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A New Look at “The Korean Military Balance”

A New Look at "The Korean Military Balance"For those interested in the current state of military affairs on and around the Korean peninsula, a recent report out of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, The Korean Military Balance, is worth a look. Spearheaded by CSIS’s indefatigable Anthony Cordesman, the report provides a fine-grained analysis of the strategic balance of forces on the Korean peninsula, based on, as far as I can tell, the most concerted effort in recent years to consolidate data sets from China, Japan, the US, the ROK, and the DPRK. This report is about as close as you can come to a tour de force of East Asian security analysis: its worth reading if for no other reason than the treasure trove of data and source material scattered throughout its footnotes.

The report includes, among other things, brief discussions of military spending in East Asia, military modernization in the DPRK and ROK, force estimates, asymmetric and paramilitary forces, terrorism and counter-terrorism, and missile/WMD forces.

My only reservation – and it is a small one – is that the report, focused as it is on the raw data of the last few years, makes a minimal effort to ground the present-day outlook in the historical forces that have shaped this security landscape. Coming in at a whopping 192 pages it is perhaps for the best that it limits its scope in this way, but a more concerted effort to address the historical and diplomatic textures of the present composition would do much to round out our understanding of the Korean conflict beyond its statistical composition.

Some key passages:

“the DPRK has steadily declined as an economic power and in every aspect of competitiveness with the ROK. While it is impossible to quantify the impact of the DPRK’s economic problems on its military capabilities and readiness, the fact remains that it has major problems in providing adequate stocks of the basic commodities like fuel.” (xi)

“the DPRK’s ideological hostility to the ROK and the US could lead Pyongyang to escalate in ways that are unpredictable and make a “rational bargainer” approach to scenario planning and predicting escalation highly uncertain because the perceptions of both sides can differ so much in any given scenario.” (xxi)

“the DPRK’s ideological extremism and reliance on the cult of the leader may interact with the fact it has not had any serious military experience since the cease-fire in the Korean War. Its complex mix of regular and internal security forces and massive bureaucracy may interact with ideology and reliance on the leader in ways that make its military operations both inefficient and unpredictable and help lead to unexpected levels of escalation or tactical and strategic behavior.” (18)

“Any major DPRK success on the ground, or escalation of a war, would almost certainly lead the US to escalate its forces and to expand its range of targets in the DPRK…China might, or might not, choose to intervene at any stage in such a conflict—either to limit or deter any action against the DPRK or to ensure that ROK and US forces did not “occupy” part of the DPRK.” (40)



David Fedman

David Fedman is a PhD student in the History Department of Stanford University where he focuses on modern Japanese and Korean history. He lives in San Francisco, California.