So… what if North and South had it out sans US intervention?

This is the question the Maeil Gyeongje asks. And the answer is that the South would ultimately win… but without preparation, it would be ugly. As a military official says, no matter how bad the North Korean economy is and how outdated their weapons are, they can still fight for two or three days.

A 2004 analysis report by the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses (KIDA), using RAND’s argame model, revealed South Korea’s army strength to be 80% of North Korea’s, its naval strength 90% of the North’s, and its air force strength 103% of the North’s.

The Defense Ministry’s 2008 defense white paper, published in February, noted that the North has 1,600 more tanks, 300 more warships and 350 more warplanes than the South.

OK, this doesn’t seem particularly encouraging.

The KIDA report, however, lowballed South Korean capabilities while assuming the highest figures for the North, and it did not take into consideration C4I and information capabilities, the most important factors in modern warfare. And even if you could objectively input the numbers, you can’t weigh strategy.

According to material submitted to the National Assembly late last year by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the North and South Korean militaries do not compare. The Joint Chiefs noted that North Korean tanks have weak night fighting capabilities, their armored vehicles cannot cross rivers and their field guns are inaccurate.

North Korea, for instance, has T-34 and T-54/55 tanks with 88mm and 100mm guns, as well as Chonma-ho tanks with 115mm guns. These tanks, however, are not equipped with infra-red detection equipment and are not watertight, giving them limited night-fighting and river-crossing capabilities.

North Korea’s 3,000 or so T-54/55s and PT-76s are outdated tanks introduced in 1964. In fact, of the 3,900 or so tanks possessed by North Korea, over 90% are reportedly of older designs.

South Korea, on the other hand, has K-2 tanks, which come decked out with all sorts of nifty tracking and fire control equipment and Cobra gunships with stuff that can penetrate 9cm of armor.

The South also has armored vehicles with outstanding river-crossing capabilities and K-9 self-propelled guns with automatic firing control. Moreover, of South Korea’s 2,300 tanks, only about half are outdated models like its 400 or so M47s introduced in 1959 and 800 or so M48A5s introduced in 1977. On the other hand, the South has about 1,200 new model K1A1 1,200 tanks and 80 T-80Us, and is pushing the introduction of the much more advanced XK-2 tank.

The North Korean navy has its issues, too. North Korean warships aren’t good on the high seas and their conventional weaponry gives them limited night-time operational capabilities.

The only capably warships North Korea has are the 1,500t Najin class and 1,640t Soho class. Most of its ships are small craft of 402t that are deployed along the front line.

South Korea, on the other hand, has the 4,500t KDX and 7,600t Sejong the Great class, an Aegis warship capable of independent operations.

Including the P-3C, South Korea also has better naval aviation and long-range attack capabilities. For example, the North Korea’s largest warship, the Najin-class, would get sunk by South Korea’s Haeseong ship-to-ship missile (with a range of 150km) even before it got near a Sejong the Great-class warship.

In the submarine department, North Korea has 22 Romeo-class (1,830t) subs and about 60 semi-submersibles. The Rome-class compares with South Korea’s Type 214 Son Won-il-class (1,800t) in tonnage, but not in capabilities.

The Son Won-il class can cruise underwater at 7.4km an hour for 13 days, while the Romeo class is an older type that must raise an air intake mast above water to recharge its diesel engines.

Then there’s the air force. You can really feel the difference when you compare the two sides’ top fighters, the South’s F-15K and the North’s MiG-29. In an air battle, the F-15K — with its longer radar — would be firing missiles at the MiG even before the MiG knew it was there. And it terms of ground-attack capabilities, the MiG-29 has only short-range guided munitions, while the F-15K can launch precision strikes against major facilities in Pyongyang from 280km out with the SLAM-ER. The ROK Air Force believes one F-15K can take on 10 North Korean MiG-29s. Then there’s the rest of the crap North Korea flies — the country’s 840 warplanes include about 362 MiG-15s and 362 MiG-21s introduced around the Korean War and in the 1960s. South Korea’s 490 warplanes include 130 KF-16s it introduced in the 1990s and 39 F-15Ks.

Marmot’s Note: North Korea has 1.02 million troops. South Korea has 650,000 troops. My favorite stat, though, is the defense budget — South Korea’s defense budget in 2008 was 26.64 trillion won, nearly 390 times North Korea’s 2008 defense budget of 68.47 billion won.

Anyway, the moral of this story — and its one I really wish US pundits would pay attention to — is that South Korea is more that capable of defending itself. This is not 1950.