As tensions with North Korea rise following Pyongyang’s alleged hydrogen bomb test, there is the specter of a renewed war on the peninsula.
In the years following the Korean Armistice Agreement in 1953—which ended the conflict in a ceasefire without formally terminating hostilities—the U.S. military was the guarantor of the Republic of Korea’s (ROK) security. More than sixty years later, United States Forces Korea (USFK)—ed by U.S. Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti—maintains a force of over 28, 500 troops in South Korea to defend Seoul from Pyongyang’s depredations. But by-and-large, South Korea is defended by its own large, well-trained and well-equipped forces—albeit under U.S. command during times of war.
Indeed, with 630, 000 troops under arms and equipped with advanced hardware, the Republic of Korea Armed Forces (ROKAF) had been slated to take wartime command of its own forces by December 2015, but the United States agreed to delay the transfer of command to allay the fears of South Korean conservatives until about the mid-2020s.
South Korea has also asked the United States to delay moving its frontline combat troops away from the border with the North. That means that the U.S. Army will keep the 210th Field Artillery Brigade and its M270A1 Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) batteries in place at Camp Casey in Dongducheon—just north of Seoul. Those artillery pieces are part of the Combined Forces Command’s defenses against the mass of North Korean artillery that could reduce the massive city to smoldering rubble in a matter of hours.
If the situation on the Korean peninsula does ever degenerate into a new shooting war, Seoul would likely be badly damaged. But apart from the loss to the city, the ROKAF would be more than capable of handling the Korean People’s Army (KPA) during any conflict short of a nuclear war or direct intervention by the People’s Republic of China—where Washington would have to step in with its vast arsenal.
The North’s KPA—while it is enormous—is mostly trained and equipped with antiquated Soviet hardware from the 1950s and ‘60s. While the KPA has some modern elements and has a number asymmetrical capabilities it hopes might be able to offset its massive technological and training deficit, North Korean forces are not likely to be a match for the ROKAF in a conventional set piece battle. The only factors in their favor are sheer numbers.
The most threatening component of the KPA is the Korean People's Army Ground Force (KPAGF)—which has thousands of tanks and artillery pieces. North Korea’s most advanced tank is the P'okpung-ho—of which it has perhaps 500 examples—but the is vehicle is a poorly reverse-engineered version of the Soviet T-62 (with elements drawn from the T-72 and other Chinese tanks). The rest of the KPA’s vast tank armada is comprised of antiquated Soviet T-55s, T-62s and Chinese and indigenous knockoffs of those Russian designs.