North and South Korea are technically at war because they only signed a truce to end of their 1950-53 war, not a treaty. The North has about 1.2 million active duty troops, backed up by 7.7 million reservists, and is one of the world's most militarised states. The South Korean military has 686,000 active duty troops and is backed up by 2½ million militia force in South Korean home guard and reserves. Importantly, South Korea is also backed up by United States firepower and 28,000 American troops. Even though South Korea is twice as large as North Korea, the North Korean army is twice as large as the South Korean army.

The confrontational relationship between North Korea (the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, DPRK) and South Korea (the Republic of Korea ROK) is one of the last legacies of the Cold War. The Korean peninsula remains divided, with two large armies tactically deployed forward along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that is demilitarized in name only.

The Korean peninsula is the world's most densely armed zone with almost two million combat-ready troops confronting each other across the DMZ. Seoul faces the constant threat of war with quixotic, and militarily-powerful North Korea. Since the 1950s, North and South Korea have faced each other across one of the world's most heavily armed borders. Chunghee Sarah Soh wrote in “Countries and Their Cultures”: The North Korean invasion in June 1950 led to the fratricidal Korean War that ended in 1953, killing a million South Korean civilians. Since then, the armed forces have grown to be the largest and most influential government organization.

Jung-yoon Choi and Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Seoul is only 30 miles from the demilitarized zone, well within range of North Korea's conventional artillery...Over the years, North Korea's propagandists have lambasted South Koreans as "puppet warmongers," and with numbing frequency threatened to turn their country into a "sea of fire." The actual attacks in recent years have been limited but nonetheless deadly. In 2010, North Korea shelled a military base on nearby Yeonpyeong island, killing four South Koreans, and are believed to be responsible for the sinking of a South Korean naval corvette that killed 46. [Source: Jung-yoon Choi and Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, April 05, 2013]

Armed Forces: North Korea Versus South Korea

South Korea Military personnel: approximately 600,000 active duty personnel (465,000 Army; 70,000 Navy/Marines; 65,000 Air Force) (2019 est.).
North Korea Military personnel: approximately 1.1 million to 1.2 million active troops (950,000-1.0 million in the Army; 110-120,000 in the Air Force; 60,000 in the Navy; 10,000 in the Strategic Missile Forces); There are an addition 200,000 in Public Security forces (2020) [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020 =]

South Korean defense budget in 2015 was US$33.2 billion.
North Korean defense budget was between US$3.7 billion and US$4.2 billion annually between 2007 and 2017. =

South Korean Army's equipment: 2,330 main battle tanks, 40 armored infantry fighting vehicles, 2,480 armored personnel carriers, over 10,774 artillery pieces, and 60 attack helicopters.
North Korean Army's equipment: 4,200 tanks, 2,200 armored vehicles, 8,600 pieces of field artillery, 5,500 multiple rocket launchers, 300 helicopters. [Source: Associated Press, 2016 ++]

South Korean Navy's ships and sea vessels: 20 tactical submarines, 6 destroyers, nine frigates, 28 corvettes, 80 patrol/coastal vessels, and 15 mine warfare ships.
North Korean Navy's ships and sea vessels: 430 patrol combatant ships, 260 amphibious landing craft, 20 mine warfare vessels, about 70 submarines, 40 support ships. ++

South Korean Air Force: 540 combat-capable aircraft, including 210 fighters and 283 fighter ground attack aircraft. North Korean Air Force: Over 800 combat aircraft, 300 helicopters and more than 300 transport planes . In the mid 2000s the North Korean air force had 80 bombers, 541 fighters and ground attack fighters, an estimated 316 transports, 588 transport helicopters (supported by 24 armed helicopters), 228 training aircraft, at least 1 unmanned air vehicle, and a large inventory of air-to- air missiles and surface-to-air missiles. [Source: Associated Press, March 1, 2016; Library of Congress, July 2007**]

The South Korean army’s major military equipment in the mid 2000s included 3,500 main battle tanks, 560 light tanks, 2,500 armored personnel carriers, 3,500 pieces of towed artillery, 4,400 pieces of self-propelled artillery, 2,500 multiple rocket launchers, 7,500 mortars, 24 surface-to- surface rockets and missiles, an unknown number of antitank guided weapons, 1,700 recoilless launchers, and 11,000 air defense guns. [Source: Library of Congress, July 2007**]

