many in South Korea.

He repeatedly disparaged the free trade agreement between South Korea and the United States and made excessive demands in cost-sharing negotiations. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan said President Trump had a personal dislike for South Korea, something he allegedly voiced in front of Hogan’s Korea-born wife.

President Trump’s approach made many in South Korea wonder if decoupling might be imminent, possibly helping convince many South Koreans that their country was in a much weaker position than North Korea.

The appearance of strength

The Republic of Korea Army is one of the largest standing armies in the world, and its size is the backbone of its defense against North Korea.

However, many South Koreans fulfill their mandatory military service because it is compulsory rather than out of a sense of patriotic duty. Also, because today’s South Korea is a much wealthier country than in the 1960s and 1970s, there is a belief that the South Korean Army has grown soft and effete.

By contrast, the sight of thousands of goose-stepping and battle-ready North Korean soldiers and the procession of their latest missiles during their infamous military parades is impressive to behold.

Plus, while South Korea and the United States have frequently conducted extensive and highly publicized joint military exercises, North Korea has long had an ace up its sleeve. Since 2006, North Korea has conducted six nuclear weapon tests and undertaken numerous and varied missile tests.

Neither South Korea nor the United States appears to have any path to denuclearizing North Korea.

South Korean tanks take part in an exercise near the DMZ in Paju, South Korea. Photo: AFP / Seung-il Ryu / NurPhoto

A reality check

Yet the North Korean military is not as formidable as it appears. Their weakness was apparent in 2017 when a North Korean soldier defected to the South across the DMZ.

After he was shot by his former comrades during his escape, the doctor responsible for saving the soldier’s life reported that he had found inside the soldier’s body parasites he had only previously read about in medical textbooks.

Food security between the two Koreas is so stark there is even a notable height difference between South and North Koreans – North Korean soldiers are so malnourished that many have become physically stunted.

The South Korean military is also a much more modern fighting force. The South Korean Army boasts weapons such as K2 main battle tanks and K9 howitzers – many of which the South Korean government has exported to other countries – and has Apache attack helicopters.

In 2019, the South Korean Air Force bought 40 F-35 stealth fighters, and in 2020, it announced it would buy 40 more. Earlier this year, South Korea showed the world the prototype of its own indigenous 4.5 generation fighter jet, the KF-21 Boramae.

Not to be outdone, the South Korean Navy has three Sejong the Great-class Aegis destroyers and plans to buy three more. Recently, the South Korean Navy announced plans to enter into service its first aircraft carrier by 2033.

Meanwhile, North Korea’s tank forces are obsolete and impotent in the face of South Korean K2 Black Panther tanks, its geriatric air force belongs in a museum and its navy is hopelessly outgunned and outhulled.

Aside from its fleet of submarines, none of North Korea’s conventional forces could ever hope to challenge South Korea’s Armed Forces.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un observes a missile test. Photo: AFP / KCTV

Doomsday weapons

North Korean strategists are aware of South Korea’s military prowess and industrial output, which is why they have no intention of relinquishing their nuclear weapons.

Yet, having nuclear weapons is very different from using them. It’s because nuclear weapons are so terrifying that they are unusable. The moment one of their nuclear bombs detonates in South Korea, that would guarantee a vengeful retaliation from the full might of the South Korean and the United States militaries.

It is difficult to imagine anyone in North Korea’s top echelons of power would ever welcome such an eventuality.

Even if the US didn’t come to South Korea’s defense, South Korea has its own arsenal of missiles. While South Korea does not possess nuclear weapons, its mix of ballistic and cruise missiles is an integral part of its aptly named Kill Chain and Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation plans – a policy that threatens disproportionate responses to North Korean aggression.

In other words, not only would South Korea deploy its missiles – “decapitation weapons”–that could target North Korean leaders, but if war were to ever break out again on the Korean peninsula, South Korea’s existing non-nuclear weapons are sufficient to guarantee mutually assured destruction.

Not only are South Korea’s missiles already capable of targeting every inch of the Korean Peninsula, but the Hyunmoo-4, tested only last year, reportedly carries a payload as large as 2 tons to ranges of up to 800 kilometers.

Once it is completed, it is rumored that the Hyunmoo-4 will have a 3,000-kilometer range and be capable of supersonic flight.

