Around 4 a.m. on June 25, 1950 over 75,000 North Korean troops marched into U.S.-backed South Korea with the goal of spreading communism to the entire peninsula. This would spark the forgotten war, a conflict that technically never ended.
Military delegations from the United Nations Command, China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or North Korea, signed a formal armistice in 1953 ending “all acts of armed force in Korea until a peaceful settlement is achieved.”
However, an armistice is routinely seen as the prelude to an official peace treaty. For example, six months before the Treaty of Versailles, the truce that legitimately concluded the first world war, there was an armistice between all involved nations to create a temporary state of peace. In the case of the Korean War, the armistice, without a following peace treaty, just created an uncertain period of temporary peace. So technically, North Korea is still considered a formal adversary of the United States, and vice versa.
Even without this short history lesson it’s pretty evident that the U.S. and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK for short, are not allies in the slightest. It has been a familiarity for the U.S. to receive threats from leaders of the DPRK, past and present, but lately tensions have risen. In recent months Kim Jong Un has vowed to launch a nuclear strike on “the heart of the U.S.” and President Trump reacted with his trademark “fire and fury” remark.
This past summer tensions rose to an unprecedented level when Kim Jong Un ordered his forces to strategize an attack against the U.S. territory of Guam. Although the DPRK ended up sidelining these specific plans they continued their hostile behavior by launching a ballistic missile over Japan. This prompted the Japanese Ministry of Defense to submit their largest budget proposal ever. The U.S. responded in numerous ways, one of which was conducting air-drills over the peninsula of Korea with nuclear-capable bombers. It seems that such militaristic grandstanding is inching the U.S. and its allies into a potential armed conflict with the DPRK.
With that said, what would a war with North Korea look like? First let’s look into the basic numbers. The United States military is in possession of over 6,800 openly documented nuclear warheads. North Korea is believed to have between 30 to 60. The U.S. spends an average of $600 billion annually—around three percent of our GDP—on its military budget while the DPRK devotes around $10 to $15 billion—nearly 20 percent of its GDP.
Furthermore, in terms of manpower, the United States Armed Forces employs an average of 1.2 million plus active duty personnel with an estimated 800,000 in reserves and approximately 120 million fit-for-service. The DPRK retains around 940,000 plus active duty personnel with approximately 5.5 million in reserves and 10 million fit-for-service.
Regarding naval power, the United States Navy is the world’s largest and most advanced. The U.S. currently has 10 supercarriers. This number doesn’t yet include the newly commissioned Gerald R. Ford supercarrier. The Ford itself costs the same amount that the DPRK spends on its entire military in one year. The DPRK’s Korean People’s Navy currently operates no aircraft carrier. Moreover, North Korea is estimated to have around 70 submarines, all Cold War era or older. The U.S. has approximately the same number; however, the technological differences are staggering.
Another metric taken into account when comparing adversary nations is their consumption vs. production of oil; are they self-sustaining? By a 2012 report it is estimated that North Korea uses 15,000 barrels of oil per day while only producing 150 barrels itself a day. This means they produce roughly one percent of their daily consumption. The U.S., per a 2015 report, uses 19 million barrels of oil per day and produces nearly 10 million itself in the same time period. This means the United States produces around 52 percent of their daily consumption of oil.
If these nations were to engage in war they would most likely have to rely on their own oil production and reserves at some point, assuming opposition or isolation from countries they currently import outside oil from. In terms of reserves, North Korea is said to have no oil reserves at all while the U.S. is estimated to have an aggregate reserve of 36.4 billion barrels of oil.
Now that we have explored the superficial aspects of military strength we can dig a little deeper into the U.S.’s current presence in the area. Fifty miles from the border between North and South Korea the U.S. operates Osan Air Base, the hub of U.S. ground and air forces in the area. Home to the 51st Fighter Wing, the base has a simple motto, “Ready to Fight Tonight.” Armed with numerous Patriot Missile Defense Systems, the base can effectively destroy a ballistic missile fired by North Korea. Placed strategically out of reach of North Korean rocket systems, Osan houses thousands of American troops who are relentlessly prepared to put the “Fight Tonight” motto into action.
Furthermore, the U.S. Navy maintains a constant and substantial naval presence in the seas surrounding the peninsula. The 7th Fleet, the largest “forward-deployed” unit of the American Navy, patrols 124 million square kilometers of water equipped with 60-70 ships, around 200 aircrafts and an estimated 40,000 sailors and Marines. Used as a “big stick” for U.S. foreign policy in the region, the 7th Fleet could surely overwhelm the air, naval and ground forces of the DPRK.
A war between the U.S. and the DPRK would undoubtedly result in an American victory. However, if outside nations such as China or Russia support the dictatorship that theory becomes blurred. Similar to the previous Korean War, backing from Russia, China or both would allow the North Korean regime to equalize their military strength against the United States. Support from China, however, is unlikely considering they have openly sided with the U.S. in terms of sanctions against the DPRK of late. Russia, unfortunately, is on the fence.
All in all, along with its allies and awe-inspiring military strength, the United States Armed Forces cast a massive shadow over North Korea’s. As needed in the realm of military leadership, retired Marine Corps General and current Sec. of Defense James “Mad Dog” Mattis warned the DPRK to “cease any…actions that would lead to the end of its regime and destruction of its people.”
Salvatore Pinero is a fourth-year student majoring in communication studies. He can be reached at SP0828988@wcupa.edu.