In the mid 2000s, North Korean had 92 submarines, three frigates, six corvettes, 43 missile craft, 158 large patrol craft, 103 fast torpedo craft, more than 334 patrol force craft, 10 amphibious ships, two coastal defense missile batteries, 130 hovercraft, 23 minesweepers, one depot ship, eight midget ships, and four survey vessels. North Korea completed a naval base for “attack hovercraft” in the early 2010s. [Source: Associated Press, March 1, 2016; Library of Congress, July 2007, The Telegraph]

U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) operates about 90 combat planes, 40 attack helicopters, 50 tanks and some 60 Patriot missile launchers,

Military Forces in the 2010s
North Korea — South Korea — United States in South Korea — United States in Japan
Total Troops — 1,200,000 — 600,000 — 28,500 — 55,000
Ground Forces — 950,000 — 465,000 — 23,500
Naval Forces — 60,000 — 65,000 (and Marines)
Air Forces — 110,000 — 60,000
Reserve Forces — 7,700,000 — 4,500,000
Tanks — 4,200 — 2,330
Armored Vehicles — 2,200 — 2,540
Artillery — 8,600 — 10,774

Multiple-rocket launchers — 5,500 — 2,500
Combat Aircraft — 800 — 540 — 90
Attack Helicopters — 50 — 60 — 40
Helicopters — 300 — 630
Major Combat Ships ---- 3 — 39
Patrol Ships — 430 — 105
Submarines 70 — 20 — 0
[Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020, Associated Press 2016]

Military Forces in the Early 2000s
North Korea — South Korea — United States in South Korea — United States in Japan
Total Troops — 1,200,000 — 686,000 — 38,000 — 42,000
Ground Forces — 950,000 — 560,000 — 28,000 — 21,000
Naval Forces — 46,000 — 60,000 — 340 — 7,700
Air Forces — 86,000 — 63,000 — 8,700 — 13,100
Reserve Forces — 4,700,000 — 4,500,000
Tanks — 3,500 — 2,330 — 50

Artillery — 10,400 — 4,800 — 90

Multiple-rocket launchers — 2,400 — 114 — 36

Combat Aircraft — 850 — 550 — 102
Attack Helicopters — 50 — 140 — 18
Helicopters — 310 — 630
Major Combat Ships ---- 3 — 39 — 0
Patrol Ships — 424 — 105
Submarines 26 — 20 — 0

North Korean Threat from the South Korean Perspective

South Korea faces one of the biggest security challenges in the world, according to Business Insider, “an opaque, belligerent, nuclear-armed northern neighbor with the largest artillery force in the world.” The South Korean government regards North Korea as the major threat to peninsular stability. North Korea has the fourth largest military force in the world, and the largest special operations, submarine, and artillery forces in the world. Whereas in 1981 North Korea had 40 percent of its armed forces deployed in an offensive mode between the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and Pyongyang, by 1998 that level had risen to 65 percent, and it stood at 70 percent in 2005. Military planners in South Korea expect no more than two days’ warning of an imminent attack by North Korea. [Source: Library of Congress, May 2005 **]

In 1998 and 2003, North Korea launched missiles over the Sea of Japan (or East Sea), an act that raised serious concerns in South Korea, Japan, and the United States. In February 2005, North Korea admitted it had nuclear weapons capability, and it is estimated that North Korea might have one or two actual nuclear weapons and enough plutonium harvested for about nine weapons. In May 2005, another missile test was conducted over the Sea of Japan. The difficulty of predicting the actions of the North Korean leadership, the lack of reliable information from North Korea, and shifts in U.S. policy regarding the North remain stumbling blocks to reducing tensions on the peninsula. **

After the division of the peninsula, North Korea used subversion and sabotage against South Korea as part of its effort to achieve reunification. North Korea was unsuccessful at developing a covert political infrastructure in South Korea or forging links with dissidents resident in South Korea, and after the early 1960s Pyongyang's efforts were unproductive. Based on available evidence, in 1990 it appeared that Pyongyang placed or recruited only a limited number of political agents and sympathizers in the southern part of the peninsula. Pyongyang's agents acted individually for the most part, did not maintain regular contact with one another, and received only intermittent support and guidance. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

