Can North Korea threaten U.S.? Not really
Despite North Korea's threats, its missiles can't reach American soil yet. But South Korea and Japan are in range, experts caution.
North Korea's threat of a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the United States is a hollow one, but it has plenty of military firepower, experts warn. South Korea is most at risk from the isolated regime's artillery and rockets.Skip to next paragraph
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In pure numbers, North Korea's military looks formidable, much larger than the more affluent South in both personnel and equipment. The North's 1.2 million soldiers face off against 640,000 South Korean troops who are backed up by 26,000 U.S. personnel stationed in the country. However, Pyongyang's capabilities are not what the figures would suggest. Impoverished North Korea has all but abandoned running a conventional military that can engage in sustained battle because of scarce resources and has instead focused on nuclear weapons and ballistic missile technology, experts said.
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"A conventional military is very costly, and overwhelmingly so for North Korea. It quickly becomes a money fight and North Korea cannot win that," said Shin In-kyun, head of the Korea Defence Network, an alliance of defence experts based in Seoul.
Nevertheless, a defence policy statement from South Korea in December noted that North Korea's frontline artillery pieces could launch a "sudden and massive" barrage on the capital Seoul, a mere 50 km (31 miles) from the Demilitarised Zone border that separates the two Koreas.
North Korea has around 12,000 artillery guns, many arrayed near the border. It also has an arsenal of intermediate range missiles in operational deployment, some of which can travel more than 3,000 km (1,875 miles). That puts South Korea and Japan in range as well as the U.S. territory of Guam.
"They have the capability to strike anywhere in the South and Japan," said Shin.
North Korea has also shown it has submarine capabilities.
In 2010, a North Korean submarine was widely believed to have sunk a South Korean naval vessel, killing 46 sailors. Pyongyang has denied it was behind the attack. In the same year, North Korea shelled a South Korean island in a disputed area, killing civilians.
One military expert said the North might be careful before launching another blatant attack, given Seoul has vowed to respond vigorously next time.