In comparison, the “new-type tactical guided projectile” that North Korea tested in March is believed to be able to carry a payload of 2.5 tons. At this point, the debate between South and North Korean missile ranges and payload is strictly academic.

If the worst-case scenario ever broke out and both Koreas started lobbing all of their missiles at each other, the only difference would be that South Korea’s rubble would be radiated while North Korea’s rubble wouldn’t be.

After South Korea and the United States mutually agreed to lift the former’s missile restrictions and allow Seoul to develop solid-fuel space rockets, these agreements have ensured that North Korea no longer has a monopoly on offensive missile technology and capability.

South Korea also recently successfully tested a locally developed submarine-launched ballistic missile.

To ensure its second-strike capability in the event of a war, South Korea also has anti-missile defense systems – Patriot missiles and THAAD. In addition, South Korea is also developing its domestic anti-missile defense, the L-SAM, and plans to build its own version of the Iron Dome to counter North Korea’s artillery.

Unfortunately, it is true that there is no such thing as a perfect missile defense system. Currently, missile defense is prohibitively expensive, not at all foolproof and can be beaten by sheer numbers of volleys.

However, South Korea doesn’t require a perfect missile defense shield. All it requires is a semi-working shield to make North Korean strategists consider that they won’t be able to take out all of South Korea’s missiles before they are launched to find their targets – them.

South Korean Special Army soldiers perform martial arts during a rehearsal of the 72nd Armed Forces Day ceremony at the headquarters of the Special Warfare Command in Icheon. Photo: AFP / South Korean Defence Ministry

Perception matters

Many believe that the North Korean military is full of hungry soldiers with nothing to lose. After all, just because North Korean soldiers are infested with parasites does not mean that they cannot fight.

At the same, many also believe that the South Korean military includes pampered soldiers who grew up in an affluent society. As such, they reason that the typical North Korean soldier is more willing to fight and win.

Furthermore, even though the South Korean military might be better armed and better fed than its North Korean counterpart, as the US learned in Vietnam and, more recently, in Afghanistan, having access to better amenities, weapons and ration deliveries do not at all guarantee military victory.

However, it would be a mistake to compare American troops, who are hobbled by their political leaders and the need to be perceived as benign liberators while they attempt to pacify remote corners of the world that are far away from their shores, to South Korean troops who would be engaged in what would be nothing less than a war that would determine whether they may continue to exist.

Case in point, in November 2010, after North Korea opened fire and shelled Yeonpyeong-do, defying the cynics, South Korean troops didn’t desert their posts. Instead, their training kicked in, and South Korean marines fired back within 13 minutes.

One of the two South Korean marines who died that day, Staff Sergeant Seo Jeong-woo, was on leave but returned to base after the attack.

The South Korean military is not soft. On the contrary, it is a disciplined, well-armed and well-fed military that does not neglect its duties in defending its country.

South Korean soldiers participate in the Armed Forces Day at the Military Air Base in Daegu on October 1, 2019. Photo: AFP / Jeon Heon-kyun

On the other hand, not including being infested by parasites, there are also signs, including attention-grabbing defections, that the dedication of younger North Korean citizens who make up the KPA’s conscripts is not nearly as strong as its state media would have the outside world believe.

The erroneous view that South Korea’s military and soldiers are somehow weaker or less capable than North Korea’s serves Pyongyang’s goals at the expense of Seoul and Washington’s national interests.

South Korea ranked 10th worldwide in terms of nominal gross domestic product in 2020. As such, South Korea would have much to lose should the Korean War ever reignite. Combined with the perceived South Korean weakness vis-a-vis North Korea, South Korea’s political leaders and voters enter into negotiations with North Korea from a disadvantaged position.

South Koreans need to understand that their country is superior and that this superiority extends to the military. While triumphalism would not aid South Korea in dealing with North Korea, neither does an inferiority complex.

The South Korean government must address this problem. Tiptoeing around North Korea’s pride and placating North Korean demands must end. The way for that to change is for the South Korean government to change its own narrative, making clear to its citizens all the advantages their country – and their military – enjoys.

John Lee (johnwlee1013@gmail.com) is a blogger and freelance writer and columnist. A different version of this article was first published by Pacific Forum International. Lee’s work has also appeared in NK News, Channel News Asia, the South China Morning Post and La Croix. He lives in South Korea. Twitter: @koreanforeigner.