North Korean propaganda concentrated on weakening the social fabric and sowing discord between the South Korean government and the population. Indirectly, North Korea sought to turn dissident elements within South Korean society into propagandists and agitators who would undermine the government. Pyongyang achieved some limited indirect success in this effort, as indicated by the repetition of some of its themes by student dissidents. North Korean coverage of dissident activity in the south was on occasion so timely and accurate as to lead some members of the South Korean government to believe that dissent in the south was directed from the north. However, despite similarities between North Korean propaganda and dissident statements, South Korean security agencies never convincingly established a direct connection between the dissidents and the north, although in the late 1980s some elements among dissident groups increasingly used Marxist-Leninist language and North Korean political themes (see Political Extremism and Political Violence).*

External Threat from North Korean Side

The major threat perceived by North Korea is from the United States, South Korea, and Japan. According to Volume 2 of Pyongyang-published “Women of Korea”: "The U.S. imperialists have stationed more than 40,000 troops and more than 1000 nuclear weapons in South Korea, and they, with nearly one million puppet troops, are preparing for an invasion against North Korea...Their aim is to create "two Koreas," to divide Korea permanently and to continuously occupy South Korea as their colony and using South Korea as a bridgehead, to make an invasion of North Korea and Asia."

A book by Kim Jong Il called “P'anmunjom” reports: "The U.S. imperialist aggressors drew the Military Demarcation Line to divide Korea and her people by artificial means, P'anmunjom is a place through which the line runs and a court which exposes and vehemently denounces the U.S. imperialist criminal aggression in Korea to the whole world. The U.S. imperialists started a war of aggression (1950-53) in order swallow up the whole of Korea. Buthere ar P'anmunjom they went down on their knees before the Korean people and signed the Armistice Agreement."

Philip Gourevitch wrote in the Observer: “While the majority of these attacks has been aimed at South Korea, the chief target of Pyongyang's verbal assaults over the same half century has been the United States, the archenemy, and in the North's propaganda it is Washington that is perpetually on the offensive. Even the mildest statements of Yankee disdain for the Kim dynasty are treated as aggressive, tantamount to declarations of imminent invasion. Of course, to be forever at war with such a powerful foe makes a small country feel bigger. And the intensity of the Kims' anti-American harangues has had a galvanic effect on North Koreans. In a typical outburst, in 1968, Kim Il Sung declared: 'The peoples of all countries making revolution should tear limbs off the U.S. beast and behead it all over the world. The U.S. imperialists appear to be strong, but when the peoples of many countries attack them from all sides and join in mutilating them in that way, they will become impotent and bite the dust in the end.' [Source: Philip Gourevitch, Observer Magazine, The Guardian, November 2, 2003]

“The horrible weirdness of North Korea makes the place easier to parody than to make sense of, and it is folly to make too much sense of it. For anyone not in their thrall or under their thumb, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il appear so monstrous and so aberrant that it is almost an insult to reason to acknowledge that their primitive, impoverished ideology is not an expression of madness.

“But the truth is scarier: from within the narrow parameters of its own fanatical self-interest — and notwithstanding its lying, its wildness, its imprudence, its cruelty, its capriciousness, its paranoia, its messianic pretensions, and its desperation — the Pyongyang regime behaves rationally. Kim Jong Il's purpose as a ruler is to sustain his power by any and all means, and whether he believes his own propaganda is, at this point, irrelevant. Never has such a small, economically weak state succeeded in making such a big deal of itself for so long. That North Korea has done so is a consequence of the fact that, while Pyongyang demands that others leave it alone, it has never seen fit to return the favour.

South Korean Defense Strategy

There are three critical stages to the South Korean defense strategy: the Kill Chain, the Korea Air and Missile Defense (KAMD) system, and the Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation (KMPR) plan. Stage one involves eliminating North Korean nuclear and missile facilities before a nuclear weapon can be fired once a preemptive strike is detected. Stage two focuses on intercepting incoming missiles. Stage three involves surgical strikes and special forces operations against the North Korean leadership and key assets.

