Korea on the brink

The BBC report on North Korea’s latest antics.

North Korea has fired artillery shells across its western maritime border, prompting return fire from South Korea, reports say.
Dozens of the shells landed on a South Korean island, witnesses say.
A television station said some houses on the island were on fire, and Yonhap news agency said that four South Korean soldiers had been hurt.
South Korea has issued its highest non-wartime alert in response to the incident, the defence ministry said.
Top leaders are meeting in an underground bunker in Seoul over the incident, Reuters news agency reported

This follows a fairly stunning report in yesterday’s Independent on the North’s nuclear capability.

The US is trying to restart moribund nuclear disarmament talks over North Korea, after the Communist leadership there showed off a new and highly sophisticated uranium enrichment plant.
An American scientist who was taken to see the facility called it “stunning” and “astonishingly modern”, casting doubt over the ability of UN sanctions to thwart or even slow down North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

Here’s the miltary balance from the International Institute for Strategic Studies.:
North Korea:

North Korea’s armed forces are composed of nearly 1.1m active-duty personnel and some 4.7m reserves, making them the world’s fifth largest active military force. Although precise conversion rates for the North Korean Won to the US dollar are difficult to ascertain, North Korea officially maintains an annual defence budget of about $1.5bn to support these forces, but some estimates of actual expenditure are more than three times as high, at around $5bn, which would translate to about 25% of North Korea’s GDP, estimated to be currently $20bn.
Pyongyang’s order of battle is equivalent to approximately 150 active duty brigades. That includes 27 infantry divisions, as well as some 15 independent armoured brigades, 14 infantry brigades, and 21 artillery brigades. North Korean forces are heavily dug-in with more than 4,000 underground facilities and bunkers near the DMZ and an estimated 20 tunnels dug under the DMZ, of which four have been found. There are also more than 20 Special Forces brigades, totaling about 88,000 troops, which could be deployed by air, sea and land to disrupt US and South Korean combat operations and attack civilian targets.

South Korea:

South Korea’s armed forces comprise approximately 686,000 active-duty troops and 4.5m reservists. Its active ground forces are about half the size of North Korea’s in terms of personnel, major equipment holdings and force structure, but its equipment is superior. South Korea’s air and naval forces are comparable in size to North Korea’s, and they possess much more modern and sophisticated equipment. Overall, South Korea’s armed forces have become one of the world’s more capable militaries and present a formidable forward defence against any possible attack by North Korea.
South Korea’s army consists of 11 corps, with 52 divisions and 20 brigades. They can deploy some 2,300 main battle tanks, 2,500 armoured personnel carriers and light tanks, 4,500 heavy-calibre artillery pieces, 6,000 mortars, an estimated 600 air defence guns, over 1,000 surface-to-air missiles, and about a dozen short­range surface-to-surface missiles. Usually, 12 army divisions are deployed along the DMZ in heavily fortified positions. The South Korean air force has 538 combat aircraft and 117 attack helicopters. Meanwhile, the South Korean navy includes 39 principal surface combatants, 20 submarines, 84 patrol and coastal combatants, 15 mine warfare ships, 12 amphibious vessels, and 60 naval combat aircraft. South Korea’s defence expenditure is several times more than that of North Korea. In 2002, as at average annual exchange rates, South Korea’s defence budget amounted to $13.2bn. However, this figure needs to be balanced as manpower costs in the South are greater.

This could turn out pretty nastily.
Update – CNN reports on the first death.

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