James Hardy wrote in The National Interest: South Korea's Hyunmu-2 ballistic missile and Hyunmu-3 cruise missile are the pointy end of a spear that South Korean officials call "Kill Chain": an ambitious program that aims to knock out North Korea's ballistic missiles while they were still on the ground. “Kill Chain” was elucidated in the 2012 White Paper, which stated that "the ROK military will decisively strike not only the origin of enemy provocation, but also the command and support forces behind the provocation.” “To this end, the ROK military is not only reinforcing its precision surveillance, target acquisition, and precision strike capabilities in the Northwest Islands and the surrounding areas, but is also significantly strengthening its 'immediate retaliation forces', including air defense and anti-missile defense capabilities, as well as airborne and standby forces," the paper added. [Source: James Hardy, The National Interest, July 2, 2014]

“The key driver for this is the transfer of military operational control (OPCON) from U.S. to South Korean command... Along with “Kill Chain” Seoul is building the KAMD local missile-defense system based on second-hand Patriot missile batteries and locally built air-defense radars. However, there are serious reservations about “Kill Chain”, one of which is whether it will actually work. Perhaps the most compelling argument against it was made by Yonsei University Professor Choi Jong-kun, who, in 2013, outlined for the Hankyoreh newspaper the core problems with the program.

“The first is its ambitious scope: “Kill Chain” has to find evidence of an imminent threat anywhere in North Korea, assess it and pass a viable risk assessment to the top of South Korea's military command in minutes so it can order a pre-emptive strike. The system then has to scan North Korea for secondary sites that may also be preparing to launch ballistic missiles. Even if South Korea invests heavily in its ISR capabilities, the sheer size of North Korea–and the fact that much of its military infrastructure is underground–suggests Seoul will be hard-pressed to supply the blanket surveillance it would need to function.

“The second major issue critics have with "Kill Chain" is the preemptive doctrine on which it is based. Proponents argue that it sends exactly the right kind of message to Pyongyang: that North Korea’s mobile ballistic-missile program is not the deterrent it thought it would be, and in an arms race, its much richer southern neighbor has time and resources on its side. The counterargument, helpfully outlined by North Korean state newspaper Rodung Sinmun, is that it unnecessarily aggravates tensions on the peninsula. "If the puppets launch a preemptive strike, or even make a twitch, they will face our merciless revenge," the paper wrote in an October 2013 editorial.

North Korean Defense Strategy and Preparedness for War

North Korea is continuously prepared for war. Philip Gourevitch wrote in the Observer: “ From behind its barbed wire, North Korea has been on a constant war footing for 50 years, maintaining one of the biggest armies on earth, with 1m battle-ready men and the largest special-ops force anywhere — 100,000 strong.” Lines between civilian and military activities are often unclear. Banners in urging workers to do "Speed Work" have been replaced by ones that read "Speed Battle" and "Battle at Missile Speed." [Source: Philip Gourevitch, Observer Magazine, The Guardian, November 2, 2003]

North Korea constantly relives the Korean War and keeps its population on almost continuous standby for the next war. In a press conference in the 1990s the high ranking defector Hwang Jang-yop said that North Korea is prepared to wage war against the south and he is sure that an attack is inevitable. He said that North Korea was self-sufficient in weapons production and the majority of the countries weapons were hidden in tunnels. "North Korea is capable of scorching South Korea with nuclear weapons, chemical weapons and rockets," wrote Hwang in one report. "North Korea believes that if there is a war, it would certainly win."

North Korea is capable of shelling Seoul relentlessly. Some count 5 million casualties. Ian Vandaelle wrote in the National Post: “ The pre-eminence of the military is largely the result of” a “strategy that uses threats of invasion and unprovoked attacks to influence foreign relations and extract foreign aid. Much of the forces are concentrated along the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone on the border with South Korea. [Source: Ian Vandaelle, National Post, December 20, 2011; [Source: Library of Congress, June 1993]

Despite its periodic assurances to the contrary, North Korea continues to take actions to further develop its nuclear weapons program as a counter to foreign nuclear weapons dominance. North Korea has refused to dismantle its nuclear weapons program despite repeated calls to do so from the United States, South Korea, Japan, and other nations and international organizations. In February 2005, North Korea confirmed that it had manufactured nuclear weapons to defend itself against the United States. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]


The border between North and South Korea is the most heavily fortified border in the world. The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that stretches about two kilometers on each side of the border is located primarily above the 38th parallel (38 degrees latitude). Running over mostly mountainous land, it is approximately 254 kilometers (158 miles) long and four kilometers (2½ miles wide.) The border itself between South Korea and North Korea — which is disputed and exactly in the middle of the DMZ — is called the Military Demarcation Line (MDL). A Civilian Control Zone (CCZ), which unescorted civilians can not enter, extends for five to 20 kilometers (three to 12 miles south) of the South Korean DMZ line. [Source: Tom O’Neill, National Geographic, July 2003]

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “Established by the 1953 armistice agreement that ended the fighting in the Korean War, the DMZ is a strip of land across the Korean peninsula that separates the forces of South Korea and the United Nations Command in the South, and North Korean forces in the North. The DMZ is 158 miles long and 2.48 miles wide, with a lineThough there are considerable fortifications in and around the DMZ, it has been largely undisturbed since the Korean War and has developed into something of a wildlife refuge, especially for migratory birds. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

Rivers, marshes, hills, bays, islands and open sea divides South Korea and North Korea. The North Korean army has 700,000 troops stationed withing 60 kilometers of the border, armed with 13,000 pieces or artillery capable of firing up to 500,000 rounds an hour. In 1999 and 2000 alone, 500 news pieces or artillery were added capable of hitting targets further away. To the south are 550,000 South Korean soldiers and 28,500 American troops. The U.S. Army’s Second Division is the most forward positioned U.S. division in the world. In the early 2000s, it was spread out over 25 camps to prevent it from being overrun quickly. Unlike other U.S. military installations, tanks and artillery are loaded with ammunition at all times, allowing them to counter-attack in seconds. The number of soldiers allowed off base is tightly controlled. [Source: Newsweek]

North Korea Threatens to Turns Seoul Into a Sea of Fire

In February 2011, U.S. and South Korean forces conducted large-scale joint military exercises. In response North Korea threatened to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire”. U.S. officials said the exercised had been planned long in advance and presented no threat.

CNN reported: “One day after South Korea staged exercises near Yeonpyeong Island marking the anniversary of North Korea's deadly shelling, the North's military threatened "a sea of fire" upon the South's presidential office, the South's Yonhap News Agency reported. A year ago, North Korea launched an attack on the civilian island of Yeonpyeong, killing two marines and two civilians and shattering the sense of security that South Koreans had enjoyed for almost 60 years. The island shelling came half a year after North Korea torpedoed a naval ship, the Cheonan, killing 46 sailors. [Source: CNN, November 25, 2011]

“North Korea's military supreme command denounced the South's anniversary exercise as a rehearsal for war against the North and warned that the North's armed forces are ready for "a decisive battle to counter any military provocation," Yonhap reported. If South Korea dares "to impair the dignity of (the North) again and fire one bullet or shell toward its inviolable territorial waters, sky and land, the deluge of fire on Yonphyong Island will lead to that in Chongwadae and the sea of fire in Chongwadae to the deluge of fire sweeping away the stronghold of the group of traitors," the command said in an official (North) Korean Central News Agency account, according to Yonhap.

“North Korea invoked identical rhetoric in 1994, when Pyongyang had expelled international nuclear inspectors and threatened to turn Seoul into a "sea of fire." With the United States mulling air strikes on North Korean facilities in 1994, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter flew into Pyongyang to meet Kim Il Sung, and that set the scene for the so-called "Agreed Framework" under which North Korea would give up its nuclear facilities in return for light water reactors from the international community.

The “sea of fire” was used again in 2015 after South Korean activists have angered Pyongyang by firing leaflets across the border at night. Christopher Harress wrote in the International Business Times: North Korea said Friday it will attack Seoul unless its southern neighbor stops activists from launching propaganda leaflets across the border, according to a report in the Korea Observer, a pro-South Korea news website. The threat comes days after South Korea accused Pyongyang of laying land mines that maimed two soldiers who were walking on a path inside the southern side of the demilitarized zone. While the North has denied laying the mines, the incidents have added to the deteriorating relations between the neighboring countries. "The puppet forces should not forget even a moment that the whole of South Korea might turn into a sea of fire due to the foolhardy leaflet-scattering operations," the North warned in a statement released through its official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). [Source: Christopher Harress, International Business Times, August 14, 2015]

North Korea Puts Army on High Alert and Warns of 'Horrible Disaster'

In 2013, North Korea said it put its military on high alert, ready to launch operations. Reuters reported: Pyongyang stepped up tensions “after weeks of rhetoric against the United States and South Korea, whom it accuses of instigating hostility.” It “has often issued threats to attack the South and the United States but has rarely turned them into action. Such hostile rhetoric is widely seen as a way to push its domestic and international political agenda. [Source: Jack Kim, Reuters, October 8, 2013]

A spokesman for the North's military warned the United States of "disastrous consequences" for moving a group of ships, including an aircraft carrier, into a South Korean port. "In this connection, the units of all services and army corps level of the KPA received an emergency order from its supreme command to re-examine the operation plans already ratified by it and keep themselves fully ready to promptly launch operations anytime," the spokesman said, referring to the Korean People's Army (KPA). "The U.S. will be wholly accountable for the unexpected horrible disaster to be met by its imperialist aggression forces' nuclear strike means," the spokesman said in a statement carried by the official KCNA news agency.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has ordered his country's military to be on standby for combat, the head of the South's National Intelligence Service said in a report to parliament, according to Yonhap news agency. South Korea's Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin said later there was no indication of unusual activity by the North's military. Washington brushed off the North's warning. "We've seen this type of rhetoric from North Korea before," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. "Such comments from North Korea will do nothing to end (its) isolation or reduce the costs (it) pays for defying the international community."

North Korea Says Enters "State of War" Against South

In March 2013, North Korea said it was entering a "state of war" with South Korea. Seoul and the U.S. dismissed statement as idle tough talk. Reuters reported: Pyongyang also threatened to close a border industrial zone, the last remaining example of inter-Korean cooperation which gives the impoverished North access to $2 billion in trade a year. The United States said it took Pyongyang's threats seriously but cautioned that the North had a history of bellicose rhetoric. Tensions have been high since Kim Jong-un ordered a third nuclear weapons test in February 2013, breaching U.N. sanctions and ignoring warnings from North Korea's sole major ally, China, not to do so. "From this time on, the North-South relations will be entering the state of war and all issues raised between the North and the South will be handled accordingly," a statement carried by the North's official KCNA news agency said. [Source: Jack Kim, Reuters, March 30, 2013]

“KCNA said the statement was issued jointly by the North's government, ruling party and other organizations. The Seoul government said there was nothing in the North's latest statement to cause particular alarm. "North Korea's statement today ... is not a new threat but is the continuation of provocative threats," the South's Unification Ministry, which handles political ties with the North, said in a statement.

“Kim signed an order putting the North's missile units on standby to attack U.S. military bases in South Korea and the Pacific, after the United States flew two nuclear-capable stealth bombers over the Korean peninsula in a rare show of force. U.S. officials described the flight as a diplomatic sortie aimed at reassuring allies South Korea and Japan, and at trying to nudge Pyongyang back to nuclear talks, though there was no guarantee Kim Jong-un would get the message as intended.” The North has been threatening to attack the South and U.S. military bases almost on a daily basis since the beginning of March, when U.S. and South Korean militaries started routine drills that have been conducted for decades without incident.

North Korea Stages Massive Live-Fire Military Drills amid Tensions

In March 2012, North Korea carried out live-fire drills on North Korea's southwestern coast, which faces disputed waters where the Koreas fought three bloody sea battles since 1999. Pyongyang had expressed anger over joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises. Associated Press reported: “Under gray skies, with North Korea's brown coastal mountains looming above them, troops chanted "Let's beat rabid dog Lee Myung-bak to death." Others raised North Korea's blue, red and white national flags and brandished silver weapons that officers said were gifts from Kim Jong Un during his recent visit. White smoke billowed from tanks and sparks flew from rockets, with artillery guns pointing at South Korea's Baengnyeong Island, which is visible from the North Korean coast and is near Yeonpyeong. Local residents draped camouflage nets over their shoulders as troops fired. [Source: Associated Press, March 6, 2012]

“North Korea state media and senior officials have issued a string of angry statements about the U.S.-South Korean drills set to run through April, raising worries that friction between the Koreas will complicate efforts to settle a long-running nuclear standoff. Washington has said that better inter-Korean ties are crucial to the success of nuclear diplomacy.“As young leader Kim Jong Un seeks to bolster support, he has toured the heavily armed border with South Korea and visited a number of military units. North Korea calls the U.S.-South Korean maneuvers preparation for an invasion and an affront because they are happening during the semiofficial 100-day mourning period after Kim Jong Il's death. Seoul and Washington say their exercises are routine and defensive in nature. North Korea has also threatened revenge against South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who ended a no-strings-attached aid policy when he took office in 2008. North Korea has expressed anger over a South Korean military unit near Seoul recently posting threatening slogans beneath portraits of Kim Jong Un and his father.

“During drills which took place over two days, North Korean military commanders warned of a harsher attack than the 2010 shelling. "We only fired a small number of artillery last time. We will mobilize all our corps' artillery pieces to turn them into a real sea of fire this time," Col. Gen. Pyon In Son, commander of the 4th Corps of the Korean People's Army, told the AP. State media said on February 26 that Kim Jong Un visited 4th Corps units and ordered troops there to launch a powerful retaliatory strike against South Korea if provoked. The units visited by Kim include a battalion that shelled Yeonpyeong Island in 2010, according to the Korean Central News Agency.

In April 2017, Live fire drills took place in Wonsan, North Korea, to mark the 85th anniversary of the Korean People's Army founding, according to North Korean State Media. CNN reported: North Korea has staged its largest ever military drill to mark the founding of the country's army, amid rising tensions with the West. A statement from the South Korean military said the live-fire exercises were in the Wonsan region in the east of the country but gave no details on what kinds of weapons and military units took part in the drill. CNN was told by a North Korean government official with knowledge of the event that it was the largest ever drill conducted by the country's military and involved 300 artillery guns. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un gave the order to start the demonstration, where the large-caliber self-propelled guns lined up along the coast opened fire, state news agency KCNA reported. [Source: Lauren Suk and Ben Westcott, CNN, April 26, 2017]

A statement from the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff, South Korea said it was monitoring the situation and remained "firmly prepared." "Our military is closely monitoring the North Korean military's movements," said the statement. Military exercises such as the one undertaken by North Korea are not unprecedented and it was always likely there would have been a show of military force on Armed Forces Day. This year is the 85th anniversary of the founding of North Korean army.But the timing, as the U.S. increases its military presence in the area, allows North Korea to remind its opponents that it could cause crippling damage with conventional artillery to highly populated areas in South Korea.

Alex Neill, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies Asia, told CNN the artillery drill was likely to be a message to Seoul. "It's important for the DPRK to remind the South that very large swathes of the South Korean population are within artillery range of the North," he said, using the official name for North Korea. "So it is a sign that if the North is provoked or there is preemptive action, then a lot of Seoul and its suburbs would be within artillery range of the North." Neill said nuclear and chemical weapons could also be delivered via artillery strikes."As (North Korea has) one of the largest stockpiles of chemical weapons, again artillery can be used for that. Sarin gas doesn't have to be dropped," he said.

When North Korea Threatens, South Korea Yawns and Shrugs

Whenever North Korea starts threatening war, South Koreans seem to respond with shrugged shoulders and blase expressions. A 43-year-old store owner on Paengnyonh Island near the North Korean border told the Washington Post, "Over the years, North Korea has threatened to invade so many times, but in the end they never do. I take them seriously, but I think I have developed some sort of immune system."

Jung-yoon Choi and Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “When North Korea declared it was in a state of war, threatening to use nuclear weapons against South Korea, reduce its presidential palace to ashes and mercilessly sweep away the warmongers, residents of Seoul reacted much as they always do....They yawned. Decades of living in the shadow of an erratic, menacing neighbor have made South Koreans almost deaf to the rhetoric from the North. Many people maintain a blase attitude, shrugging off the bombastic threats as another case of "the boy who cried wolf.'' Although some people expressed fear, the overriding emotions toward the North were irritation and ennui. "There have been so many threats over a period of time, now I feel indifferent to it all," said 65-year-old Choi Chang-ho. "I am bored with them.'' [Source: Jung-yoon Choi and Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, April 05, 2013]

“Some even saw humor in the situation. A cable TV entertainment channel offered tips on what to do if a war broke out, with the host enjoying a curry and rice MRE, the ready-to-eat meals used by the military. "South Koreans feel like, 'Hey, we've seen this show in the past.' People should be more concerned than they are, but they've heard the threats before," said Lee Chung-min, dean of international studies at Yonsei University in Seoul. "Life goes on."

“Rumblings of war continued. South Korea's official Yonhap news service reported that North Korea had loaded two intermediate-range missiles onto launchers and moved them to the east coast. The Musudan missiles have a range of 1,800 to 2,400 miles and are capable of reaching U.S. bases in Guam. North Korea has recommended that embassies and consulates evacuate their personnel from the North given the rising tension, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said during a visit to Uzbekistan. South Korean financial markets have slid — but not plunged — on war jitters. The Kospi stock index ended the week down 3.9 percent.

“But a top U.S. military officer said North Korea's threats, though worrisome, appeared to fit a long pattern of provocation followed by uneasy peace. "I wouldn't say I see anything to lead me to believe that this is a different kind of cycle," Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was quoted by the Associated Press as saying in Stuttgart, Germany.

The chance of a war with its heavily armed communist neighbor seems too far-fetched for people in Seoul, a modern city of more than 10 million, to affect their busy lives. "The North Koreans are not living in this world by themselves," shrugged Kim Soon-ja, 61, at Seoul's busy main train station this week. "A war won't erupt that easily." Song Nam-sook, 64, said South Korea's defense capabilities gave her peace of mind. "I hear that if the South Korean military sees something fired from the North, then they would launch a missile right away to shoot the North Korean ones down," Song said. "So we don't have to worry about it."

“Although more than 1 million Koreans were killed in the 1950-53 war that devastated the peninsula, it was the foreigners here who seemed more worried about the threat from the North. Embassies in Seoul were quietly drawing up contingency plans in case their citizens needed to be evacuated. Tourist agencies that specialize in trips to five islands in the region have reported that many customers canceled or postponed their plans. However, as of Friday, there were still more than 600 South Koreans working at the Kaesong industrial park, a joint project on the north side of the border. South Korean Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae, the top official for inter-Korean relations, told reporters that his government had plans in case they needed to be evacuated, but that at the moment concern was not "so high." Hee-yun, a 23-year-old history student in Seoul said he felt more angry then anxious about the North Korean regime. "The North [Koreans] know they don't have a chance at winning, but still they carry on with their provocations to heighten the diplomatic conflict to turn their internal conflicts to the outside," he said. "Thus they are trying to strengthen the domestic unity, to continue on with their rule."

South Korean Nationwide Mass Evacuation Drill

In December 2010, three weeks after North Korean artillery bombarded South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island, South Korea staged a nationwide mass evacuation drill. Associated Press reported: “South Koreans stopped their cars, donned gas masks and ducked into underground shelters in the country's biggest-ever evacuation drill — a government attempt to prepare traditionally indifferent citizens for possible new attacks by North Korea. Fears of war on the divided Korean peninsula have intensified since the rivals fired artillery shells at each other last month across their tense western sea border. Four South Koreans on a front-line island were killed; the North's casualties are unknown. Many South Koreans have become used to regular North Korean threats to turn the South into a "sea of fire" and have reacted coolly to civil drills in the past. There has been widespread anger and shock, however, over the. [Source: Associated Press, December 15, 2010]

“The nationwide 20-minute evacuation drills were the largest since the country began the training in 1975. In frigid temperatures, air raid sirens blared. Government officials and company employees stopped work and evacuated to underground shelters in basements, subway stations and parking lots. Housewives were asked to turn off the gas in their kitchens. A dozen South Korean fighter jets flew over major cities to simulate North Korean airstrikes. Trains ran at low speeds in a symbolic move to join with other stopped vehicles. In downtown Seoul, about 50 kilometers from the heavily militarized border and within easy range of North Korean artillery, the city's congested streets momentarily cleared as traffic halted.

“There was no penalty for not going to shelters, but authorities encouraged participation, sending out word through the media and posting notices in residential areas. Officials said about 11 million of South Korea's 49 million people took part in the drill. Lim Soo-ja, 68, was one of those who didn't go to underground shelters, standing instead near Namdaemun market in central Seoul. "I am too tired to move around, and I did not know where I should go," she said.

“At Seoul's Ahyeon Middle School, 27 students sat in their classroom, dressed in winter coats and wearing white cotton masks. When the sirens rang, the students lined up in front of the classroom door before marching out to a subway station. Teachers shouted, "No running, no shouting and no talking," but many students ignored them and ran to the station. "We will need these evacuation plans and skills sooner or later in case war breaks out, and I think war can happen any time," said Han Yoo-jin, 16.

“In Paju, a city near the border with North Korea, dozens of residents ran to underground parking lots and donned gas masks in a drill against chemical, biological and radiological attacks. Rescue workers wearing gas masks and protective suits also brought residents pretending to be infected with chemical agents to ambulances.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, Daily NK, NK News, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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